#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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Mind-blowing #NFDF2014 visit to @GenomeAnalysis and @JohnInnesCentre on @NorwichResearch #Food #Science blog:

Well, I did say that being an #NFDF2014 champion wouldn’t be all fine dining – and so it was that last week I gave my taste buds a rest and put my little grey cells to work (yes, it hurt – a bit).

Norfolk – a global centre for #agritech research and development

I’d arranged to visit some of the facilities on the Norwich Research Park (NRP) – the John Innes Centre (JIC) and The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) – to find out more about the science behind our food. The tour took about two hours and was fascinating (even for a non-scientist like me).

Thank you to my expert guides: Dee Rawsthorne, PhD, Public Engagement Manager for Norwich BioScience Institutes; Kirsten McLay, ‎Platform and Pipelines Lab Manager at TGAC, and Hayley London, TGAC’s Marketing & Communications Officer. (Thank you also to Stuart Catchpole, Head of External Relations, for arranging the TGAC visit.)

In particular, I wanted to know how scientists in Norfolk are working to help farmers rise to two of the key challenges of the 21st Century: climate change and the need to increase crop yields to feed a rapidly growing global population (which is expected to rise from just over 7bn now to over 9bn in 2050).

Agricultural and social challenges in the 21st century

Apparently, Professor Sir John Beddington, who was chief scientific advisor (2008-2013) to the UK government, once said: “By 2030 we will need 50% more food…and about 30% more fresh water…while mitigating and adapting to climate change.” He then went on to add what could be the biggest understatement of the century: “This could create the potential for conflict.” (Source: JIC brochure.) So you can see: we face quite a challenge to maintain food security.

Strange as it may seem – particularly if you only think of Norfolk in terms of Alan Partridge, old churches and turnips – the solutions to many of the challenges facing global agriculture might well be found by very clever people working not in our county’s fields but in the rapidly expanding NRP.

Did you know?

So did you know any of that? Well neither did I – and I hadn’t appreciated the full scale of the NRP facilities and the range of highly specialised biosciences being studied and applied there. Although, I had heard about the new Beneforté broccoli with its higher levels of beneficial phyto-nutrients, which was developed by scientists at the IFR and JIC and is now sold in major UK supermarkets.

Sadly I wasn’t allowed to try the new, genetically modified, purple tomatoes developed by TSL scientists – but I can tell you they look delicious. Here’s a picture of me with some.

They produce higher levels of the antioxidant anthocyanin and have a longer shelf life than traditional tomatoes but I will probably have to visit the USA if I want to eat them.

As well as the research and training, the institutes based at the NRP are contributing to wealth and job creation, and generating high returns on the public investment for the UK economy. If you want to find out more – and to get involved in some of the public discussions you can go along to the Friends of John Innes Events or look out for Science for All events.

John Inness Centre and the search for yield

Whatever your views on climate change – there seems to be ample evidence that global agriculture is having to cope with more extreme weather conditions (prolonged draughts, extreme floods), as well as the depletion of fresh water reserves, soil degradation, pesticide resistant pests, herbicide resistant weeds, and more virulent diseases.  Finding ways to make crops naturally more resistant to these pressures would go a long way to reducing our dependence on expensive protective sprays and fertilisers, as well as ensuring our food security.

Wheat makes up 20% of the calories consumed by people across the world and as the population grows so does demand – but it is becoming harder and harder to boost yields without damaging the environment. In short, we need another Green Revolution. In the 1940s wheat farmers in the UK produced an average of 2.5 tonnes a hectare – now, thanks in large part to the work of scientists at the Plant Breeding Institute (now JIC) in cultivating new strains – UK famers produce 8 tonnes a hectare. However, the challenge over the next 20 years is to increase this to 20 tonnes a hectare – “20 in 20.”

