#NFDF2014 visit to @Winbirri – just in time to celebrate @englishwineweek from 24 May to 1 June.

English Wine has seen a welcome renaissance over the last 60 years. Along with the development of cool-climate grape varieties, it has benefited from modern wine making techniques and substantial investment in new vineyards and wineries. As a result, some English Wines now rank among the best in the world.

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Norfolk might not be quite as warm, or as rolling, as the South Downs or Cornwall but we do have plenty of sunshine. And while we have yet to produce a world beating vintage, we do have a growing number of professional growers and makers who are passionate about creating great tasting wines.  One of these is Lee Dyer, who runs the Winbirri Vineyard in Surlingham – and I had the pleasure of meeting him as part of my #NFDF2014 exploration of Norfolk food and drink.

If you haven’t visited Surlingham, you must. It’s a beautiful, virtually unspoilt corner of our county just 6.5 miles outside Norwich. Tucked away in a bend on the south side of the River Yare, between Bramerton and Rockland St Mary, it is quintessentially English with its gently rolling fields, narrow lanes, high hedges and pretty red brick and flint cottages. It’s also a very old settlement, tracing its roots back to Anglo Saxon times – which is where the name Winbirri comes from, being Anglo Saxon for Vine Orchard.

For those of you passionate about wildlife, the RSPB runs a small but delightful nature reserve called Surlingham Church Marsh. While on a food related note, the village is home to Orchid Apiaries, which produces exquisite local honey (including my favourite, The Wherryman’s Honey, which is dark and rich with a hint of toffee) and Yare Valley Oils. On a warm summer’s day (such as it was when I visited) you can see hare in the fields and, if you are lucky, marsh harriers swooping overhead.

Returning home to a new life

Lee’s father, Stephen, who has run Mr Fruity Wholesale Ltd for over 30 years, started the vineyard in 2006/7 while Lee was working abroad. “I got home to find he’d planted 200 vines on our 2.5 acre plot. I thought it was just a hobby at first – but as I looked into it I became convinced we could make great wine that people would want to buy. We’ll never be able to compete against cheap volume producers, we don’t have the climate for high yields, but we can compete on quality.”

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Not being one to do things by halves, Lee enrolled on an intensive wine course at the renowned Plumpton College in East Sussex. “When they say intense, they mean it. We were studying 13-14 hours a day and some of the chemistry was PhD level stuff – in fact, successful wine growing is as much about the science as it is about the art of viticulture.

His time at Plumpton convinced Lee that he needed to focus on creating premium wines using vines specifically suited to Norfolk’s climate and soil. “The #1 rule is to know what will and what won’t grow – this is a long term business, with vines living upwards of 100 years, so you have to get it right. There’s no point trying to produce Shiraz – it just won’t ripen enough – but there are a number of varieties that will do very well here, including new ones developed by plant breeders at Hohenheim University in Stuttgart that produce excellent, crisp, aromatic whites.”

Although Lee acknowledges climate change may have played a small part in the English wine revival, he puts most of the progress down to the new breeds, improved technology and knowledge sharing between the world’s wine communities. “The expertise in this country has improved markedly over the years, thanks to places like Plumpton and organisations such as the English Wine Producers and the UK Vineyards Association (UKVA). We’re a member of UKVA through the regional East Anglian Vineyards Association – and it offers guidance on many aspects of the business, particularly technical developments.”

Variety adds sparkle to life

The three most popular grape varieties with English vineyards are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Bacchus. This last one is rapidly gaining a reputation as the English Grape – much the way Sauvignon Blanc is now associated with New Zealand and Chardonnay with Australia. Lee grows all three, along with 11 other varieties including Pinot Meunier (one of the three ‘noble’ varieties, along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, used in the production of traditional Champagne).

There are three reasons for growing so many varieties. Each one flowers, fruits and ripens at a different time – so you can stagger the harvest (an important consideration in such a labour intensive industry). Different flowering times also mean you are less likely to lose your entire harvest to a bad spell of weather. And the range of grapes, with their different sugar and acidity levels, gives the vintner more scope to blend wines with specific characteristics.

About 50% of Winbirri’s wine is white (including Bacchus, Solaris and Seyval Blanc), 20% is their premium sparkling (which is bottle fermented in the traditional way – first invented by an Englishman called Christopher Merret) and the remaining 30% is red or rosé. When I visited Lee, we were a bit early in the day for wine tasting. However, I had enjoyed a few sipps (sadly only a few as I was driving) of both the sparkling white and rosé when I visited the Maids Head in March and can tell you they are excellent.

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A family business – and a personal passion

Considering Lee and his father still work full time on the Mr Fruity business, it’s amazing they have any time for the vineyard but as Lee admits, “it’s become a passion.” This is just as well because the work seems never ending, starting with pruning in winter. Lee uses the traditional Double Guyot system, which involves cutting back the vine to two strong shoots close to the main stem. Once the shoots start growing in February/March he bends them over and ties them to horizontal wires. The grape bunches then form along these two arms.

