The future looks rosé
PUBLISHED: 11:46 11 August 2015 | UPDATED: 13:46 14 August 2015
Tessa Allingham meets Elaine Heeler and Vanessa Tucker, a year after they took ownership of Valley Farm Vineyards at Wissett and discovers it's been an eventful 12 months
Elaine’s fingers touch a precious bud, just beginning to unfurl its tiny, tender first leaves. The nub of new life is tucked under a gnarled trunk, sheltered from the wind and penetrating rain that we dodge, hoods up, heads down, chilled. It was clearly encouraged by the previous week’s warm sunshine, now perhaps wishing it hadn’t been so eager.
But there are smiles all round because this little bud, a Madeleine Angevine grape in the making, signals the start of a new cycle of vine growth, fruit harvest and wine making in this corner of Suffolk.
It’s the second time Elaine Heeler and Vanessa Tucker have witnessed bud-burst since buying Valley Farm Vineyards in Wissett near Halesworth in early 2014 – and it’s cause for celebration.
“Apart from anything else, we’re glad to have got to the end of pruning!” Vanessa laughs. “The idea is to start after the first frost, which for us was just before Christmas, and to be done before bud-burst. We do everything by hand here so it really does take an age.” Pruning done, early summer offers a calmer few weeks in the annual schedule, time for crop management, looking out for fungus or botrytis and spraying accordingly.
“We have to spray unfortunately in this climate,” says Vanessa. They show me round the eight acres of vines – Madeleine Angevine and Pinot Gris for the white wine, Auxerrois, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier for the bubbly. It was public-sector redundancy and the search for better quality of life that brought the pair here, leaving family and friends behind in Manchester.
“We knew we wanted to find a horticulture business of some sort,” says Elaine, “but never thought it would be wine. But we like a challenge.” Elaine headed off to Plumpton College in Lewes and a course in viticulture, Vanessa went to Myerscough in Lancashire to learn the horticulture side of vineyard management.
Has the past year been what they expected? “This time last year I was apprehensive, now I feel a lot more confident,” says Vanessa, quick to mention invaluable support from the East Anglian Vineyard Assocation, and the help of Easton and Otley College student Will Robinson, who works two days a week, Laurence Leonard, a regular volunteer, and John Warren, busy planting new vines shipped in from Alsace among the original rows of Auxerrois and Pinot Gris. He knows the vines well, having been part of the team that planted the original rows in 1987.
One of the first things Vanessa and Elaine built was a large wooden shed, a workers’ retreat for welcome breaks, where visitors can also taste the wines. It’s a comfortable space, with patchy phone reception and no electricity, a generator rumbling into action when required. Before it was built they lived out of the car and, without furniture, had camping mats at home.
“We’ve had to adapt quickly. I don’t think either of us expected it to be such a total commitment,” says Vanessa. Things became a whole lot more complex back in March when Elaine suffered an aneurysm. She’s on the mend, but vital rest has left Vanessa taking decisions, doing physical work and managing the helpers alone.
The aneurysm was what the couple might call ‘a Chile moment’. They travelled there for a three-week cycle adventure over Christmas 2012, a ‘stickability’ test to make sure they could handle tough situations. “We’ve always worked on the principle of ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. Now, if something’s going wrong or not to plan we’ll say it’s a Chile moment.”
The low points, however, are outweighed by the pride they feel at the row of bottles on the shelf. The 2014 rosé, a blend of Valley Farm Auxerrois, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier has arrived from Cornish winemaker, Knightor. Peachy and fresh-looking behind a classy label depicting an 18th century map of the locality, it’s surprisingly dry, the merest tickle of fizz making it a happy summer party drink.
“Knightor are very experienced with our grapes,” Elaine explains. “We have just 650 bottles, enough for us to sell, and there’s a bubbly coming in August from the 2013 vintage.” Next to the rosé are some of the remaining 2013 Madeleine Angevine, recommended as an aperitif or accompaniment to seafood, and the 2011 blush sparkling Gloriana. Much is sold at the cellar door, or at nearby St Peter’s Brewery, and the pair are in talks with the East of England Co-op.
“The market is growing for English wine, but with such small production it is obviously more expensive,” says Vanessa. “English sparkling wine has always been a good bet because sparkling wine doesn’t need the fruit to ripen as much as a red does, but we’re seeing more English reds because of the warmer weather.”
I’m sent on my way with a bottle of rosé for the weekend. It’s Wednesday and I don’t wait for the recommended al fresco summer evening before opening it. I let it chill and find the flinty dryness is balanced with enough fruit to bring joy to a rainy midweek 6pm slot very nicely. Try it.
For information on Wine Experience days run by Helen Duddridge of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, or to visit Valley Farm Vineyards, go to www.valleyfarmvineyards.co.uk.