New vineyard in Earsham releases its first wines in time for English Wine Week
- Credit: Archant
With English Wine Week coming up, Charlotte Smith-Jarvis visits a new vineyard on the Norfolk/Suffolk border and discovers English wine really is something to shout about.
If I said to you 'what is living the dream?' your mind would likely wander to warmer climes. You might picture a white washed villa on a verdant Tuscan hilltop overlooking olive and lemon groves. Growing a few vines. Feeling the grapes crush between your toes as you try to make your own bottle of plonk to drink with that rather wonderful platter of locally cured meats and cheeses. Sounds fabulous, right?
But for one couple, 'the dream' is a wind swept piece of flint riddled earth in Earsham.
Ben and Hannah Witchell's new life in the county is a former agricultural field, where they've spent the last three years carefully planting and cultivating 12,500 Bacchus, pinot noir and pinot blanc vines for their wine business Flint.
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While it won't be until 2019 that the fruition of their hard work pays off, Hannah and Ben have this year made and bottled their first wines under the Flint branding – albeit using grapes grown for them in Essex (the exact same varieties they are growing themselves).
It's an enviable set-up the couple have. They're renting the land and farmhouse from Adrian Hipwell, and wake up every day to views of sheep grazing, and the vines beyond, their tendrils unfurling towards the sun.
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According to Ben, who's qualified in viticulture and oenology, this part of the UK has some of the best weather and soil for producing wine, being consistently sunny and dry (although it doesn't feel like it most of the time).
At Flint, with grant funding from the Rural Development Programme for England and the Eastern Agricultural Institute, Ben is lucky enough to have one of the best-equipped labs in the east. Here he combines traditional methods of wine making, with science and innovative technology, researching the growth of Bacchus in the UK alongside running his own business.
'It's always been the dream to one day own a vineyard,' he admits, saying that before they moved to Earsham, he and Hannah were living in Beaujolais, where he was working for a winemaker.
'While we were in France I emailed Hannah's mum and dad to see if they could find any suitable land here. They know Adrian – he's been a farmer here for many years. He's into food and wine and makes his own beer. He was keen to diversify this farm and happened to have this south-facing plot on a slope. It was too good an opportunity to miss!'
While this pocket of land is a nightmare for farmers, breaking machinery at will on the rocks below, it's a wine maker's heaven, being sandy, open and free-draining.
The vines currently growing are being lovingly tended to says Hannah: 'Last year was a green harvest, where we take the berries off to save energy for growing the roots and stems. We have to visit every plant twice a year. A lot of love goes into it.'
'We want still English wine to be recognised internationally,' adds Ben, crouching down to inspect the roots of one of thousands of plants. 'Bacchus has the opportunity to be a popular style around the world. It grows really well in England. It's a German variety and they have a similar climate there to us. But it tastes better in England – it's like a softer style of sauvignon blanc. We have a longer growing season. So it's almost like an English apple. They take a longer time to ripen, but all those flavours develop.'
'We've done blind taste tests, putting New Zealand sauvignon blanc against Bacchus and people have been shocked,' Hannah adds proudly, with Ben mentioning too that English wine is less likely to get you sozzled, being 10 to 11% ABV on average, compared to, say, Australian wine, which comes in at around 14 to 15%.
Currently Ben's making Bacchus, Pinot Blanc and sparkling wine in the winery (a former grain store), with 6,500 bottles of still, and 3,000 of sparkling produced so far.
Visitors are now welcome to book tours of the vineyard from 10am every Wednesday and Saturday, followed by a sip or two in the tasting room.
The wines are available at Benedicts Restaurant in Norwich, from Harper Wells, or directly through the vineyard's website.
You'll also find the couple at the Norwich Food and Drink Festival in June, and at Beccles Food Festival this Saturday.
Bacchus: Smooth and aromantic with zesty notes of lime and papaya on the nose. On tasting this one's fat, juicy and buttery with a herbal undercurrent. A real easy drinker.
Pinot Blanc: A little more complex. Minerally on the nose like a Chablis, and saline and sharp initially on tasting, with hints of green tomato, but with a gentle smoothness.
Find out more about Flint Vineyard here.