Marhofn 93.05 - May 2003

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Viticultural bagging down south

Chris Crocker

Let's face it, not many hills in the south set the pulses racing. Visitors from afar can be forgiven for getting the job done with the minimum of effort, but those of us 'unfortunate enough to live here' need to make the most of our meagre assets. I have the additional incentive that much of my walking south of the border is in the company of my partner, for whom a quick up-and-down for a tick is definitely lacking in appeal. With a little effort, a good many of these hills can be made into decent walks. For example, Win Green, a 200-metre stroll from the car park, makes a fine horseshoe if approached from Tollard Royal. Other summits, like Detling Hill, seem beyond redemption. How do you turn those into a worthwhile outing?

Win Green summit from the car park (photo: Richard Webb)

Win Green summit from the car park (photo: Richard Webb)

My eventual solution can be traced back to a March weekend in the Black Mountains, when I spotted a sign to the Sugar Loaf vineyard on the A40. Might be worth a visit, I thought; there can't be many vineyards on the slopes of a Marilyn. Of course, if you define a Marilyn as all the land between it and its col then every vineyard lies on a Marilyn, but that doesn't seem very intuitive. And anyway, it's the only wine I've found which features a Marilyn on its label. As my last Nuttall approached, I thought it would be fun to celebrate with a bottle of Welsh wine on the final summit. So we paid the vineyard a visit, dumped our Abergavenny medium dry and Hiraeth quality Welsh sparkling wine in the car boot, and ascended the rather pleasant hill. Sadly the vineyard is up for sale and no longer open to the public.

A couple of similar incidents persuaded me that taking in a local vineyard would be a good way to enliven visits to these southern hills. Being something of a wine buff, I'd been round a fair number of English vineyards in the 1980s and found much of the wine indifferent. But things had moved on. Summers were warmer, wine-making had improved.

A wrong turning off the M25 en route to Botley Hill and another vineyard sign led me to Godstone vineyard on the Surrey / Sussex border. Connoisseurs of region 42 might vote for Botley Hill as the dullest Marilyn in the list. The summit lies a couple of metres beyond a barbed-wire fence at the side of a road. The wine was considerably more interesting than the hill, and certainly afforded more enjoyment.

More vineyards followed. Wooldings (SU482502) followed the ascent of Walbury Hill. Elms Cross was combined with Long Knoll, while Avalon vineyard, home of Pennards organic wine, was visited on another west country trip. Pennards dry white was one of the best Seyval blancs I've had. The label shows Glastonbury Tor prominent in the background. Could this be the only wine label to feature a SubMarilyn? Sadly my main Somerset trip, to bag the four Marilyns in Exmoor and the Quantocks, came before I'd really got started, so I missed a golden opportunity to bag another vineyard situated on a Marilyn. This is Dunkery vineyard (SS941434), but it lies at the foot of Periton Hill rather than Dunkery Beacon. The vineyard welcomes visits by appointment and has some interesting-looking red wines on its list.

The south-east may lack inspiring hills but it compensates by having the highest concentration of vineyards in the country. Baggers of the Kent and Sussex hills are spoilt for choice. Neither of the Isle of Wight vineyards lies near a Marilyn but we visited them both anyway. Brighstone Down is an undistinguished summit in forest, made more interesting by a through walk to Shorwell from the SubMarilyn Tennyson Down (better than either of the Marilyns) and a taxi back. St Boniface Down made a good little circuit. Adgestone vineyard was worth the detour, Rosemary less so.

Wales has a dozen or so vineyards but viticulture can be a struggle in the climate. My attempt to buy a bottle of Wyecliffe wine from Hay-on-Wye was thwarted when the vineyard lost its 2000 crop to disease. Llanerch vineyard, just off the M4 and convenient for 32C, is probably the best known. Cwm Deri in Pembrokeshire and Ffynnon Las at Aberaeron also get a lot of visits, and I called on both during a bagging weekend in Carmarthenshire. Cwm Deri makes 'country wines', which are made from berries and fruit rather than grapes and are far superior to the home-made variety, but this is another vineyard up for sale. Ffynnon Las is possibly the most exposed site in the UK but it has survived since 1988. The tasting was convivial, the wine rather uneven in quality but I've had a lot worse. Rather better was Offa's vineyard (SO434137) on the Offa's Dyke path in Monmouthshire. The list includes a Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot blend from grapes grown in polythene tunnels. So if you're keen to discover what a Welsh claret tastes like, you know where to go. Two new vineyards in the north-west which I've not visited are Gwinllan Eryi in Llanbedr and Gwinllan Pading in Anglesey, the latter due to open in 2004. These look handy for the Rhinogs and Mynydd Bodafon / Holyhead Mountain respectively. Few English vineyards at this latitude have survived, so I wish them luck.

An essential guidebook for aspiring vitibaggers is Stephen Skelton's The Wines of Britain and Ireland. Published in 2001, it's already getting out of date so I'd recommend phoning before going out of your way for a visit. There's information in tourist offices and on the web too. For anyone who fancies a vineyard trip from the Ludlow meeting, Bodenham (SO545532) is on the slopes of Hegdon Hill and is the largest vineyard in the Welsh Marches. Their Reichensteiner is said to have an incredible raisiny flavour. Maybe I'll see one or two of you there.

In case you're wondering whether there are baggers in the viticultural world, I have twice encountered people attempting to collect labels from all the vineyards in Germany. As there are about 2600 of them, this must be a task at least comparable to completing the Marilyns (and it has its own St Kilda). The accepted rule is that you have to consume the contents to bag your label. I would be surprised if nobody was doing this on our own patch.

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