Heard of St Albans wine?
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With the first vineyard in St Albans since the monks of the 16th century, Wimbushes is a passion project creating two fine wines.
A growing industry, the largest English wine brands are better known than ever. However, smaller local vineyards also exist, including in Hertfordshire, like Frithsden near Berkhamsted. Currently being redeveloped by new owners, vines have been growing here since 1971.
Another, newer vineyard, is Wimbushes, a one-acre site in the village of Chiswell Green, just south of St Albans. Andy Harrison and Karina Wardle planted it in 2013 with Solaris and Rondo, two grape varieties that have adapted well to the English climate and are relatively resistant to disease.
Describing themselves as 'typically enthusiastic amateurs', Andy says 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,' Andy explains. 'The grape choice came from looking at Frithsden Vineyard, where they were successfully growing Solaris and Rondo. So, we just assumed that they would grow in our field and planted 400 vines of each.'
That was eight years ago. Starting with little knowledge, the couple have learnt a lot over the intervening years.
'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.'
Theirs are the first vines grown in St Albans for nearly 500 years. The Romans made wine in Verulamium and viticulture continued with the monks until the dissolution of St Albans Abbey in 1539.
Andy and Karina are delighted to be reviving this long-standing tradition, and produced their first vintage in 2017. They make between 700 and 1,000 bottles each year, split between the two grape varieties. For the 2020 vintage, they made 450 bottles of Solaris white and 550 of Rondo rosé. The white is fresh, dry and crisp with green apple, ripe pear and melon aromas and flavours plus a long, fruity aftertaste. The refreshingly dry rosé has a bright, raspberry pink colour, full of red berry character and a hint of white pepper spice.
Wimbushes benefits from a very good location 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.'
The wines are vinified by an ex-surgeon and nurse, Michael and Irene Rhodes of Thurston Place in Suffolk. These 'accidental winemakers' also make wine from grapes grown on their own estate. With the success of Wimbushes' Solaris, they are now ploughing up a third of an acre to plant this vine themselves.
The couple use a natural method of pest control on their estate. This involves golden retriever Nellie, cairn terrier Archie and Ruby the hawk, adept at scaring off pigeons and rooks, hence the Hawkswood brand for their wines. 'Ruby has 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 taken inspiration from Ruby and use their own hawk, albeit a nylon kite, shaped like a hawk.
Michael says Wimbushes are his ideal clients with a vision to keep their operation small, friendly and manageable. '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. We feel it's a team effort and do this for fun. That's why we enjoy making Wimbushes wines, as we all take part at some point.'
When they originally planted their vines, Andy and Karina persuaded their gardener, David to manage the vineyard. They are full of admiration for how he's learnt on the job and developed his skills, with Andy calling him a 'really brilliant viticulturalist'.
At Cellar Door Wines of St Albans, the exclusive retailer of Wimbushes wines, manager Penny Edwards also sings David's praises: 'He's done an amazing job pruning and training the vines at Wimbushes. He's learnt so much over the last few years.'
It's a collective effort come harvest time. Andy, Karina, David, Penny and friends pick all the grapes by hand. Then usually David drives them up to Suffolk. They normally harvest between 500kg and 750kg of both varieties in autumn. When to pick the grapes however is not always a straightforward decision, depending on how ripe they are and prevailing weather forecasts.
'We always have an argument with David,' laughs Michael. 'Where we say please don't pick them yet and he says I've got to!'
Andy and Karina enjoy the collaborative approach, but emphasise how David and Michael's expertise has been crucial to the finished product. 'Our wine is down to their combined skills,' says Andy, 'and everyone's mucked in.'
He 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.'