Taking a tour around White Castle Vineyard, with the warm autumnal sun shining, and the grapes hanging heavy on the vines, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Italy or France. But White Castle Vineyard is not in the sunny climes of the Mediterranean; it is actually in rolling green hills of Monmouthshire in Wales. Yes, you read that right, Wales.
I admit that Wales is not the first place that comes to mind when I think of quality award-winning wines, but after a tour around White Castle Vineyard and a tasting, Welsh wines are very much on my mind.
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White Castle Vineyard
About 7 miles outside Abergavenny in Monmouthshire is the delightful White Castle Vineyard. One of around 35 Welsh wine producers, the vineyard is run by Robb and Nicola Merchant. It is clear when you hear them talk about the vineyard that it is has become their passion and their obsession, though originally it was just a dream.
A Dream Come True
Robb and Nicola bought the 12-acre smallholding back in 1995. They wanted to retire and work together; Robb was a manager for the Royal Mail and Nicola was a District Nurse. They both had different visions for their smallholding: Robb wanted to have sheep but Nicola’s dream was to have a vineyard. The land they bought was north facing and not suitable for grapes so Nicola’s dream had to be put on hold.
In 2008, a 5-acre field which had originally belonged to the farm came up for sale. It was gently sloping and south-facing, Robb and Nicola jumped at the chance to buy it and the rest, as they say, is history.
By the end of September 2008, Robb and Nicola had ordered 5,000 vines and planted 4,000 of Pinot Noir, Regent, Rondo, Seyval Blanc & Phoenix on 11 May 2009. A year later, in May 2010, they planted a further 800 vines, this time a variety called Siegerrebe. Robb admits they didn’t have a clue back then, so went to college to complete an intensive Vineyard Management Course, but they continue to learn each day. Their plans for retirement shelved, they work on the vineyard every day and love it.
In May 2019 they planted 2000 more vines – Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc – to mark the 10-year Anniversary since first planting.
Robb and Nicola go for quality rather than volume, and, as a niche boutique wine producer, they produce award-winning wines including their Pinot Noir Précoce vintage 2017 which recently won Best Regional Wine for Wales from WineGB. The wines available include white wine, red wine, Welsh sparkling wine and 1581, a fortified wine. They supply local businesses and restaurants as well as selling in own their shop, Cellar Door, and online.
“I think the beauty of wine is that you might not like it all, but there is something in the world for everybody”Robb Merchant October 2020
The Croft Barn – a piece of Welsh History
When they first bought the farm, Robb and Nicola’s plan was to convert the beautiful Croft Barn into their home. After submitting the plans to the planners, they got a very quick response from CADW. The barn is actually a valuable piece of Welsh history and is a Grade II* Listed building and needed to be conserved.
During restoration in 2014-5 in collaboration with The Village Trust, core samples were taken of the oak beams. Counting the rings, it was established that the barn dated back to 1581. The soil floor was covered with local stone and the oak wattle panels were preserved and, where needed, replacement ones were made.
The Croft is now used for wine tasting, viticulture education and is also hired out for events and weddings.
The Vineyard Tour
Led by Robb, our tour around the vineyard took around an hour and a half. Robb first gave us a brief history of their personal journey to starting wine growing in Wales, before going out into the vineyard itself.
Making wine is an all year long job, as Robb explained, starting in January when soil analyses are taken, one for each variety, as each grape type takes up different nutrients. Once the results are received back from the lab, they are assessed to see if granular feeds are needed to balance the health of the vines. Pruning of the vines starts in February.
The growing season starts in mid-April when the buds are bursting, but there is a risk of frost which can damage the emerging buds. Time is spent tucking the tendrils in by hand in order to maximise sunshine on the later growth. Wind and air movement are the biggest friends to minimise disease and prevent mildew and keep everything dry and air circulating, so leaf and bunch position are very important.
At the end of June and into July bud formation begins and bunches start to flower, not big flowers, more like a spike on the end of each node. Next to each bunch is a leaf which is vital during flowering and once flowering is complete the stalk is used for analysis. This identifies any micronutrient shortfalls in the plant which can be adjusted by foliar feeds. Epsom Salts are sprayed on a weekly basis from 3 leaf development up until the beginning of October to ensure magnesium levels are optimum.
The grapes are monitored daily, and as soon as they are ripe, they will be carefully hand-harvested. The grapes will then be selected and transported to a winery for pressing to maintain the freshness and the rich fruity aromas.
As Robb and Nicola know their soil intimately, they can chose the right grape varieties to suit the micro-climate
There may be a shortage of wine in 2020, due to frost on 13 May, very late in the season and about 70% of normal crops were lost. Robb seems to be eternally positive, nevertheless, seeing the advantages which can come out of the disadvantages, “what we have is smaller crop but with great quality, out of every cloud is a silver lining.” White Castle Vineyard is lucky, as some vineyards in the UK are not even harvesting this year.
As he wanders through the vineyards, Robb is tasting; sampling grapes as he goes, checking for ripeness, sweetness and quality and he encourages us to do the same. It is interesting to sample the differences between the grapes and also the ripe and slightly underripe ones.
Tasting the White Castle Wines
On return to the Cellar Door, it is time to taste the wines.
Siegerrebe 2018, a crisp fresh white wine with no acidic aftertaste on the palate. The grape is a traditional variety which is hard to grow and has fallen out of favour. Siegerrebe goes well with blue cheese.
Rosé 2019 is a blend of 3 grapes and is the only wine that has been released so far from the 2019 wines. With a hint of peachiness from the Siegerrebe wine with the Phoenix 5% Pinot Noir Précoce to give it the blush.
Pinot Noir Précoce 2018, a light ruby red wine with light vanilla and red berry notes and a rounded blackcurrant and vanilla taste on the palate.
Rondo 2016, a medium bodied deep ruby red wine with notes of plum and blackcurrant that lingers on the palate.
All are available to buy either at the vineyard on their website.
The Future at White Castle Vineyard
Even though they initially discounted the north-facing field, Robb and Nicola have now planted vines on it. The first ten rows are Cabernet Franc, which is the first commercial planting in the UK. The other 10 rows are Pinot Noir Précoce as they can’t produce enough of it.
It will be interesting to see the differences in the wines as the soil structure and nutrients on the north-facing fields differ from the south-facing one. Rest assured Robb and Nicola will be as passionate about these new wines as they are about their other varieties.
The White Castle Vineyard Tours are available Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays from 3:00 pm – 4:30 pm. Cost: £15
White Castle Vineyard are part of Welsh Drinks Christmas along with other Welsh drinks makers which was launched in November 2020.
Disclosure: I was hosted by the VisitMonmouthshire Tourist Board and Over the Bridge to Wales – follow them on Instagram on https://www.instagram.com/visitmonmouthshire/ and https://www.instagram.com/overthebridgetowales/ – however, all views, opinions and photos are my own and remain the copyright of The Silver Nomad