Hotels are cultivating a different path with vineyards catering to the wine-savvy staycationer looking for a glass of homegrown English fizz before settling in for the night. Fiona Sims reports on some of the best.
All eyes are on English wine. As we approach English Wine Week on 19-27 June and celebrate an industry producing wines that are now gaining recognition worldwide, it's looking pretty rosy.
Wine tourism is making great strides, with vineyard tours, tastings and fine dining often coupled with overnight stays in chic vineyard accommodation. Throw in the news that a French Champagne house has announced a huge new winery in Kent, Taittinger's Domaine Evremond, and it's no surprise that the hotel industry is starting to take wine more seriously.
Chef-turned-hotelier Michael Caines immediately saw the potential of the south-facing slope that stops 70 metres short of the River Exe on his 28-acre estate at Lympstone Manor in Devon. The experts he called in, among them Duncan McNeill at Vines Direct, confirmed his hunch: that it was a microclimate on par with the best vineyards in the south-east.
"When I first discovered Courtlands Mansion, as Lympstone Manor was known then, I knew it would make an incredible hotel and restaurant, but I also saw the potential of the landscape, and from that moment I knew I wanted to plant a vineyard here," he says.
"Most of the great vineyards of Europe are located near rivers, from the Médoc châteaux of Bordeaux on the Gironde to the great port vineyards of the Douro, so why not the Exe estuary?"
In 2017, Caines planted 11 acres of vines with classic method sparkling wine in mind – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Last October was the first harvest and it exceeded all expectations, yielding 8,000 bottles of sparkling wine plus 3,000 unscheduled bottles of Pinot Noir, as the fruit was unexpectedly ripe. Both were made by Devon's Lyme Bay winery. The latter will be ready to drink next year, while the sparkling will spend a total of three years on its lees before Caines starts popping the corks. It's all part of his master plan to create the perfect apéritif and attract more of a new kind of tourist: one who loves wine.
"We didn't want that racy acidity offered by many English sparkling wines. Ageing the wine on lees for that length of time will give it a depth of flavour and that richer feel I'm looking for," he says. "As most of our guests will be drinking our sparkling wine pre-dinner with canapés, food has got to be at the forefront of our minds when producing wine at Lympstone."
The vineyard project has indeed drawn more wine-savvy guests: "Wine tourism is on the up and it's definitely something we're looking to maximise in the future. We offer hotel packages to include the wine experience, as it's an important element to the hotel," says Caines.
Those experiences include vineyard tours, currently happening twice a week for residents and for non-residents when combined with a meal. Plus, there are special tastings of English sparkling wines on its ‘Bench of Dreams', positioned to maximise the hotel's jaw-dropping views over the vineyards, estuary and sea beyond, or in the dedicated wine room, housing some of the restaurant's impressive 600-bin wine list.
The wine world's oldest joke is how do you make a small fortune in the wine business? You start with a big one. So how do the sums add up? "The vineyard investment is over £250,000 thus far," Caines reveals. "Add to that this year's vinification, costing £50,000, plus another £50,000 next year, and the cost for us to produce sparkling wine after three years of ageing is about £13 a bottle. Obviously, we'll sell it for a lot more than that, but what matters most is the quality – we want to make sure our wine is an extension of our brand." He insists that the vineyard is definitely not a vanity project: "Everything about this is well-considered," he assures.
So what advice does Caines have for any other hoteliers out there thinking of planting a vineyard? "You've got to keep your eyes on the prize. A vineyard is six years in the making. It's three years before you get your first crop, then you have to wait three years for it to come to market, so that's six years of spending money with no return and that's never comfortable. But we can do it because we're a successful business," he says.
Indeed, the 21 sumptuous bedrooms at the hotel, starting at £350 a night, are fully booked for months ahead. Plus Caines recently introduced five – soon to be six – luxuriously appointed, cleverly designed shepherds' huts (or rather brace of huts, as there are two per site joined together to create more space) grouped around the edge of the vineyard, starting at £409 per night, also fully booked. A Michelin-starred tasting menu awaits guests at the manor, priced at £145 per head.
"My experience of the industry is if you're going to do something, do it to the best of your ability, and if your ability is limited, bring in the best people to deliver it," he shares, before taking his weekly stroll around the vineyard with vineyard manager Andrew Hunt.
If you're going to do something, do it to the best of your ability, and if your ability is limited, bring in the best people to deliver it
Spirit of the sea
Robert Francis called in the experts after he decided to plant a vineyard near his hotel, the Star Castle on St Mary's, the largest of the Scilly islands. Except Francis went against the experts' advice on which grape varieties to plant in what has become the UK's most southerly vineyard.
Six years after opening the 38-bedroom, 16th-century Star Castle hotel, located on the highest point of St Mary's overlooking the harbour, Francis felt it was time to invest in the business further. So, fuelled by his love of wine he realised his dream to grow vines on Scilly's redundant farmland. "Begging, stealing and borrowing various parcels," he says.
Francis first turned to celebrated Cornish winemaker Bob Lindo of Camel Valley Vineyard for help. "He warned me that growing vines on St Mary's was at best marginal, which wasn't very encouraging. He also suggested I stick to Germanic varieties, such as Rondo, but they've never done anything for me. I wanted to make something that people – me – will really enjoy, namely my favourite grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay," he says with a grin.
