August 5-8, 2021
I drank my first ever bottle of Welsh wine looking down from the terrace of my friend’s house in Pwll, a short hop west from Llanelli. Over the estuary, the Gower Peninsula was a luminous green from the late afternoon sunshine. We looked down on it from his steeply-sloping garden, with its broken-paned greenhouse which harboured the drying remnants of several old vines.
This idyllic scene didn’t last long; next day, the weather had turned a leaden grey and it was not long before the heavens opened with a relentless cold rain that my friend described as “penetrating”. The words of Shelley’s poem “Ode to the West Wind” popped spontaneously into my head.
The wine was a red called Triomphe, produced by the Ancre Hill Estate in 2013, and we had bought it from a wine shop called the Maes-Y-Lili Vintry in Cross Hands. Although the Vintry looked a little bit dilapidated, a sign suggested it has been in business since 1936. The name means Lily Field in Welsh. We bought the only two bottles of Welsh wine in the store: the Triomphe, and a wine called Gwin Coch, for about £20 each.
The Triomphe wasn’t quite a triumph, but it certainly was not bad. My wine notes said: “It’s actually very good. Slightly petillant, very light bodied, tart and with toast, sherbet and raspberry flavours.” But twenty quid? That’s the dilemma faced by Welsh wine. The climate is uncertain, sunshine is an intermittent luxury, and – as Paul Rolt explained when I visited his vineyard at Hebron – in winter the cold air rolls down the slope of the vineyards and can cause severe damage to the vines if it gets trapped.
The right choice of grapes is essential in such a fickle climate, and the pioneers grew Seyval Blanc, Pinot Gris, Madeleine Angevine and Muller Thurgau grapes. There was also some experimentation with Huxelrebe, Reichensteiner, Kernling and Triomphe d’Alsace. The main grape varieties have changed over the years, and now Solaris, Rondo, Bacchus and Regent appear to be the most cultivated.
The Welsh Vineyards Association (WVA) says that wine-making in Wales dates back to Roman times, and lists 17 commercial vineyards on its website: http://www.ukvines.co.uk/wva/index.htm. The Roman governor Suetonius Paulinus, according to the WVA, was the first to have planted vines in Wales, at Caerleon in AD75 during the Roman occupation.
Despite their antiquity, however, Welsh vineyards get a lot less attention than their English cousins. Perhaps this is changing, but continuity seems to be a real problem. After the Romans, the monks in several abbeys kept the wine-making tradition going in Wales. Business was briefly disrupted by Viking invaders, but the sector underwent a revival after the Norman conquest. The tradition of monastic winemaking inspired by French abbots under William the Conqueror was continued until the reign of Henry VIII, but then once again business came to a juddering halt. The Dissolution of the monasteries closed down the vines, this time until the end of the 19th century. The Marquis of Bute is credited with briefly reviving the industry when he planted Gamay Noir vines at Castell Coch in 1895, but these were grubbed up in 1920 after the First World War.
It was only in the 1960s that Welsh wine found a secure footing. But even during my visit, there were rumours that vineyards were about to shut down. This at a time when climate change has brought new prosperity to the UK wine sector as a whole.
The Triomphe was very light bodied, slightly petillant as noted, rather tart with acidity as you would expect in a cool climate, and it had some interesting flavours. The wine is apparently named after the variety of grape used to make it, although I can only find a Triomphe d’Alsace as one of the less common grapes grown in the UK in Jancis Robinson’s monumental book about grape varieties.
Ancre Hill is the biggest vineyard in Wales, with 8.5 hectares under cultivation at Newton Court and 3.5 ha at Rockfield Road, according to data collected by wine consultant Stephen Skelton. Both of these vineyards are in Monmouthshire, which accounts for 37% of the 53 ha dedicated to making wine in Wales. Although Wales has 34 vineyards, most of these are tiny: around half have less than one hectare under cultivation, and Welsh wine accounts for less than 2% of the land area planted with grape vines in the UK.
I rang the vineyard to see if it would be possible to arrange a visit, and they were friendly but sadly booked up throughout the time we were in Wales. I heard subsequently that the property is up for sale, reputedly for £2 million, although I was unable to confirm this.
