Surlingham winemaker Winbirri Vineyards receives 10 years' of orders in six hours after Decanter award
PUBLISHED: 07:18 27 May 2017 | UPDATED: 10:52 27 May 2017
Since being declared as the makers of the best white wine in the world the phone has been ringing off the hook for Winbirri Vineyards. Doug Faulkner visited the Surlingham firm to find out their secret.
It has been a busy week for Lee Dyer.
The winemaker has been fielding calls from wine lovers across the world, as well as having to organise a near-constant flow of vans arriving to take away his award-winning vintage.
Winbirri Vineyards’ Bacchus 2015 was named best single varietal white wine by the Decanter World Wine Awards last week – an accolade which has led to a flurry of activity at the Surlingham operation.
As he sits on the balcony of a barn overlooking his vineyard having just returned from the school run, he pulls a takeaway burger from a paper bag.
“I haven’t had a chance to eat today,” he says apologetically.
After news of the award broke Mr Dyer said Winbirri received enough orders to take up 10 years’ supply in just six hours.
He said: “We were told shops had completely sold out of it within 10 minutes.”
The demand has led to a rush to bottle the remaining stock, but, despite that, Mr Dyer said no one had been able to receive as many bottles as they had asked for.
“In the last four days we have made about six months of last year’s turnover,” he said.
“It has been limited by how many bottles we had ready to go because we aren’t the kind of business that has 250,000 in stock.
“We have had to get in an emergency order of labels to cope with it.”
Most industries would greet the publicity boost by ramping up production – but in the wine industry, it can take years to meet that demand.
“It is not a short-term industry,” Mr Dyer said. “For me to react to this it is going to take five years: a year to find the right land to grow, three years for the vines to mature and another year to make the wine.
“Fortunately we were looking at expanding already but we will have to plant even more of the Bacchus.”
Currently Winbirri has 52,000 vines across 34 acres on the fringes of the Norfolk Broads, with around 20,000 of those being the Bacchus variety.
Mr Dyer puts the success of the vineyard, which is run by a team of six, down to attention to detail and an emphasis on quality over quantity.
“I am not the best winemaker in the world,” he said. “I am not the most knowledgeable, but my attention to detail is second to none.
“If you are ensuring you are only using the best grapes, you have a chance of producing the best wine.”
The business traces its roots to Mr Dyer’s father, Stephen.
“It started as a hobby when my father planted 200 vines. I had just come back from living in Thailand,” said Mr Dyer.
“At first sight I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic.
“If you had told me 12 years ago I would ever have anything to do with wine I would not have believed you. I certainly never dreamed I would have such a passion for it.
“I pottered around in the background for about two years.
“Then in around 2009 we put a few more vines in and I could see it going somewhere.”
Mr Dyer attended Plumpton College in Sussex to bolster his knowledge before approaching his father about taking over the business.
“I came back [from college] and had a rather heated discussion with my father. I said ‘Right, I am going to be taking over the wine making from now on’. “Fortunately, the first wine we made after that won a gold medal so that helped my case.”
The Decanter award has led to enquiries about exporting to Hong Kong, Canada and America.
Mr Dyer said he had received congratulatory messages from winemakers across the UK and in the local area.
But what does his father make of it?
“Well, he has been walking around with a smile for the last four days,” said Mr Dyer. “I think he thinks he made the right decision.”
What makes the best white wine in the world?
Lee Dyer thinks one of the factors is the environment in Norfolk where Winbirri Vineyards grows its grapes, including the Bacchus variety. “It just works so well here,” said Mr Dyer. “East Anglia is probably the best place in the world to grow the Bacchus. It comes down to the dry conditions that we have.
“You need two things to grow grapes and they are dry conditions and sunshine.”
Mr Dyer said he also thought the River Yare could play a part in the growing conditions. “I firmly believe we are helped by the river because of the way it curls round us,” he said. “We have a really good environment here.”
Mr Dyer compared the Surlingham Bacchus to the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. He said: “The French had been growing the Sauvignon Blanc for years and then someone planted it in New Zealand and the conditions were perfect for it.”
A matter of taste
Based in Surlingham, Winbirri Vineyards stretches over two sites nestled in a crook in the River Yare.
Lee Dyer puts the success of its wine down to attention to detail and care. Winbirri’s grapes are hand-picked with the help of an army of volunteers, with constant testing to make sure they are collected during a 48-hour window during which they hold the desired gooseberry and grapefruit flavours.
As grapes ripen their taste changes from green grass tones to fruitier notes and Mr Dyer said he could usually work out when to harvest about four days ahead of time.
Mr Dyer is a believer in controlling the amount of fruit produced to make sure each grape is more flavourful. “We control yields to under two tonnes an acre when most other growers go for four tonnes an acre,” he said. “The vines are still getting the same amount of nutrients but they are growing half the number of grapes so they can put more energy into them.”