I wanted to make something that people – me – will really enjoy, namely my favourite grapes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
Around 60% of his vines are Pinot Noir, with 30% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Gris. He talked to the folk at the Yorkshire-based Vine House about the best clones suited for coastal locations, and they sourced plants from Burgundy and Luxembourg.
The newly released 2019 Holy Vale Vineyard Chardonnay Pinot Gris is Francis's best yet – bursting with appley freshness, with a pleasing salty seam and a honeyed melon finish. But after 12 years of growing grapes, it has been a long haul to get to this delicious bottle.
There is a reason why there are only two vineyards on the Isles of Scilly (the other is on St Martin's and grows Germanic varieties). When the sun isn't blazing and the sea isn't tranquil, it's often blowing a gale with the full might of the Atlantic. When it rains, it rains – mildew is a problem – and don't talk to Francis about the birds. His crop was devastated three years in a row, so now he has to net it – all 6,500 vines, spread over seven acres, on three main parcels. Because of all this he has only had two good vintages since he started bottling in 2014, but he's proud of that recently released white and excited about the new Pinot Noir, which will be released next year.
His guests are enthusiastic, too and have enjoyed the vineyard action, most opting for a tour and tasting (Francis is waiting for pandemic restrictions to lift before resuming winery activities). The biggest draw, though, is Holy Vale's ‘one-mile lobster lunch', comprised of vegetables grown nearby and lobster caught by Francis himself (he fishes for the hotel's seafood and, until recently, was a lifeboatman too, in addition to being council chair). The white wine is made specifically to match the food, he says, and is drunk at tables next to the vines in a lush, birdsong-filled valley within sniffing distance of St Mary's pristine white beaches.
As well as planting, pruning and picking the grapes, Francis actually makes the wine too, with a little help from Austrian wine legend Willi Opitz (they are longstanding mates, the friendship cemented when Francis ran the family hotel back in Mullion, Cornwall, and where he looked after the wine list, inviting Opitz over for wine dinners).
"In fact, I've never planted anything before this. I've been a fisherman and lifeboatman all my life – I've got saltwater under my fingernails," laughs the 68-year-old.
The winery is basic, housed in an old barn, with holes in the roof and minimal kit, but its charm prompted revered wine writer Michael Broadbent, a regular visitor to the castle, to declare it one of the most beautiful vineyard sites in the world. Add in the hotelier-caught lobster and that ethereal, salty Chardonnay made just down the road and you've got a sense of place like no other.
The Pig family of boutique hotels certainly knows how to offer a sense of place and has a cult following to prove it. The latest addition, the Pig in the South Downs, near Arundel, West Sussex, is due to open this September. As well as the 30 bedrooms offered in the Grade II-listed Madehurst Lodge and its ‘Field and Garden Wagons', and the now requisite kitchen garden to fuel the restaurant, there is a fully planted up vineyard in prime English wine country with 4,000 vines – a first for the Pig.
The Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier vines will be in full view of the restaurant, and the first harvest is expected in 2022, and yes, they are expecting many more wine tourists, confirms Robin Hutson, chairman and chief executive of parent company Home Grown Hotels.
"We have long been champions of English wine, having first defaulted to English fizz by the glass over Champagne in 2014," he says. "It's a completely natural fit for us to be involved in wine tourism; we put great emphasis on wine as a business and we are located in some of the best wine-growing areas of the UK."
We have long been champions of English wine, having first defaulted to English fizz by the glass over Champagne in 2014
A little further to the north in West Sussex, another new hotel with a vineyard is set to launch in July. Leonardslee Lakes & Gardens in Horsham was bought by South African-born entrepreneur Penny Streeter in 2018. The Grade II-listed mansion already has a fine dining restaurant, headed up by chef Jean Delport, which won a Michelin star in the 2020 guide. It will soon add 10 luxury bedrooms, all with views over the UK's first commercial Pinotage vineyard – they're hoping its early-ripening status and rot-resistant thick skin will do well here.
"I wanted to create a South African-style wine destination experience in the UK," explains Streeter, who also owns Mannings Heath, the UK's first golf and wine estate, which opened in 2017 and is just down the road.
And it's not just the south that's pulling in the wine tourists: Cheshire's 197-bedroom Carden Park will open its new wine-themed restaurant, the Vines, later this month, sporting views over its three-acre vineyard. Brought back to life in 2008 by owner Steve Morgan, it produces up to 6,000 bottles of Carden Estate Reserve sparkling wine made with Seyval Blanc by Staffordshire-based wine estate Halfpenny Green.
Carden Park isn't quite the UK's most northerly commercial vineyard – that goes to Ryedale in North Yorkshire. Its plantings of 4,300 vines, including 400 Pinot Noir plants destined for the pink fizz, hopes to stir up greater interest from guests and locals who will buy a bottle at £45 or £47 for the sparkling rosé. Add to that a new £10m spa, where the wine is also offered, plus an encouragement to walk among the vines with flute in hand, and the English wine experience is complete. Who needs Napa?
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