Workaholic that I am, it seemed only right that before allowing myself a weekend off in the countryside, in an area that I’d never visited in my life, I should perhaps tour a vineyard on the Friday afternoon. But, the thing is, the weekend off was in England, more specifically in Cornwall in the far south-west.
Vineyards that most intrepid wine tourists in England visit tend to be closer to London in the south-east. The counties of Surrey, Hampshire, Sussex and Kent have the bulk of vineyards, and there a few interesting ones also in the Thames Valley, due west of the city. Quite a few years ago, the larger English vineyards realised that beyond making a wine that really tasted good, the next most important thing was to provide a good visitor experience, both to raise the profile of their wine and sell at the cellar door – that’s what wine tourism is all about isn’t it? As mentioned in our post about the wine bar Terroirs, one day we’ll have an Around London wine travel guide and include some of these vineyards.
English wine has come a long way in the past 25 years and there is some seriously good wine available, most particularly sparkling wine. I’d tasted Camel Valley sparkling wine a couple of times and it has won a plethora of awards in wine competitions not only in the UK, but beyond too. The Camel Valley winery happens to be situated in just the area of Cornwall that I wanted to spend the weekend, nicely placed between the Eden Project and the coastal town of Padstow, where Rick Stein’s Seafood restaurant is based.
Cornwall is full of minuscule one-track lanes and Camel Valley, just a few miles from Bodmin Moor (famous for its wild landscape and remoteness), is reached along one such narrow lane. But, turning into their pretty entrance, nicely planted with spring bulbs, and seeing the tractor working in-between the rows of winter vines, we could have been coming into any small New World boutique winery. Visitor parking is clearly marked (including a designated shady area for cars with dogs that are not allowed to visit …) and a pretty path leads down to a small barn-like building that is the tasting room and shop.
Sam Lindo (UK Winemaker of the Year in 2007), son of the owners Bob and Annie Lindo, who first planted the vineyard 20 years ago, showed us around. The Lindos were sheep farmers and knew nothing about vine-growing or making wine when they started. The land is on a south-facing slope with the Camel River below, and it is well-drained, ideal for vines, but pretty hard to grow grass (“not so great for sheep”, said Sam). Alongside the river is the Camel Trail, a path for walkers and cyclists with direct access into the vineyard. As an aside, Cornwall is a great county for encouraging all things environmentally friendly – a substantial discount on the entry fee to the Eden Project, is offered to those who arrive on foot or by bike.
In their 16 acres of vineyards Camel Valley grows Pinot Noir along with three grapes particularly suited to the English climate – Seyval Blanc, Reichensteiner and Bacchus. Their success means that they also buy in grapes from across southern England. Having originally started with both white and red still wine production, today 50% of their production goes into making sparkling wine and this may well increase. All sparkling wine is made in the Traditional (Champagne) method and they have invested in automatic remuage equipment (giro-pallets). The production process is explained to visitors who join the daily tour of the vineyards and winery (April – September only at 2.30pm); better still is to aim to visit on a Wednesday at 5pm when they run what they term a ‘grand tour and tasting’ with a more in-depth visit followed by an explanatory tutored tasting. Sam comments that their tours are “very open – we don’t like to hide how things are done”.
The tasting room and shop is staffed by knowledgeable and friendly people who offer a free tasting to casual visitors. In summer, you can buy a glass, or a bottle to share on the lovely terrace with your picnic. I particularly enjoyed their fresh grapefuity Bacchus Dry 2007 – almost a Sauvignon Blanc-style, and their sparkling ‘Cornwall Brut’ 2006, which has become the mainstay of their range, was excellent, worthy of all the awards. It’s nothing like Champagne, being made from Seyval, Huxelrebe and Reichensteiner, but it has a creamy mousse with lovely fresh grassy, fruit and excellent length. Her Majesty the Queen serves it on certain occasions, by the way.
If you’re heading to the far south-west of England, in my view the Eden Project is an essential visit, but for all wine lovers, I’d say don’t fail to call in to Camel Valley too. And, by the way, they also have cottages to rent – visit their excellent website for full details of all they offer.