One for the Road at Chilford Hall
Chilford Hall must be one of the best signposted vineyards in England. Large brown signs with giant bunches of grapes entice visitors from the A11 in Cambridgeshire and guide them from the dual carriageway all the way to the winery door. Given the roadside associations of the vineyard’s founder though, maybe that’s appropriate.
The vineyard was planted in 1972 by Sam Alper, who not only designed the classic Sprite caravan after the Second World War but also set up the Little Chef chain of roadside restaurants in 1958. After declining a request to lease land for growing vines at his estate at Linton, 9 miles south east of Cambridge, Sam decided to plant a vineyard himself instead.
As you approach Chilford Hall, ornamental stone columns and vast stone lions appear in the fields. Sculpture and statues surround the shop and bistro, and the Hall, while modest, has striking modern additions. Tours must be booked in advance and cost £15 (with the option to add lunch or afternoon tea before or after the tour) and take place Thursday to Sunday, March to October. I visited on a Sunday afternoon in late August with my dad as a birthday treat (for him, you understand, not me); by coincidence, Elisabeth visited a week later with friends.
The tour was led by Ged Bell and began with an introductory talk about the history of the vineyard before heading off to see the vines, half a mile away. Less mobile visitors can drive the short distance but it’s a pleasant walk up and down gentle slopes to the vineyard.
The closest plot, with vines now 43 years old, is planted with Müller Thurgau, Dornfelder and Schönburger varieties. Unusually for East Anglia – and maybe unfortunately given its success – no Bacchus is grown at Chilford. Instead, they also have Ortega, Reichensteiner, Siegerebbe, Rondo, Regent and Pinot Noir, the only French varietal and the most recently planted, in 2004. There are 18 acres already in production with 4 acres remaining to be planted and despite Ged trying to convince us that Bacchus was really just Müller Thurgau MkII, it’s likely that Bacchus will fill this remaining space.
The rows of the original vineyard were planted very far apart to allow the use of standard rather than specialised agricultural equipment; they are far wider than would be expected in a UK vineyard now and massively so compared to the density of planting in France and elsewhere. The rows all run east-west across the gently sloping vineyard, rather than north-south, down the slope, as they would be planted now in order to provide better sun exposure and air circulation.
In the vineyard Ged took the group through the year’s tasks, helpfully breaking it down into just six visits to the vines, for pruning, tying down, shoot thinning, tucking in, canopy management and harvest. This approach underplays the challenges of producing healthy, ripe fruit (“a good crop of juice”) but is very effective in simplifying and communicating 12 months of hard work.
After walking on to the next vineyard, where more ornamental columns stand next to the vines, we returned to the winery to learn about converting the grapes into the white, red, rosé and sparkling wines produced at Chilford Hall. All of the wines are made on site by winemaker Mark Barnes, although riddling and disgorging the sparkling wines is entrusted to Emma Rice (the UK Vineyards Association’s Winemaker of the Year 2014) at Hattingley Valley in Hampshire, with whom Mark attended Plumpton College.
The winery is a hodgepodge of architectural salvage. The beams of the timber-framed barn came from the nearby village of Hildersham and the marble floor was snapped up from the London Stock Exchange. Above the door to the adjacent building a stone lintel dated 1903 comes from Waterloo station. The overall effect is sort of Alsatian-monastic style. Inside, space had been cleared for 10,000 litres worth of new stainless steel tanks which were about to arrive. The ideal spot for them was where the ancient bottling line (secondhand in 1972!) sits heavily but no one dare move it lest it finally give up the ghost. A new £80,000 bottling line is on its way which will see Chilford’s wines bottled under screwcap in future.
The tour then proceeded to the bistro for a tasting, where tables were laid out with glasses, tasting notes, water, crackers and spittoons for those who were driving, but with a group of 20 the room was a little cramped; it would also have been good to have more space for extra glasses to better compare the wines.
Five wines were tasted. A Müller Thurgau / Schönburger 2013 and Müller Thurgau / Reichensteiner 2013 were both very similar – light, crisp and faintly floral, typically English in style and well suited for a hot summer day. The third wine, an Ortega / Reichensteiner 2013, had more depth of flavour with a slight spicy lift and good length. It was followed by the rosé Blush 2014, the same Müller Thurgau / Schönburger blend as the first wine but with the addition of some Dornfelder to bring colour and a hint of strawberries to the blend. This wine won Silver at the UK Vineyards Association Awards in 2015.
The tasting finished with Chilford Hundred Sparkling Pinot Noir 2013. Still a young wine, it is unusual (for an English wine at least) in being bottled with zero dosage, i.e. with no additional sugar added after the wine is disgorged, before being bottled and prepared for sale.
A tour at Chilford Hall gives a thorough overview of wine making in England. With vineyard, winery and tutored tasting, visitors learn everything there is to know about what goes into producing – and enjoying – English wine. There is of course also the option to carry on learning by taking a few bottles home from the shop, where some on display date back to 1974. After the tasting I picked up some Ortega/Reichensteiner and a bottle of Blush for my dad and we hit the road.
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