30 November 2001

WELSH WINES FINE

This year has been a very good year for grapes at Offas vineyard, which should please the

ladies, as they seem particularly keen on Offas Red as Sian Ellis discovered

VINE grower Peter Johnson admits to holding the unlikely distinction of having supplied Welsh red wine to the French Embassy.

"It wasnt a heavyweight claret, such as you would get in Bordeaux. But people found it very acceptable," he says. "Women, in particular, like my Offas Red because its light."

Britains unpredictable climate means red wine production remains something of a rarity, with just 1466 hectalitres being recorded last year compared with 12,750 of white.

Peter, 75, overcomes problems of frost and rain by growing his vines Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir in nine polythene tunnels on the two-acre slope below his old rectory home beside Offas Dyke, near Monmouth. He also grows around 1250 white grapevines outdoors, currently Faber, Orion and Schonburger.

When I met him (having followed signs directing tired, thirsty walkers away from the ancient footpath to Offas Vineyard), Peter was smiling even more than usual. Despite the deluge of rain earlier in the year, harvest has been one of the best since 1988 when he first planted a few experimental vines as a hobby and watched them flourish into a retirement business. After careers in the colonial service and world of engineering, it was a complete change.

"All the grapes are showing higher sugar readings than usual and weve a really good crop about 3t of white grapes, equivalent to 2700 bottles of dry and medium dry wine. We have enough Merlot and Cabernet for 700 bottles of Offas Red, and well put Pinot Noir with some Orion to make around 270 bottles of sparkling wine.

"I think the extraordinary, mild October this year, giving extra ripening time when we didnt expect it, helped a lot."

The grapes Peter and his helpers pick are sent to Three Choirs vineyard, Newent, for making into wine. It is likely to be a busy year for workers at Three Choirs and other UK vineyards because many UK grape growers are reporting great crops.

However, Julia Trustram Eve, marketing manager of English Wine Producers, cautions that a few are recording lower than usual yields. "Vineyards have their own micro-climate, so they can vary a lot. Its too early to say how good the vintage will be."

Peters outdoor micro-climate derives from his "hugger-mugger" style of planting close together, to retain warmth and create protection against the wind.

But he warns that this wouldnt necessarily suit a farmer diversifying into vines because conventional farm machinery cannot be used between the rows.

Peter sprays as little as possible and he has improved the balance of acidity/ alkalinity, phosphate and potash in the heavy clay soil.

"Vines will always be a gamble in the UK," he says. "But although the Exchequer and Customs and Excise are far too greedy, my wine has found a good niche in local shops as well as selling from the vineyard."

"And friends and family who help with picking and are paid in wine – and they keep coming back." Sian Ellis

&#8226 Offas Vineyard, Llanvihangel-Ystern-Llewern, near Monmouth.

Please telephone

(01600-780241) before visiting.