One problem the scientists face is the stability of the wheat genome (particularly its Ph1 gene). This stability is a good thing because it prevents high grade wheat from randomly cross pollinating with wild varieties – but it is also a problem because it makes selective cross breeding for beneficial traits much harder. However, JIC scientists are now working on ways of temporarily shutting down the Ph1 gene to allow the introduction of important traits (such as drought or salt resistance, or nitrogen fixing root nodules similar to those found in peas) before switching it on again.

JIC is also home to the Germplasm Resources Unit (GRU), which has the most comprehensive collection of small grain cereals in the UK – many free of patents and intellectual property rights, so available for study by researchers and breeders. It holds the largest UK collection of wheat and its relatives, with some 10,000 varieties, as well as 10,000 varieties of barley (including conservation grade barley that’s important to the resurgent craft brewing industry), 3,000 oats and 3,500 peas. The wheat collection includes locally-adapted primitive varieties (or ‘landraces’) which form the basis of many of our modern varieties and could hold the genetic variations needed to develop new, more productive and resilient strains.

This sort of research can take many years. There are no quick fixes – you have to grow each generation of the crops to understand if the desired traits have been established. So it is good that, through the BBSRC, the various bioscience institutes on the NRP have continued to receive much needed funding.

TGAC’s advanced genome analysis speeds up plant research

One way of speeding up such research is to develop a better understanding of the genomes of animals, plants and microbes. So the JIC, IFR and TSL scientists are mighty lucky to have TGAC’s world class genome analysis and innovative bioinformatics facilities on their doorstep. Among many other things, TGAC is currently working on sequencing the genomes of wheat, barley, rice and sugar beet to name just a few of the crops it is helping food scientists understand and develop.

The equipment in TGAC is phenomenal – not least because of its computing power (it has a ‘3rd generation technologyPacBio RS II Single Molecule, Real-Time (SMRT®) DNA sequencing system – one of only three in the UK). Sequencing the human genome, which is some 3 gigabases long, took 10 years (between 1995 and 2005) – but TGAC can now sequence 600 gigabases in just 11 days on just one of their platforms. That’s particularly useful when you consider the wheat genome is some 17 gigabases.

TGAC Scientists working on PacBio RS II.

TGAC Scientists working on PacBio RS II.

TGAC uses a number of different sequencing technologies, depending on the nature of the work and the size of the genome being studied. First it breaks each genome down into manageable chunks to enable ‘library construction’, it then rebuilds them to perform ‘downstream analysis’. It has an optical mapping system (again, one of only three in the UK) which enables it to visualise individual DNA molecules for use in comparative genomics.

As well as its work on plants, TGAC has helped Chris Packham analyse the soil in his garden, is looking at how different bacteria could make anaerobic waste disposal plants more effective, and is sequencing different strains of yeast which may benefit the brewing industry – I’ll drink to that. It also has a very good outreach programme for schools called TGAC4Kids, to encourage young scientists (aged 4-11), and the resources are free to use. And for older students (PhD and post-Doc) it is running a Bioinformatics summer school.

Finally, on twitter today, I read the news that TGAC has just been awarded £1.9m of government funding for a new DNA Synthesis Unit “to support the design, generation and exploitation of high value compounds and bio-actives obtained from plants and microbes.” This is great news and further confirmation of TGAC’s vital role in the development of advanced biosciences in this country. If you get the chance to visit any of the facilities at TGAC or elsewhere on the NRP, I urge you to leap at it.

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We are using our blogs to raise awareness of an excellent local charity called Nelson’s Journey. If you enjoyed this post, please help a grieving child by donating £1 (or more if you can spare it) to Nelson’s Journey today. Thank you.

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Join the conversation

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please post them under this post or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply. Look out for more posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 (see my earlier post about being an #NFDF2014 Champion) and other stories from around the county. I hope you enjoy them too.

Thank you for reading.

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#NFDF2014 Champions’ dinner – thank you @GroveCharlie and @TheGroveCromer for hosting.

Now I know, in my recent blog about lunch at the Maids Head, I said being a Norfolk Food and Drink Festival champion would rarely involve fine dining. However, dinner at The Grove in Cromer last Thursday evening was just one of those rare exceptions.