The vines then continue growing upwards, producing what is called the canopy. The canopy is where most of the photosynthesis takes place – so it’s vital for the growth of the grapes but it also has to be controlled otherwise the grapes won’t get any sunlight to ripen. During the summer Lee has to tuck the growing canopy into wires above the vine – he also has to knock off any buds growing on the lower part of the vine to prevent wasted growth.

When the canopy is at an optimal height (about six foot) he has to trim it along the top and sides – this effectively stops further growth (although it may take two or more trims) and encourages the vine to put its energy into the grapes. Good canopy control is also essential to preventing disease, such as powdery mildew. “It’s important to keep the air flowing freely around the vines, particularly during the humid months of July and August,” explains Lee.

The harvest then runs from the end of August through to mid November. In the run up to it, Lee is out every day, taking grape samples from across the vineyard to check for acidity and sugar levels. “I know exactly what I want for each grape variety – but we only have a 48 hour window to harvest them at their peak. As soon as we are within a day of that window we start harvesting, spreading it out over four days so grapes picked either side of the window even out the differences.”

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Vine science and German precision

This might all sound manageable with 200 vines – but the vineyard has grown rapidly over the last eight years. There are now three fields (two are on very long leases from a local farmer), the largest and most recently planted of which is 12.5 acres and has 18,500 vines all in meticulously neat rows. “In all, we have 40,000 vines on 25 acres, which makes us a medium sized vineyard by English standards.”

Planting the vines in the largest field was a scientific exercise in itself. “The spacing of the vines, the distance between the rows and the height of the canopy is all carefully calculated to maximise yield and minimise disease. Everything has to line up exactly – so we employed a specialist German company who used the latest laser guided, GPS navigated machines to plant the vines. We also had to hammer in 4,000 metal posts and link them up with over 96km of wire.

Oddly, in a county with a reputation for excellent arable land, Lee needed fields with poor quality soil. “Most of the soil is Norfolk is quite heavy and very fertile but for vines you need light, very free draining soil and it has to be on a southerly facing slope so any frost rolls off it. The third field is virtually perfect – even the large number of flints is useful because we leave them beneath the vines where they soak up the warmth during the day then radiate it back at night, which helps boost yield. The landowner was probably quite pleased to find someone who could put the land to better use than he could.”

As well as being hard work, growing vines and making wine takes patience – a lot of patience. It takes three years for the vines to start producing mature grapes. It then takes another two years to make the wine, including a year in stainless steel fermentation tanks – three if you are making sparkling wine because the bottle fermentation takes a further 18 months. Payback on your investment can be upwards of 10 years.

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Vineyard tours – Norfolk style

When Lee and Stephen first started making wines, they simply had a small shed and a few tanks. But with the new fields coming into production, they invested in a new winery that is the height of a three storey house and the length of two buses (my estimate). As well as the presses, shiny tanks, lovely American Oak barrels and racks of bottled wine, it comes complete with a tasting room and viewing gallery for visitors.

“We have volunteer days during the harvest, when local people and visitors from further afield can help out with grape picking. They tend to be interested in the whole business of growing and making the wine – as well as enjoying drinking it. We provide them with lunch and supper, when they can enjoy a glass of wine and watch us processing the grapes they have picked. Of course, they can also buy our wine – and tell their friends how they helped make it.

“We also give guided tours to parties of 10 to 30 people at a time. These go into a lot of detail and take between two and three hours – but that’s because I like to give them their money’s worth. At £10 a person it’s a great day out for locals, tourists and teams of employees – and it includes a delicious lunch, featuring local delicacies such as Mrs Temple’s cheeses, and Marsh Pig salamis.” If you are interested in organising a trip, just contact Lee – I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

Despite being a young vineyard, Winbirri has already won a clutch of awards including two gold medals, a few silvers and five or six bronzes in regional competitions. This brought them to the attention of the head wine buyer at Waitrose and, after a year-long vetting process, they started supplying the Norwich and Wymondham branches in 2013. “They’ve asked us back this year on the strength of our latest vintage, which we’ve just launched, and this time we will also be in the North Walsham and Swaffham branches.”

As well as supermarket success, Winbirri’s wines are now served in some of the best local restaurants: The Maids Head, as I’ve already mentioned, and most recently Brasted’s. “We’re in discussion with a number of others but we have to ensure supply can keep up with demand. Next year, depending on the weather, we hope to produce between 35,000 and 50,000 bottles – so there should be enough to go round.”

Now that’s a relief – cheers!

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More info

If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please feel free to post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply. In future blogs I will talk more about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 (see my earlier post about being an #NFDF2014 Champion) – and other food and drink events around the county – I hope you enjoy them.

Thank you for reading.

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