Today, the largest English wine brands are much better known than ever before. However, COVID-19 has given people more time, opportunity and willingness to discover smaller, local vineyards they never knew existed. Many started out as a hobby and remain the wine equivalent of a nanobrewery, typically run by a solo entrepreneur, producing small batches of wine in a 'scaled-down' winery. One example is Wimbushes Vineyard, a one-acre site in the Hertfordshire village of Chiswell Green, just south of St Albans.
Wimbushes' Andy Harrison & Karina Wardle doing a blending trial in the kitchen: credit Michael Rhodes
Rondo is a hybrid grape, i.e. one that's produced by crossing two or more vitis species, e.g. vitis vinifera and vitis labrusca. It grows particularly well in cool climates like England. Hybrid grape programs were historically introduced to Europe as a means of combating fungal diseases and phylloxera, the aphid-like parasite that decimated most of the world's wine grapes in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Rondo is also a teinturier grape with dark skin and pulp which allow it to produce deeply-coloured, quite full-bodied red wines. It ripens early, is high-yielding and generally shows good resistance to frosts and diseases. Often blended with other grapes to add colour and a certain amount of fruitiness, it's used to make both rosés and red wines. Typical aromas and flavours include cherries, berries and a touch of spice.
Solaris was developed in Germany in 1975 as a disease-resistant, early-ripening grape with good resistance against fungal diseases and frost. With a name meaning 'sun', it's more commonly seen in northern European countries with cooler climates and lower sunshine levels.
Although containing traces of hybrid grapes in its DNA, Solaris is officially classified as vitis vinifera, the same genus as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and other 'noble' grapes. Relatively high sugar levels make Solaris suitable for sweet wines, but the grapes are typically used for off-dry, aromatic styles with notes of banana and hazelnut and medium acidity often reported.
These are the first vines grown in St. Albans for 500 years! The Romans made wine there, when the city was called Verulamium and viticulture continued with the monks until dissolution of the Abbey in 1539. Wimbushes owners, Andy Harrison and Karina Wardle are delighted to revive this long-standing tradition and produced their first vintage in 2017. They make between 700 and 1000 bottles each vintage, split between the two grape varieties. For the 2020 vintage, they made 450 bottles of Solaris and 550 of Rondo rosé.
Andy and Karina planted the vineyard in 2013 with Solaris and Rondo, two varieties that have adapted well to the English climate and are relatively resistant to disease. Other, less hardy and later-ripening grapes are far more prone to diseases such as mildew and botrytis.
Andy and Karina describe themselves as enthusiastic amateurs. "The idea for the vineyard came from a discussion over a glass of wine with a friend who had grown up in Italy making wine with his father. We have a 14-acre field at the back of our property, on a gentle slope with good drainage. So we decided to plant an acre of vines. The grape choice came from looking at another vineyard - Frithsden - who were successfully growing Solaris and Rondo. That was eight years ago. Starting with very little knowledge, we've learnt a lot over the intervening years. David, who works with us, began as our gardener and has become a really brilliant viticulturalist, pruning and training the vines. We are now quietly proud of the quality of our grapes. We are an odd size - too small to be properly commercial and a bit too big to be just a hobby. So the vineyard takes a lot of enthusiasm and toil to keep it improving year on year."
Wimbushes benefits from a very good site for growing grapes, as Andy explains. "We've not been affected by bad frosts this year or previous years, like other vineyards have, even in Hertfordshire. It's a fantastic site with lots of trees around which help and a good downward slope sheltered from the wind."
Wimbushes wines are vinified by an ex-laparoscopic surgeon and a soon-to-be retired nurse, Michael and Irene Rhodes of Thurston Place in Suffolk. These 'accidental winemakers' also make wine from grapes grown on their own estate - Bacchus and Pinot Noir Précoce, an early ripening mutation of Pinot Noir on disease-resistant root stock. Their latest releases are Hawkswood Bacchus 2020 and Hawkswood Pinot Noir 2020. Additionally, with the success of Wimbushes Solaris, they are ploughing up a third of an acre at Thurston Place to plant Solaris vines themselves.
Wimbushes wine being bottled by Irene Rhodes, while husband Michael puts on the screw caps - credit Michael Rhodes
Michael's lifelong interest in wine stems from working in Germany and Australia many years ago. Later, moving to Norfolk, he and Irene decided to help out a local vineyard during harvest and even tried making their own wine, which he describes as 'undrinkable'. With the winemaking bug taking root, he completed courses at Plumpton College and travelled several times to Australia and New Zealand meeting with winemakers.
Michael is typically self-effacing about his wine journey. "Irene and I realised that we were capable of making new mistakes every year. So we researched and corrected them, logging everything down in a thick notebook too."
As their wines improved, they were asked to make wine for other vineyards. They won a silver medal for their first Bacchus and have continued to win awards, as the contract side of their business has grown. Realising that they needed more space, the couple moved to Thurston Place in Suffolk. Their property has 7½ acres and benefits from a south-facing slope plus an outbuilding for the winery.
They use a natural method of pest control at their vineyard. This involves Golden Retriever Nellie, Cairn Terrier Archie and Ruby the hawk, adept at scaring off pigeons and rooks, hence the 'Hawkswood' brand name for their wines! "Ruby's become a member of the family", says Michael. "She flies every day and is the greenest way to have pest control in the vineyard."
At Wimbushes, Andy and Karina have used their own form of hawk, except that it's a kite, shaped like a hawk. It seemed to work for a while though!
Andy, Karina, David, colleagues and friends pick all the grapes by hand. Usually David drives them up to Suffolk. They normally harvest between 500kg and 750kg of Rondo and a similar amount of Solaris.
Andy and Karina are Michael's ideal clients with a vision is to keep their operation small, friendly and manageable. This fits in perfectly with Michael's ethos of working with small-scale, enthusiastic grape growers that don't produce more than 1-1½ tonnes of grapes per harvest.
Michael, Andrew, Irene, Karina & the grapes from Wimbushes drinking a glass of Hawkswood Bacchus after the grapes have been crushed, destemmed & put in the press - credit Michael Rhodes
For him, making wine is first and foremost a hobby involving his family and clients, rather than just a means to earn an income. "When we make wine, we like to do it as a team. We much prefer the sociability and enjoyment of all trying it and saying which one we prefer. So, the Solaris and Rondo were back-blended with rectified pure grape sugar and agreed when the balance was about right. We feel it's a team effort. We do this for fun and that's why we enjoy making Wimbushes wines, as we all take part at some point."
Andy is justifiably proud of their achievements. "Our viticulture journey has been quite an exciting one going back nearly 10 years. Now we're delighted to be sharing these beautiful wines with you!"
Refreshingly dry rosé with a bright, raspberry pink colour, full of red berry character 🍓 and a hint of white pepper spice on the finish.
For relaxed drinking and picnics 🥙 🥧 🧀 on a warm, summer's day.
Fresh, dry and crisp with aromas and flavours of green apple 🍏, juicy ripe pear 🍐 and melon 🍈 plus a long, fruity finish. If you like off-dry Riesling, then you're probably going to enjoy this wine too.
Great on its own or versatile with a variety of foods, particularly Asian and mild-to-medium spicy 🌶 dishes like sweet and sour chicken 🐔 🍲 or vegetarian curries 🍛.
This is a version of my article published in Hertfordshire Life, June/July 2021 edition