What better day to visit my first Welsh vineyard than on St David’s Day, 1 March! With husband in tow, we pulled up at White Castle Vineyard in Llanvetherine, Abergavenny. It was no surprise to me that when we arrived, it started to rain. Thankfully, we had missed the worst of Storm Jorge, so we sat in the car and waited it out. As I was putting on my waterproof trousers and Will was puting on his boots, Nicola Merchant, one of the owners, came along to open up the shop and to greet us. Robb Merchant came out to say hello too, but due to recent knee surgery, unfortunately he couldn’t join us on our tour. “Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus!”, “Happy St David’s Day!” I said cheerily, as I met them both. It effectively turned into a private tour, as clearly nobody else is as bonkers as my husband and I and likes to venture out when the weather is bad…
Robb and Nicola Merchant are a lovely husband-and-wife team. We started our tour chatting in the shop. Robb used to work for the Royal Mail and Nicola was a District Nurse, but it had always been a dream of Nicola’s to have a vineyard. On putting her idea to her other half, Robb was naturally sceptical. However, now Robb couldn’t be more enthusiastic about winemaking! Robb and Nicola’s wines recently appeared on Prynhawn Da and Saturday Kitchen, and they will also be featuring in an up-and-coming Oz Clarke book. They run a small artisanal business, and pride themselves on making quality Welsh wine and being able to provide conducted vineyard tours themselves. When they purchased the site, they transformed the milk parlour into their home and they have also carried out extensive work on the Croft Barn.
Nicola started the tour by showing us the Croft Barn, a 2* listed building featuring impressive timber work dating back to the 1500s. They use the space mainly in the summer to host group tastings such as for the Women’s Institute. On leaving the barn the other side, you are welcomed by the glorious sound of a trickling stream and a beautiful vista of vines opens up in front of you. The vineyard is located on a gentle south-facing slope which has clay loam soil. There are some wonderful views of the surrounding hills and mountains, including Skirrid (‘Ysgyryd Fawr’ in Welsh) and The Blorenge in the nearby Brecon Beacons. Nicola believes that the vineyard may have its own microclimate, as they often enjoy sunny weather when rain is passing nearby. And, as if on cue, the sun came out for us! Look at the glorious sky in the picture below. You really wouldn’t believe that 30 minutes before it had been tipping it down!
Nicola talked us through the different grape varieties that they grow in their main vineyard; Pinot Noir Précoce, Regent, Rondo, Phoenix, Seyval Blanc and Siegerrebe. The first three are red grape varieties and the latter three are white. Of these six varieties, I must admit that the only grape I had really heard of before was Pinot Noir. Nicola explained that Pinot Noir Précoce is a youthful, early-ripening variety, so this grape suits the cool climate well. The different grape varieties are lined up in separate rows, and they use the Scott Henry trellis system to train the vines. I know next to nothing about trellis systems, but it certainly sounded like an impressive system. Some of the vines have been ‘adopted’ and have small plaques in front of them bearing the names of their adopters. For a small price, anyone can adopt a vine, which gives you certain benefits such as joining Robb and Nicola at harvest time to handpick the grapes from your vine.
As you can see, the vines are very bare at the moment. In winter, the vines lie dormant and this is the time when pruning takes place, to prepare the vines for springtime and for new growth. Both Robb and Nicola tend to the vines, but as Robb is out of action at the moment due to his knee, Nicola is working like a trooper pruning the vines. In the picture below we can see a vine which has been pruned. Nicola explained that they like to cut the vine back to two canes, and not four, which I’m told is usual with the trellis system they have.
There are still some vines awaiting pruning, and in the picture below we can see an example of one. Nicola will decide which canes look the best, and then cut them back so that there are just two left, which will be the canes that go on to produce this year’s crop of grapes. Nicola also tends to cut back a few reserve canes to a few buds, in case there turns out to be a problem with the two main canes that she selects.
Below is a picture of a relic from last year’s harvest! I have been learning about extra-ripe and raisined grapes for the WSET exams, which is what happens to grapes when they are harvested later than normal. But I think it’s safe to say that these grapes are well and truly no more.
I learnt many interesting things on our tour, including the fact that they are not allowed to use an irrigation system (not that they would need to anyway given our weather), and that in terms of yields, they do not produce as much as they could for quality reasons. I also learnt that there is a difference between Welsh Quality Wine and Welsh Regional Wine, each vine produces about 16 bunches of grapes and that 2018 was a great vintage for them. Due to the expense, they do not have a winery on site so their wine is made up at the Three Choirs winery in Newent, Gloucestershire. Here’s me freezing cold, soaking up some wine facts:
Before heading inside for the wine tasting, we quickly visited their newly planted vineyard, which has sandy soil and is not south facing. Here they have planted more Pinot Noir Précoce and also Cabernet Franc. They believe that they are one of few producers to plant this many vines of Cabernet Franc in the UK, so it is something of an experiment and eyes are very much peeled to see how the vines will do.
After walking around the vineyards, we couldn’t wait to taste the wines. We went into their cosy indoor shop and seating area and tasted four of their wines. They had run out of Rondo and Regent, so we tasted 1) Gwin Gwyn, 2) Siegerrebe, 3) Rosé and 4) Pinot Noir Reserve. Gwin Gwyn 2018 is a blend of Phoenix and Seyval Blanc. ‘Gwin Gwyn’ is Welsh for ‘White Wine’, and it’s a refreshing dry, light-bodied white wine with pear and passion fruit on the nose and citrus fruits on the palate. The Siegerrebe 2018 is slightly darker in appearance than the pale lemon Gwin Gwyn, and has peach on the nose, lychee on the palate and an interesting spicy finish. Next up was the Rosé 2018. This is a blend of Pinot Noir Précoce, Phoenix and Siegerrebe and there was a lovely aroma of passion fruit with summer fruits on the palate. Finally, the Pinot Noir Reserve 2017 is made from Pinot Noir Précoce and is ruby in appearance. It is a light-bodied red wine with plum on the nose. On the palate you can detect plum and cherry and there is a slight smoky taste from having been aged for 15 months in a French oak barrel. My favourite was definitely the Rosé and Will really loved the Pinot Noir Reserve, although he also enjoyed the Rosé.
Will’s a red-wine person and I’m typically more into my white, so we came away in the middle with a bottle of their Rosé, which we both thoroughly enjoyed tasting and look forward to opening sometime soon!
White Castle Vineyard’s indoor area is beautifully presented, with attractive chalk boards on the walls, awards cabinets and a decorative unit (below) that caught my eye. They also have an outdoor terrace overlooking the main vineyard which I imagine would be a lovely area to sit in the summer, with a glass of wine in hand.
Because the tour and wine tasting were so interesting, I didn’t have time to take all of the pictures that I would have liked to take. I also didn’t want to whip out my list of pre-prepared questions (I know, I’m sad 🙂 ), which means I didn’t cover everything I wanted to ask. For example, I totally forgot to ask about their sparkling wine and also their 1581 fortified wine, which is similar in style to Port:
But that just gives us a great reason to return! As I’m studying wine, I’m keen to see the vineyard at different key points of the year, so we will plan to return in April for bud break.
Robb and Nicola are lovely hosts, so if you are in the area, do stop by and pay them a visit. They offer a conducted vineyard tour followed by wine tasting at 3pm on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays. For more information on their vineyard and wines, visit their site: White Castle Vineyard
Have you visited a Welsh vineyard before? If so, which ones have you been to?