‘Excellent’ grapes set vineyard owners on course for another vintage year
PUBLISHED: 14:09 25 September 2020 | UPDATED: 15:23 25 September 2020
It’s been a harvest of two halves for farmer and vineyard owner Angus Crowther.
On the one hand his cereal crops suffered the same fate as many across East Anglia as yields plummeted.
On the other, his grape harvest has been exceptionally good so far.
With grapes still to harvest and rain set in, it’s a constantly changing picture. But Tuffon Hall Vineyard – set in the beautiful rolling hills of Sible Hedingham, near Halstead – is so far toasting a very good crop indeed.
MORE – Vineyard owners ‘chuffed to bits’ after striking gold at national WineGB awards
Since turning his hand to grapes nine years ago, Angus has set about bringing his expert farming knowledge to bear on a crop which is as intriguing as the vintage wines it produces.
It has also meant learning a whole new set of skills as he and wife Pod set about perfecting the art of making the perfect wine.
Their efforts have paid off and this year the vineyard has scooped an impressive haul of awards including a national WineGB gold award for its Pinot Rosé Beatrice 2019 – also the East Anglian winner – and silver for its Amélie 2019 Bacchus wine. It collected an East Anglian Vineyards Association (EAVA) gold medal for its Classic Cuvée 2018, its grapeskin gin took silver at the International Wine & Spirit (IWSC) awards and its Bacchus also scooped a silver award at the London Wine Competition.
What’s extraordinary about the WineGB wins, says Angus, is that they were up against the might of some big players, including “the multi, multi-millionaires in Sussex”.
Pod and Angus are convinced it is their farming skills which have given them the edge when it comes to producing bumper yields – and great grapes.
“I think it’s because of our farming background we win these awards,” admits Angus.
The Crowthers might also be helped by analysis which suggests Essex as the best UK county for grape growing when it comes to climate. Added to this the couple have adopted a professional approach. People grow grapes for different reasons, but for Angus and Pod, it’s a farm business.
“It’s a crop, but a lot of them (vineyard owners) are romantic and have a dreamy idea of walking through the vines,” explains Pod.
This year’s crop is looking “fantastic”, she says. The couple harvested their Bacchus grapes at the weekend (September 19/20) following a good dose of sunshine and were looking forward to moving on to their other grape varieties.
For Angus, it will provide a bright spot in what’s been a difficult year for his cereal crops.
Yields have been poor on the cereal side, he admits. Wheat yields were down by about 25%, barley by about 30% – and that follows a bumper cereal crop year last year.
“We had the wettest winter every, then the driest spring ever,” he explains. “However, the grapes have been excellent.”
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Despite the weather setbacks, this year and last the grapes have enjoyed the hot summers, and Angus hopes this will mean another crop of top quality wines.
Last year, they enjoyed a bumper Bacchus grape harvest of 5.4t/acre and this year it was 5.1t/acre “which is still exceptional”, says Angus. “I’m really pleased with it. On average, people get 2t/acre so it’s amazing.
Key to their success, he believes, has been the growing expertise of farm stalwart Leslie Hardy, 75, the vineyard manager, who took on the role aged 65 and has known all four generations of the Crowther farming family. “He’s so diligent and attentive to the growth stages,” says Angus.
An automatic frost fan purchased three years ago really came into its own when a hard frost threatened the crop in May. Many vineyards suffered severe damage forcing them to buy in grapes from other vineyards for their wines, but theirs was limited to just 1% or 2% of the crop. As a “single estate” vineyard, using only their own grapes, this was essential, he explains.
“We are proud it all comes from one place – increasingly people ask for that. You can charge a premium and also each vintage is the vintage,” he adds.
So rather than blending grapes from different seasons in order to create a uniform product, vintages from Tuffon Hall will vary year by year. “It’s that year and people quite like that. You don’t get that commoditised house style,” says Angus.
Before investing in the fan, Leslie would be out on cold nights lighting bales of hay to save the grapes, explains Angus. “That was a game-changer for us because it meant we had a 5t/acre Bacchus yield. Bacchus is the best grape we grow in East Anglia – it really likes it here.”
The grapes go off-site to a contract winery near Maldon to be made into wine, but Tuffon Hall has its own tanks there and the wine is made to Tuffon Hall’s exacting specifications.
The wines are all named after the couple’s three daughters – Amélie Bacchus, Beatrice Rosé and Charlotte sparkling pink. Only son, Hamish, has no namesake.
Last year the couple opened up a lovingly restored 400-year-old threshing house next to the main house as they expand their wine and events business. Angus is an unusual – and well-travelled – farmer as he chose to study modern languages and international marketing at Newcastle University rather than agriculture. He went on to become an advertising executive before returning to the family farm to join father, Michael. He’s now a fourth generation farmer, following in the footsteps of his grandmother, Bunty Crowther, and her father Frank Ruffel.
“I like being here now but I wouldn’t have liked being here at 25,” he admits.
It’s given him a different outlook to many others in his sector. “It’s useful to have that external perspective,” he says. “It’s useful not to follow the herd.”
Despite the many challenges his business faces as a result of the coronavirus pandemic he remains optimistic. After lockdown, customers beat a path to their door to take delivery of their socially distanced wine orders – making up for losses on the hospitality side when hotels and restaurants closed.
“We had queues of people and May was our best month for sales ever,” he says.
They are now taking bookings into 2023 for their weddings business.
“We are trying to get ourselves in the best possible shape so when we come out (of the pandemic) we are going to take advantage of it,” says Angus.
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