Norwich winemaker wins top award

When the first batch of wine was fermented at the family's vineyard near Norwich, Lee Dyer thought they had produced something special.

And the result, from just 500 grapevines planted on two-and-a-half acres at the Winbirri Vineyard at Surlingham has amazed the world of wine by winning a gold medal at his first attempt.

His first bottles of Winbirri Solaris 2010 were made from grapes planted just two years ago, which challenges the established wisdom that the best wines have to come from older and more mature vineyards.

Self-taught winemaker Lee and his father, Stephen, who started the vineyard as a hobby about six years ago, were completely taken aback when the judging panel of Masters of Wines announced the awards at the East Anglian Wine Growers' Association's annual competition at Chilford Hall, near Cambridge.

'My feet didn't touch the ground for some time, I can assure you,' said Lee.

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'Everything blew us away. Originally we'd only entered the competition purely just to benchmark ourselves and just to find out how our first wine had done so that we would have a comparison.'

He had only made 200 bottles from his first pressing of a new and virtually unknown German-bred grape variety, Solaris, hence the name.

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Mary Mudd, who is chairman of the 78-member strong association, said: 'It is amazing.

'A new vineyard and a new grape has produced a great wine. He's grown a new grape called Solaris, which is rather like a Pinot Grigio and that grape has never been entered into our competition.

'The first time it is entered, it wins a gold medal and a trophy.'

'We're really thrilled about it. I've always known that East Anglia should be the best place in England for growing grapes because vines like the dry regions.'

Stephen, who runs Norwich-based Mr Fruity, originally planted a few vines to enjoy in his retirement.

But Lee started helping and then caught the wine-making bug.

'I decided that it was something that I really liked doing and there's a romance to it as well because the end product is something you can enjoy quite a lot.'

Now they have planted about 20,000 grapevines on about 12� acres of land including the first 500 Solaris.

Another 1,500 were planted last year, which should come into production in just two years – twice as quickly as the more usual later-maturing varieties.

Within two years, Lee hopes to be making between 15,000 to 20,000 bottles.

'It has been a fairytale start,' he said.

And he might have another winner up his sleeve because Winbirri, named after the Anglo-Saxon name for Surlingham, has planted another three or four different promising grape varieties, which will be harvested between September and early November.

But Lee has another challenge on his hands.

'Legally I'm not allowed to sell retail until I get my full licence,' he said.,

Fortunately, he can supply wholesale to local specialist outlets and farm shops with the rest of his rapidly-depleting gold medal wine at about �9.99 a bottle.

He is also counting his blessings too because a late frost in May avoided his rolling slopes but devastated many other vineyards across Norfolk. 'Touch wood, we've haven't lost vines to frosts in the past two years,' he said.

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