Tasting Award-Winning Welsh Wines at White Castle Vineyard

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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.

The views down the rows of vines to Croft Barn

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.

Nicola and Robb, the owners of White Castle Vineyard

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

The Croft Barn, a 16th century Grade II* Listed barn

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.

two empty bottles of sparkling wine stored in a wooden bottle holder
Empty bottles stored in a vintage bottle holder

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 the their personal journey to starting wine growing in Wales, before going out into the vineyard itself.

Man in blue top and short standing between rows of vines in White Castle Vineyard, Monmouthshire, Wales
Robb Merchant taking us on a tour of the White Castle Vineyard

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.

A bunch of green Phoenix grapes with vines in the background
The Phoenix grapes ready for picking

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.

sun shining through a line of green grape vines leading your eye down to a farm building and hills beyond.
The vines at White Caste Vineyard
view of rows of vines with green hills in the background
Stunning views of the Monmouthshire countryside surrounding the vineyard
A close-up of a bunch of black grapes ready for picking
Red Rondo grapes ready for harvest

Tasting the White Castle Wines

Four glasses of wine, from left, white, rosé, and two reds
From white to rich reds, the wines of White Castle Vineyard

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. which 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.

A glass of fruity white Siegerrebe

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 to the south-facing one. Rest assured Robb and Nicola will be as passionate about these new wines as they are about their other varieties.

Contact Details:

The White Castle Vineyard Tours are available Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays from 3:00 pm – 4:30 pm. Cost: £15

Address: White Castle Vineyard, Llanvetherine, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, NP7 8RA
Phone: 01873 821443
Website: https://whitecastlevineyard.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Welshwines/

White Castle Vineyard are part of Welsh Drinks Christmas along with other Welsh drinks makers which is launching 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

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14 thoughts on “Tasting Award-Winning Welsh Wines at White Castle Vineyard

  1. The White Castle vineyard seems to be a gem in Wales. Apparently, it is the labour of love of Robb and Nicola. A visit to the vineyard seems to be an awesome experience, apart from the wines, the sight of those grapes hanging heavily on the vines is so beautiful.

    1. It was a lovely place to visit and the grapes were delicious!

  2. This is amazing – who would have guessed that there is good wine in Wales? I never thought of it this way – I would have rather expected beer. Anyway, the vineyard looks really nice, the grapes juicy and sweet – and so seem to be the people, too….sweet, not juicy 😀 I was thinking about visiting Wales somewhen soon – and this vineyard is definitely something to put on my to do-list 🙂

    1. I would highly recommend a visit, Renata, Wales is full of surprises!

  3. As someone who enjoys getting outdoors and visiting different vineyards that are surrounded by beautiful nature, I really liked learning about White Castle. It wasn’t a brand I had ever heard of previously and the fact it is located in Wales is something I find very interesting. I admire couples that work to create boutique products like this and would really love to visit myself when I am next able to visit the UK.

    1. I do hope you get to the UK and definitely visit the White Castle Vineyard.

  4. I would never even thought of taking a wine tour in Wales. Wouldn’t have thought it was possible but I love trying out wines in different countries. Was the wine actually good? I remember the first time I went to one in England and they were dreadful but had vastly improved years later. Anyway I’ve added this to my Wales bucket list 🙂

    1. The wines were spectacular Sarah, crisp and smooth and I would highly recommend looking out for them.

  5. Oh wow! I had no idea that Wales had a winery like this tucked away. I love the history behind the farm, and the fact that it dates back to the 16th century is amazing. I’m not much of a wine drinker, but I do like to go on winery tours in different countries so I’m adding White Castle Vineyard to my list for sure.

    1. I do hope you make it there Krista, it is really worth a trip!

  6. I am not a wine drinker but I do love visiting wineries just for the beauty of them. I would have never thought there would be one located in Wales. Although I’ve never been to Wales, I have been throughout the UK and it is a beautiful country so I would imagine Wales being very similar. Your photos of this winery are beautiful!

    1. Thank you Vicki. I do hope you can get to visit Wales, and maybe the vineyard.

  7. I have never really put wine tasting and Wales together so this was a great eye-opener on what a Welsh vineyard can offer. I think I may check it out on my trip next year!

    1. You should definitely try some Welsh wine, Angela, they are amazing and I highly recommend them.

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