Vineyards of Monmouthshire: Ancre Hill
The second vineyard I visited on my tour of Monmouthshire vineyards (again, noting the inappropriate title of this blog given that this is in Wales!) was Ancre Hill.
Ancre Hill, established in 2006, is quite a different operation from all the other vineyards in Monmouthshire. In fact it's probably fair to say it is unique within Wales in many respects. Most notably they adhere to organic and biodynamic principles, both in viticulture and in winemaking. Secondly they have a state of the art winery - a building made from compacted straw bales. They're the only one of the Monmouthshire vineyards to have their own winery, with the others all sending their grapes to Three Choirs in Gloucestershire for winemaking. Finally their range of wines and overall approach is very firmly in the 21st Century of UK winemaking, whereas I think it would be fair to say at least two of the other three have clear vestiges of an earlier era of the English and Welsh winemaking revival. There is not much evidence here of the German varieties more traditionally associated with UK viticulture, but instead they mainly focus on both the varietals and wine styles of Champagne and Burgundy, alongside a presumably more recent foray into hipster wine territory, with a Pet Nat and an orange wine made from Albariño from the Iberian peninsula.
One thing they do have in common with seemingly most of the Monmouthshire vineyards is there is a husband and wife team at the helm - here Richard and Joy Morris - and pleasingly they were very much at the fore during my visit. Richard conducted the tour himself, and Joy joined later to run the tasting.
Richard started out amongst the vines by giving the tour attendees an introduction to biodynamic viticulture, which can sound a bit more like a religious cult than an approach to agriculture when heard for the first time, with its rather esoteric practices such as buying a cow's horn full of manure, and restricting certain activities to particular phases of the moon. Although it's difficult not to have some sceptical thoughts whenever biodynamic practice is raised, the proof is in the pudding, and at least some part of what they're doing is clearly working for them here. The vineyard floor is not overrun with weeds, they have healthy yields, and good quality grapes, and all without the use of synthetic chemical sprays. Weed control is achieved by soil cultivation and mowing - no herbicides. They do use sulphur (this is permitted by organic/biodynamic viticulture as it is naturally occurring) to prevent powdery mildew, in addition to herbal teas with a variety of ingredients.
Unusually the training system used here is GDC, and Stephen Skelton's Wine Growing in Great Britain actually cites Ancre Hill as one of the last vineyards planted in the UK to use this system. Skelton is clearly not a fan of GDC, mentioning canopy crowding as the main drawback, which likely results in additional labour to keep the grapes exposed to the sunlight. Again though they do seem to have made it work here, although on top of the effort required to adhere to biodynamic practice I suspect this is overall quite a labour intensive vineyard. Worth remembering when you are enjoying their wine!
The main vineyard surrounding the winery is around 10 acres, and they've recently been planting a second site nearby at Newton Court Farm with a further 20 acres. It sounds as though they'll be moving away from GDC for at least some of the new area under vine, Richard mentioned a Burgundian system with vines low to the ground.
Next we moved on to their rather impressive winery, where the eco friendly credentials continue into the fabric of the building itself - with walls constructed from compacted straw bales, which help to keep temperatures inside within a constant range.
We started in the finishing room, with a look at the disgorgement apparatus. The usual neck freezer and disgorging machine were present, as was the barrel used for catching the spray from à la volée disgorgement, the more manual and highly skilled version, which Richard's son David learned in the Champagne region.
Probably of interest to nobody else but me but here's their tool rack with the disgorgement tool:
Next the main fermentation room of the winery, with an interesting variety of oak casks, steel fermentation tanks and concrete eggs giving them a range of winemaking options.
Also of interest were their carbonic maceration tanks - named after the seven dwarves.
The organic and biodynamic principles continue into the winery, with fermentation mostly taking place using naturally occurring yeasts, only introducing foreign yeasts for secondary fermentation in the bottle for their traditional method sparkling wines. They also have a philosophy of making more fuller, complex base wines to go into their sparkling wines, with longer primary fermentation and aging.
On to the tasting, in their attractive cellar door building (with some very prettily trained vines adorning the front). This was definitely the most engaging and enjoyable tasting of all the Monmouthshire vineyards on this trip, and one of the best of any UK vineyard I've been to. Joy took over the reins from this point on, but Richard was also there for most of it, and there was a lot of discussion back and forth both with them and the other attendees of the tour.
We started with the Blanc de Noirs NV, which is 100% Pinot Noir - I don't think they actually grow Meunier here. This was probably the highlight for me - impressively it's zero dosage, and as they never chaptalize the base wines either this is surely a testament to the fact their approach to viticulture must be working - they are clearly achieving a very good level of ripeness, and the acidity here is really well balanced. Great mouth feel, light, elegant and a joy to drink. I returned to this later with lunch - they offer a Welsh cheese platter - and it paired beautifully with the Perl Wen, a brie like cheese.
Their sparkling rosé 2012 was very low dosage - I think they said just a gram or two, so it's in extra brut territory. Definitely strawberries here.
The next two were still wines - a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, both from 2014, and stylistically quite close to a white and red Burgundy respectively. The Chardonnay had some light oak from their Austrian oak casks (specifically chosen over French oak for the gentler impact on the wines) and a citrus tang. They don't fine or filter any of their wines, so this was ever so slightly opaque, and I very much agree with their philosophy of happily sacrificing a bit of aesthetics there for a greater depth of flavour. The Pinot Noir was fascinatingly aromatic - Richard said he put this down to the herbal teas they spray on the vines - and it certainly was a herbal character quite unlike anything I've ever encountered in, say, a red Burgundy before. Almost reminiscent of old fashioned cough sweets (Jakemans?), and I definitely agree with those hints of liquorice mentioned in their tasting notes. This is a wine I would definitely like to return to.
After this things went slightly more into weird and wonderful territory, first with their Pet Nat - a sparkling red - and then their Albariño orange wine. I'm not sure either of these are wine styles for me, but as examples of the breed I think they were very well executed, and I was really pleased to see how forward looking Ancre Hill are with their overall winemaking approach.
Overall this was a great tour and tasting, with charming hosts, some excellent wines and an impressive setup. Well worth a visit.