&TASTE OF HISTORY
Visitors will flock to a Bedfordshire
vineyard next weekend for its annual open
event. Tim Relf gets an early preview
"THIS is the four acres of the estate that gives us the most pleasure," says Bob Bailey, farm manager at the Southill Estate.
"The end result is more satisfying than growing wheat," he says, laughing, walking through the south-facing vineyard which accounts for four of the 10,000-plus acres comprising the estate.
These vines were planted in the mid-1980s on a spot where, more than 850 years ago, Cistercian monks had also tended vines. So while the venture has always operated on a commercial footing, there is a strong sense of tradition here. "We wanted to recreate history," says Bob.
"Our learning curve has been vertical – but its been absolutely fascinating," he says. "The more you learn, the more you realise you know nothing about it.
"When you go to wine tastings, the palate becomes more educated. You have to keep sampling wines – its a hard job but someone has to do it!"
The team has obviously got it right. Wine made from the Warden Abbey Vineyard has taken six awards in six years in the CLA English and Welsh Wine of the Year Competition. The first year they entered an international wine competition, they won a prize. "We were surprised and thrilled."
Hosting the Open Weekend (Sept 15 and 16) will mark one of the last official duties for Bob, whos taking early retirement as part of a restructuring of this estate owned by the Whitbread family.
It means he wont be involved in the picking – which means hell miss what is both a very stressful and a very satisfying time. The grapes are left for as long as possible to get maximum sunshine into them to up the sugar content and cut the acidity. But with this delay comes an ever-increasing risk of a late frost which can damage them.
Picking – which is done by hand – is often not until November. "We run late. We gamble more than most here.
"When youre looking at the grapes on a summer evening, it is potential not actual youre seeing," says Bob. "You know every disease and disaster is just waiting to get you!"
The aim is to produce clean bunches of grapes that are all of the same size. And as for the feeling when the last load has been driven off? "Wonderful. I go and walk around the vineyard and its empty and its terrific. Up until then, youve been living on your nerve-ends."
* Frost worries
Frost is also a worry earlier in the year. A severe frost on the first bank holiday in May, for example, can "take the whole lot like Gramoxone" rendering all the hard work put in before then – pruning and training – wasted. "While most people are enjoying their bank holidays, we are having nightmares."
Disease, as well as frost, can be a problem. "If you get diseases in wheat, you deal with it," says Bob. "If you get diseases on the vine, it can be terminal for the crop."
This means a "prevention not cure" approach is taken, with frequent sulphur-based fungicidal spraying from early May until three weeks before picking. The three main threats are powdery and downy mildew and botrytis.
"Disease is very unforgiving – you can not let it get in front of you. You have to be on top of it all the time."
The vines, meanwhile, get no fertiliser, no insecticide and are never irrigated. This encourages them to drive deep roots, rather than receiving "bland and uninteresting" tap water. "We were cruel to them," Bob remembers, "we made them drive roots down. In dry years, the grapes were the only green thing around."
A big cost, he points out, was building the vineyard which was "exorbitant." Then theres the long run-in before theres any return. "Three years of hard work and nothing at all."
* Stock build-up
Plus, theres a capital requirement because stock has to be built up. "Theres a delay before you can turn the crop into cash. Were now selling 1996. Weve got thousands of pounds of wine sitting in store. Its an asset in the balance sheet – but its not cash."
The grapes are sent away to be made into wine, but production from the vineyard can range from 1200 to 24,000 bottles, with an average of about 10,000 bottles.
"We want to be a small, selective high-quality vineyard. Were more concerned with the quality than the quantity."
They sell to restaurants, hotels, shops and some Waitrose stores. "We want people to come and seek us out. If you want it, you have to track it down."
Image-wise, theres a long way to go with English wines, says Bob. "Peoples automatic reaction is to say they dont like it. But you give them a taste and they say: Actually thats quite nice. They can be beautiful. Its just a case of getting people to try it. Once tasted, your hooked. Weve got a battle on our hands."
Whats needed also is some release from the tax burden on wine. Customs and Excise and VAT are charged – "a tax on a tax" – meaning a bottle that could otherwise sell, say, at £4 is priced at £5.50.
"At the same time the government seems happy to see boatloads of people go to France to buy wine. Its heartbreaking."
Bob, meanwhile, may not see this years picking – but he certainly plans to keep doing his bit for sales. "Ill still enjoy drinking the wine."