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Levelling the playing field

Word and pictures by Chris Tuff

In the shadow of their continental counterparts, Britain’s winemakers, particularly in Cornwall, are nonetheless producing wines of superb international acclaim.

The Knightor Winery is situated almost perfectly equidistant from their two vineyards at Seaton and Portscatho, and only a stone’s throw from the Eden Project. The typically Cornish huddle of restored, granite farm buildings are set around a central courtyard nestled in four acres of gardens, pasture and orchards, above St Austell Bay. Whilst it is a busy, working winery, it has also become a popular venue for weddings, feasts and long, lazy Sunday lunches. Adrian Derx, Director of the winery explains that this was not part of his original vision, but the addition of a bar, large dining and events area and a shop has helped sustain the development of the winery and vineyards.

When I arrive, on one of the hottest days in August, everyone is busy with preparations for a wedding the following day. Despite the flurry of activity, the General Manager, Anna McCleave, takes time out to walk me around the sun-drenched courtyard, walled herb garden and meadow, complete with gazebo and a lily covered pond reminiscent of a Monet painting. On a perfect summer’s day, it seems an idyllic, timeless, rustic and romantic setting for the next day’s celebrations. The short, guided tour ends at the winery, where I am introduced to Knightor’s Winemaker, David Brocklehurst.

Knightor are relative newcomers to the world of wine-making. They planted their first vines in 2007 and made their first wine in 2010. The rosé they produced from their modest crop of grapes won a gold medal at the United Kingdom Vineyards Association Awards, setting the bar high for future wine production. In 2011 they established their own winery and now produce around 50,000 bottles annually.

It is really only in the last 20 years that English wines have shed their second rate image and achieved respectability and acclaim on the international stage. Today, the best English wines are world class and stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the finest Champagnes and Burgundys. But wine making in England has a much longer, if chequered, history.

Whilst we know that the Romans brought wine to Britain, it is less certain that vines were grown here at the time. What is known, is that after the Norman conquest vines were grown and wine produced, mainly at monasteries, because the Domesday Survey recorded 46 vineyards across southern Britain.

Today there are more than 400 vineyards in England and Wales and around 3,500 acres of vines. But, despite the steady rise in popularity of home-grown wines it is hardly a large-scale industry, nor are our isles synonymous with wine production compared with our continental cousins. Nevertheless, the fact is we are producing some very fine wines.

As David says: “While English sparkling wines have deservedly taken centre stage, English still wines are often still under-rated and overlooked. 20 or 30 years ago the quality wasn’t very good and it was those still wines that gave English wine a bad rep’. But that’s all changed – the English wine business is now more professional. There has been greater investment, research and acquisition of knowledge and skills, all of which has resulted in some really great wines.”

The major challenge facing British wine makers is our marginal climate, which results in a far lower yield per vine than our continental counterparts. However, while the grapevine is most productive in sunnier, hotter climes, the highest-quality wines are often produced where the vines grow at the margin of their existence. As David points out: “Some of the world’s finest wines are produced from lower yielding vines – it is a question of quality over quantity and makes for more distinctive and characterful wines. If we allowed the vines to have a big crop, given the autumn weather, with a lack of warmth and sunlight, they wouldn’t ripen. Basically, a lower yield results in higher sugar levels, riper grapes and riper flavours.”

“Another limitation of our climate,” he continues, “is that we need varietals that are strong flowering and early ripening. Varieties that tend to grow best in the English climate are Bacchus, similar to a Sauvignon Blanc and really aromatic. The English climate also brings out elderflower, hedgerow aromas.” David points out Pinot Noir, “which can be used for still, rosé, red and sparkling wines, depending on the year and conditions,” as well as Chardonnay, which he says also does well, “mainly for sparkling but sometimes still.”

Adrian Derx, Director, is the founder of the Knightor Winery. He was responsible for finding the locations for the vineyards, planting the first vines and establishing the winery, so who better to ask about the wines?

“Our wines, like most English wines are lighter and more delicate than the bigger, bolder, heavier wines from grapes produced in hotter climates. They are acidic in nature and particularly lend themselves to sparkling wines and still wines that work well as an accompaniment to food. They are refreshing on the palate, light, crisp and perfectly complement and cut through rich sauces and oily fish.”

Talking to him, it is clear that Adrian is a man of vision with winemaking in his blood. His mother is Italian and grew up in Lazio, where her artist parents grew vines and made their own wine. However, what is surprising is that Adrian’s own background is running a successful IT company. He had considered moving to Italy and starting a vineyard there, but it was not a dream his wife shared. Not one to be easily deterred, he decided to look closer to home and after much searching, settled on two separate plots of land that he thought would be suitable for vines to thrive; gently sloping, well drained, south-facing fields, protected from the wind by high hedges. The rest, as they say, is history. Adrian’s Italian idyll is alive and well, only in Cornwall!

Their latest venture is also inspired by Adrian’s Italian heritage – vermouth. This took two or three years of experimentation working with Consultant Winemaker, Salvatore Leone, who helped develop the Knightor Vermouth.

“It begins with a wine, something quite neutral like a sparkling base wine,” explains David. “We then select another wine and along with grape skins this is distilled. From that we get a clear brandy. Then we take our unique blend of herbs, spices and citrus rinds and add those to the brandy. It is left to infuse for a week or so and the herb infused brandy is then added to the base wine. Finally, it is fortified with a little more alcohol to bring it up to about 15%.”

Adrian tells me that the vermouth is favoured by Tarquin’s Gin for an excellent dry martini, and how it’s being used for cocktails at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen Cornwall. He’s keen for me to sample it and see what I think, recommending that I try it as a spritz with soda, ice, a slice of lemon and a sprig of rosemary. It sounds like the perfect drink at the end of a perfect August day, and it is. Light, refreshing and aromatic – quite simply, it’s summer in a glass.


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