Ancre Hill Estates, Monmouth, NP25 5HS
The Pant Du red from the Maes-Y-Lili wineshop was also quite drinkable, at least for the first 24 hours after opening. Gwin Coch means “Red Wine” in the Welsh language, which seemed to indicate a failure of imagination, and it had a very different feel to the Ancre Hill. Made from the locally-favoured Rondo grape, the 2018 that I was drinking weighed in at 11.5% abv (welter-weight?) and was a bit thin and acidic, but with a lovely purple colour, a strong mineral quality and nice summer fruit tastes. It was quite pleasant, at least to start with. But when I went back to try it a day or two later, it had become stalky and with a heavy plummy taste that made me think of damp washing. The lesson I took from this was, Don’t delay. Drink immediately!
The vines are grown on the South facing slopes of the Nantlle Valley in Snowdonia. Gwin Coch is made by the Pant Du Vineyard and Orchard, and as well as the red, they also make rose and white wines, as well as cider and apple juice. Pant Du is a family run business. You can buy the wines from their shop, and there is also a café which is open for some of the year.
Pant Du Vineyard & Café, County Road, PENYGROES, Caernarfon LL54 6HE
Another wine we tried, this time from an off-licence in Carmarthen, was Glyndwr. As usual, I looked up the name on Google Translate, and the suggested translation was “gossip”. My friend suggested that the name most likely referred to Owain Glyndwr, the last native Welshman to hold the title Prince of Wales, who instigated a fierce and long-running war of independence in the late Middle Ages, with the aim of ending English rule in Wales.
The Glyndwr white was full of apple, and sharp tangy citrus flavours. The grape variety used is said to be Madeleine Angevine, although I couldn’t find this on the bottle, and reviews suggested that it was made from a blend of Reichensteiner and Seyval Blanc. At £12.75, the Glyndwr was extremely good value for a Welsh wine, and the taste reminded me of some of the Greek whites, such as Assyrtiko. One of the reviews I read said it paired perfectly with Fish & Chips.
The WVA says that Glyndwr was first planted at Cowbridge in Glamorgan in 1983. The Glyndwr website claims that the current owners pioneered the revival of viticulture in Wales, establishing the Glyndwr Vineyard in 1979, making it the oldest family estate in Wales.
Glyndwr Vineyard, Church Rd, Llanblethian, COWBRIDGE CF71 7JF
Having got the taste of Welsh wine from these off-licence bottles, we decided to venture out into the hills of Wild Wales to experience the vineyards. These turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag; some of the vineyards were closed, others not quite what we hoped for.
Hebron vineyard was a wonderful exception. Driving down a narrow bumpy track past some houses, apparently deserted, I did not have high hopes. The Sat Nav said we had reached our destination, but this was not immediately obvious to me as there were no signs (at least from my point of view, as the driver) indicating the presence of the vineyard, and indeed no obvious signs of habitation.
We had just parked up when a rather battered white car drove up, and asked if we needed help. The sun-wizened gentleman inside turned out to be Paul Rolt, who had bought the vineyard in 2011 and before that had worked as a wine-maker for 20 years, mostly in Andalusia in Spain. Very chatty, we talked for the next hour or hour and a half about his experiences, and he then took me on a quick tour of the vineyard.
This is planted mainly with Rondo grapes, and also Solaris which is used mainly for the sparkling wine. Paul has previously done some of the wine-making at the property, and showed me some big ceramic amphorae that he got while he was in Spain, from a pottery which I think was called Padilla, which he has used to ferment the grapes in. These hold around 200 liters of wine each. He reckons it gives them an interesting flavour.
This year, it sounded like the grapes would be picked in late October, and then transported to third-party tanks for fermenting.
Paul took me around his beautiful vines. The Solaris has big leaves, and he said it was a lot of work to pick them off so that the grapes get all the sunlight they need; he does this by hand. The Rondo grapes seemed a bit easier to manage but because it gets so cold in winter, he has had to train them onto wires about 4 feet above the ground, and then create a second layer by training the vine along a second wire a foot or two above the lower wire. This leaves room for the air to circulate, so that they don’t get killed by the ground frost; he also mentioned that the cold air rolls down the slope of the vineyard in winter, so you need spaces in the hedges at the bottom of the field so it doesn’t get trapped to avoid the risk of it killing the vines.
