More Wine, Bishop?
What the tiny vineyard at the Bishops’ Palace in Lincoln lacks in size, it more than makes up for in atmosphere. Occupying a south facing terrace of land in the shadow of the ruined former home of the bishops of Lincoln, it has the solidity of medieval masonry to one side and long views over the city towards the Fens to the other. Bells ring out constantly from the 11th century cathedral which towers over the site. It is the only vineyard at an English Heritage property (surprising given the number of vineyards to be found at castles and stately homes) and it has, until quite recently, been sadly neglected.
The vines, a mixture of Ortega, Muller Thurgau and Madeleine Sylvaner, were a gift from Lincoln’s twin town of Neustadt-an-der-Weinstrasse (literally translated as ‘New Town on the Wine Street’) in Germany in 1972 to celebrate the 900th anniversary of Lincoln cathedral. When these were planted over 40 years ago, this was the most northerly vineyard in the UK. Grape growing in the Rhineland has of course had a long and prestigious history. But Lincolnshire? I’m tempted to look back at the minutes of the twinning committee meetings from 1972 to see if this (viti)cultural gift was meant to be solely symbolic rather than a serious attempt to introduce wine growing to the East Midlands.
But produce wine it did, being served at civic functions, for many years through the ’70s and ’80s until, finally, 1991. Now, however, disease has affected the vines to the extent that they no longer produce a viable crop. Two rows of the original eight have been removed and there are many gaps in the remainder, meaning that the original planting of 200 vines has been reduced to about half of that. Complexities around the ownership of the site, with the city council, the diocese and English Heritage all responsible for different elements, have meant it has been difficult to formulate and deliver an effective vineyard management plan.
Suggestions that the vines should be replaced with new ones has met with some resistance because, as they were a gift, it has been felt doing so might somehow cause offence. I think the opposite; to replace the old and unproductive vines with new ones (Germanic varieties, obviously) would surely be to continue in the spirit in which they were presented to the city in the first place.
There is hope for the vineyard though. It earns a mention on the English Heritage website and on the interpretation boards around the palace ruins, so it has not been forgotten. The garden next to it is well maintained and laid out with imaginative plantings of trees and shrubs to evoke the lines and patterns of the vault of nearby cathedral and the vineyard is clearly acknowledged as a noteworthy element of the Bishops’ Palace’s heritage. Furthermore, a Vineyard Community Project has been set up and since early 2013 a group of eight of so volunteers have met regularly to work on the vines with the aim of getting the vineyard back into production. With the support and assistance of Emmaline Masterson, the property manager, the group is looking to develop links with other vineyards, train volunteers in pruning and spraying, improve the health of the vines and eventually produce wine again.
For now at least though, there’s nothing to taste. So, determined not to go home from a visit to an English vineyard without at least one bottle of English wine, I headed off from the Bishops’ Palace to the Wig & Mitre wine shop on the wonderfully named Steep Hill.
The shop sells the wines offered at the Wig & Mitre pub next door where my research had shown they list two examples of wines from Somerby Vineyards in the north of the county. At the nationwide UK Vineyards Association Awards in 2014 Somerby’s Solaris 2013 won a Gold medal and their Estate and Regent wines were both awarded Silver. I picked up a bottle of the Solaris and the 2013 Magna Carta Rondo, which wasn’t ready to be entered in the UKVA awards but went on to win a Silver medal at the Mercian Vineyards Association competition.
These wines clearly show the potential for Lincolnshire, and who knows, perhaps Lincoln, to produce award winning wines. A visit to Somerby Vineyards is firmly on the English Wine Lovers schedule for 2015.
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