English wine industry is at 'really fun stage', says Essex farming family which branched out with vineyard
PUBLISHED: 16:18 20 July 2019
East Anglia is producing some top quality wines, but planting a vineyard isn't a challenge to be entered into lightly, an Essex farming couple warned following a major investment in the business.
The Crowthers have been working the land around Castle Hedingham for four generations, and decided to plant vines in 2011.
B & J Crowther, at Tuffon Hall, Castle Hedingham, near Halstead, had been growing crops for the drinks industry, including malting barley for local beer and whisky, since 1910, so in some ways Tuffons Vineyard has been a continuation of that tradition. This year, Angus and Pod Crowther launched a converted 16th century barn into a 'Cellar Door' to showcase their wines, built at a cost of around half a million pounds, with the help of a European Union grant.
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The wine-growing tradition at Castle Hedingham stretches back to Norman times, and the couple decided they wanted to set up a "modern, boutique" vineyard in the heart of East Anglia to produce "elegant, award-winning wines of the highest standard".
They planted their Chardonnay, Bacchus, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meuniere grapes in May 2011, and have been producing award-winning wine since 2014.
"It took years of study and planning to ensure the site was suitable for the varieties chosen. A lengthy business case was written and we invested when times were good in farming. By chance, wheat was £200 per tonne and we were able to offset the cost of planting the vineyard," says Pod.
Fourth generation farmers
"We have been arable farmers for four generations, and it felt like it was time to diversify and try a new crop on a small part of the farm. Plus, we love wine."
They enjoy the challeng that comes with launching a new business and growing a new crop, they say.
"Each year is fascinating, and we are very much in touch with the weather and seasons as it has such a bearing on the harvest," said Pod.
"The English wine industry is at a really fun stage right now. There are some top quality wines being produced in the region and there is a huge support for provenance at present. Do not take on the challenge lightly as it is a long-term strategy. Cash flow is an issue and sparkling wine takes about six years from planting to tasting a bottle."
The Crowthers hope to encourage tourism to the area with tours, tastings and events in their newly-opened Cellar Door, which is next to the vineyard.
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"We had our first wedding here on Saturday (June 22) in the vineyard for the ceremony and back at the Cellar Door for the wedding breakfast. This was a 17th Century threshing barn and we were fortunate enough to receive a Leader grant to support the reuse of a redundant agricultural building."
The new business currently employs three staff and will be looking to create more roles in the near future.
It's not all been plain sailing: the weather has been a "huge" challenge.
"This year we purchased a frost fan to stop the vines from getting damaged during the April/May frosts after the buds had burst. It also needs to be sunny during Wimbledon to encourage flowering," says Pod.
But the effort has been worth it, and the diversification continues to make strides.
"The business is going extremely well and we are ahead of forecast in a number of areas including; yields, wine sales and awards for our wines. Our Bacchus 2018 just won the East Anglian Vineyard Association's gold medal - Bacchus is the signature grape to East Anglia," says Pod.
The goal now is to continue to produce the region's best wines and get more people to taste English wine and realise how good it is, she says.
The converted barn will be used for wine tastings, vineyard tours, and other events, such as weddings, company away days, training sessions.
"There is a lovely outside terrace where people can enjoy a glass or two of English bubbly in the middle of the sunny North Essex countryside overlooking Hedingham Castle," says Pod.
The aim is to sell their wines direct to customers, as well as to local restaurants and pubs.
"People prefer to meet the owners of the vineyard and also walk among the vines before tasting. We will be offering guided tours or self guided tours," adds Pod.
"We are delighted with the finish of the barn and have maintained the old fashioned timber and roof contruct but have combined this with a modern twist with a polished heated concrete floor and contemporary bar and terrace."
They took the plunge and decided to convert the barn after being awarded a "substantial" grant through the European Union's Leader scheme to help rural tourism.
"We see all this as a crucial part of the diversification from the farm," says Pod.