Words: Jeremy Miles Pictures: Hattie Miles
English wines do not have the best reputation. Until relative recently they were the butt of countless jokes and often considered to taste as though made from three parts vinegar to two parts paint-stripper.
Even the organic end of the market was taken to task. Who can forget Tom and Barbara Good’s pea-pod wine in BBC TV’s 1970s sit-com The Good Life? A vintage, that regularly offended the palate of snooty neighbour Margot Leadbetter.
Astonishingly these days English wine doesn’t only win awards but, if you know where to look, delivers incredible quality. So what went right?
Paul Girling is a winemaker by accident rather than design, He learnt his craft as matter of necessity after buying a property that just happened to have a six acre vineyard attached.
It’s paid dividends. Paul who admits he knew nothing about wine when he first took over the Setley Ridge vineyard in the heart of the New Forest National Park 11 years ago, now produces thousands of bottles a year. It’s good stuff too.
The vineyard and winery are very much a family business and find Paul and his wife Hayley growing the grapes and producing the wines on-site, while his sister, Jane and her business partner Andrew run a thriving oak-framed farm shop at the entrance to the estate. This not only sells 99 per cent of Paul’s wines but also a yummy collection of locally-grown and produced fruit, vegetables, pickles, jams and other goodies. As Paul, a former builder, prepares to harvest this year’s grapes he agrees that for many the idea of buying a vineyard when your entire knowledge of wine is based on nothing more than occasionally drinking the stuff, might look like an adventure too far. “Basically I was searching for a place to build a home for myself. The vineyard had been here since the early 80s and was pretty run-down but it seemed like it might offer a lovely lifestyle and a change of direction.”
He sent himself on some part-time courses at Plumpton College in East Sussex. Now this cheery 44-year- runs a fully productive vineyard that uses a balance of organic and other methods to maximise his annual crop. “We aim to be as eco-friendly as possible. For example we try to cut down the use of pesticide and we don’t use insecticides.”
Some of the tender grapes are grown under glass while the black varieties - which attract hungry birds - have to be protected by nets. It’s more or less a one-man show. Paul drafts friends and famiiy in when it comes to picking. “We make a bit of a social occasion of it,“ he says.
Having spent his entire life in the New Forest, he loves the local countryside.
“We have a really diverse collection of wildlife here,” said Paul. There are buzzards, grass snakes, adders, badgers, foxes, moles.” He admits he has spent a lot of time and money establishing his business. So much so that the home he planned to build on the site didn’t actually materialize until 2006.
“There were so many other things that needed doing. In fact I lived in a shack for seven years. It was horrible. It was like a furnace in summer and freezing in the winter.”
The house became a priority when he married Hayley who he’d met when she came to work for him. “She basically built up and managed the whole of the selling side of the operation and I dealt with the production,” says Paul.
They grow a mixture of grapes including Regent, Rondo, Triomphe, Seyvel, Muscat and Pinot Noir and currently produce five wines - two reds, two whites, and a rose.
Though he agrees that in recent years the quality of wine produced in England has improved beyond recognition, Paul doesn’t believe it has a great deal to do with global warming.
“Some English wines, particularly English sparking wines, are now regarded as among the best in the world and regularly beat the French Champagne houses in international competitions.
“I don’t think there’s much evidence though to suggest that wine in England has suddenly become much better because of warmer summers. However there is a general migration northwards of the successful grape growing regions. Some areas of Southern Europe like Greece, Italy and Southern Spain are struggling to make the wine they used to because temperatures up around 40 degrees centigrade are just too much.“I think the improvement in English wine is down to a greater knowledge. Actual wine making is effectively a new skill in this country. Vineyards were only reintroduced to England in the mid 1950s. For a century before that, apart from large estates sometimes keeping a small number of grapes in a glass-house, there was no commercial growing.”
English winemaking has indeed had a chequered history. Originally introduced by the Romans, it was eventually all but obliterated by the dissolution of the monasteries.
And though Samuel Pepys wrote about tasting it in the 17th century, it was a rare luxury. Even today English wines account for less than half a per cent of the UK’s annual wine consumption.
Grapes will grow successfully in many different soil types. “They don’t like rich, fertile soil so something fairly poor is fine,” says Paul. “It does need to be free-draining though. Vines don’t like growing in anything that gets waterlogged. Here we have a very fine, light, sandy, gravelly soil. It’s a little bit acidic so we do top dress and put some lime on from time to time. We also add some trace elements because the vines can struggle a bit for things like magnesium and boron.”
They’re surprisingly fast growing - three meters during a good season. The ideal growing temperature is 28 to 32 degrees but more important are good average temperatures.
Paul is hopeful that this year’s crop will be particularly good. “The nights have been consistently warm all through the summer - usually 17-18 degrees - that’s a good start. What we need now is some sunshine to help the final ripening. The higher the sugar levels the riper the grapes will be.”
However it’s all a matter of balance. “You need to be careful because acid levels in grapes can drop off quite significantly as the sugar level rises. You need to make sure that doesn’t happen otherwise the wine can taste a little flat. The fact is you can’t make good wine out of bad grapes but you can make bad wine out of good grapes.”
Running a vineyard is clearly not the easiest way to make a living. Profit margins are tight and Paul and Hayley have had to diversify in order to make it work.
“It would be very difficult to make a living out the wine on its own so there’s the shop, and several tenants running a multitude of businesses. There’s a garden centre, a company that produces gyro-stabilised cameras for TV, there’s a boat repairers, a furniture removers and even a bouncy castle operator. We’re also a Caravan Club site, we do bed and breakfast, wine tasting, wedding receptions. We’re a multi income operation but the wine is definitely the main reason for being here.
I asked Paul about growing grapevines in a pot. He says it’s not a good idea. “They don’t like it really, they thrive in open ground. Vine roots can go down an extraordinarily long way . We had two months of very little rain earlier this year. The grass looked completely dead but the vines were fine.
Among the plants left at Setley Ridge by the previous owner were a mass of Kiwi fruit bushes.
“They were growing in and out of an old greenhouse that used to be part of a market garden operation after the war.” says Paul “I chopped the greenhouse in half, built a pergola and they just kept growing. I
picked nearly a quarter of a ton last year.”
He uses them to make a kiwi chutney, a spicy condiment with lime and chilli that’s a firm favourite in the shop.