After all, when you are invited by Richard Graveling, who is one of the proprietors, to join fellow #NFDF2014 champions Charlie Hodson and William Gribbon for a celebratory meal and the Head Chef is none other than Charlie, how can you refuse? Particularly when you know the menu will feature the freshest seasonal produce, cooked to perfection.

Thanks to Charlie’s acclaimed talents, which he honed in AA Rosette and Michelin Starred restaurants working with chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, The Grove recently won two AA rosettes. And when you’ve eaten at The Grove, it’s not hard to understand why. The setting is lovely, the food is delicious, the service immaculate – and the company on the evening was, obviously, charming.

Elegance and fresh sea air

I made a point of arriving a couple of hours early because Charlie had kindly offered to give me a guided tour of the 3.5 acre grounds and a small section of the sea front at Cromer. The Grove is set back from the cliffs behind a lovely wood – so the garden is beautifully sheltered from that ‘refreshing’ north easterly breeze that sometimes blows in off the North Sea. However, it is still only five minute’s walk through the wood and down to the MCS recommended sand and shingle beach – which makes it a perfect place to stay if you want a seaside holiday.

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The house, which is largely Georgian in style (and was once owned by members of the Gurney family who helped found Barclays Bank), is beautiful. As are the self catering cottages (in a converted barn) and the new oak-framed Orchard Rooms – which look traditional with their wood cladding but have a refreshingly modern feel inside, including super-king sized beds with crisp white linen. For those of you looking for a bit more adventure, there are also a couple of large bell tents comfortably kitted out for a perfect ‘glamping’ holiday by Magical Camping.

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The Graveling family, who have owned The Grove since 1936 (Richard and his siblings, Chris, Elizabeth, Hannah and Ruth, are the third generation to run it) have clearly taken great care of the original property while investing to ensure they can offer all the modern conveniences you could want, including an indoor swimming pool. Although not self-sufficient in food, they have a sizeable plot which produces a large proportion of the fresh fruit and vegetables served in the restaurant, particularly in the summer months.

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I hadn’t been to Cromer for quite a few years, so had forgotten quite how delightful it is. Admittedly there are parts that have seen better days but it still retains an air of Georgian/Edwardian elegance, with fine buildings and a beautiful pier (which has been repaired since suffering extensive damage in the storms of December 2013). If you haven’t visited Cromer recently, it’s well worth a trip – there’s even a convenient train service from Norwich.

In May, you can look forward to the deliciously themed Crab and Lobster Festival. There’s a Carnival in August, a literary and art festival in October/November, and a spectacular fireworks display on the pier at New Year. And of course, there are bracing coastal walks and decent surfing for most of the year (for those hardy enough for such pursuits) as well as numerous grand houses and other places of interest to visit in North Norfolk.

Excellent flavours and a feast for the eyes

Charlie is not only great fun to be with (his conversation as we walked round Cromer was peppered with amusing anecdotes and interesting facts) but also a master in the kitchen. We started the meal with pan-fried Norfolk Quail served on a meltingly delicious slice of slow cooked Fakenham pork belly with braised local red cabbage and Grove-grown apples. I’d never tried quail before but I certainly will again, given the chance; it has a lovely flavour somewhere between good chicken and pheasant.

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Our main course was line-caught Sea Bass from the Norfolk coast (any fresher and it would have been leaping off the plate), served on a bed of wild spinach (picked from the grounds) baby turnips, Dauphinoise potatoes, and – for a real treat – Norfolk asparagus wrapped in Charlie’s special home-smoked ham. Then came the pudding – and Oh boy what a delight: white and dark chocolate (providing a lovely hint of bitterness to balance the sweet) brioche pudding with Norfolk double cream.

Naturally, there were some delicious wines to accompany the meal – but as I was driving I could only have a few sips of the prosecco and rosé – sadly (for me) both tasted excellent. Next time I might have to glamp. Thank you Charlie, Richard and the other guests for a perfect evening.

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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.

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