I asked about the soil. He said this whole area had been glacial, so the movement of the ice had led to a varied terrain with hard rock, then pockets of marl and clay. So it sounded quite difficult to work the land mechanically. Paul’s idea has been to bring the wine-making process back to its roots, and to make 100% natural wines. Anyway, I found this all very interesting; I bought his sparkling wine for £30, and his Rondo red wine (First Release Rondo 2019) for £20.
The sparkling is due to be opened soon so watch this space for a review!
Hebron Vineyard, Lletty A, Hebron, WHITLAND SA34 0XS
Not everywhere we tried to visit turned out to be as successful. We located Jabajak vineyard with some difficulty. Unfortunately, when we finally reached it in the mid-afternoon, the place was deserted.
Jabajak is a family-run vineyard, apparently named after the owners’ children. They seemed to have about a hectare of vines in front of the accommodation/restaurant, and then another acre or two in a field opposite.
It looks well run, but when I rang them to see if it was possible to taste the wine, the woman who answered the phone had just got out of the bath, so obviously it’s better to book in advance! Mea culpa. We were told they would be shut until 5.30 p.m. when, I suppose, they open the restaurant, which by the way has an excellent reputation.
Jabajak Vineyard, Banc Y Llain Llanboidy Road, Whitland SA34 0ED
Another disappointment was Cwm Deri. After our exciting experience at the Hebron vineyard, we drove on to Cwm Deri, arriving just in time for closing. This proved to be a stroke of luck. Cwm Deri has a campsite and Shepherd’s Hut behind it, and it had more the feel of a holiday camp than a winery.
The wine shop disappointed as there were only a few proper grape wines; most were blends with different types of fruit, and there were various wine paraphernalia For Sale such as wine coolers and corkscrews. We took one 500 ml bottle of sauvignon blanc for £8 and then headed back home. One of the reviews I read of the wine on Vivino said succinctly: “very strange”. I couldn’t agree more, I gave the Cwm Deri Gwin Deilen y Wynwydden Vine Leaf 12% a no-star rating; it really did taste like wine gum. Although it’s apparently from the Sauvignon Blanc grape, it tasted nothing like any Sauv Blanc that I have had in the past, and it is unlikely to feature on my shopping list in future.
Cwm Deri Vineyard, Narberth SA67 8AP
Because of the inclement weather, there were several vineyards that we contacted but didn’t get to visit. This included the Sugar Loaf vineyard near Abergavenny, a friendly family-run business that I would have loved to look around. When I called, the wind was gusting noisily around my Skoda and the rain was beating down heavily on the car roof. The vineyard staff were very welcoming, but I realised that heading north over the Black Mountains would be a trip too far, so I decided that I would save the experience for our next trip.
Sugar Loaf Vineyards, Dummar Farm, Pentre Lane, ABERGAVENNY NP7 7LA
Likewise, I will have to save the other vineyards listed by the Welsh Vine Association for my next visit. These include:
- GWERNAFFIELD VINEYARD, MOLD, Flintshire
- GWINLLAN Y DYFFRYN VALE, Dre Goch Isaf, LLANDYRNOG, DENBIGH LL16 4HY
- RED WHARF BAY VINEYARD, Llain Gam, Lon y Traith, PENTRAITH, Anglesey LL75 8YG
- GWINLLAN LLAETHLIW, Neuadd Lwyd, LLaethliw, ABERAERON SA48 7RF
- MONTGOMERY VINYARD, nr WELSHPOOL, Powys
- LLANERCH VINEYARD & HOTEL, Hensol Road, Hensol, PONTYCLUN CF 72 8GG
- PARVA FARM VINEYARD, Tintern, CHEPSTOW, Monmouthshire NP16 6SQ
- STICLE VINEYARD, Castle Road, PENCADER, Carmarthenshire SA39 9AN
- The Dell Vineyard, Raglan, Monmouthshire
- VELFREY VINEYARDS, Velfrey Road, WHITLAND SA34 0RA
- WHITE CASTLE VINEYARD, LLanvetherine, ABERGAVENNY NP7 8RA
- SUNNYBANK VINE NURSERY, Cwm Barn, Rowlestone, Herefordshire HR2 0EE
- EECHES VINEYARD, Upton Bishop, ROSS-ON-WYE HR9 7UD