English sparkling wine is on the up – there’s no doubt about that. It’s been served at many prestigious events, ranging from the Oscars to the marriage of Kate and Wills.
Laying claim as one of the smallest vineyards in the UK, certainly one of the smallest commercial vineyards, was that of Laithwaites; the UK mail order wine empire founded by Tony Laithwaite. This year the company celebrates 50 years of bringing quality wines to you, direct from the cellar door.
Being a Windsor native Tony was keen to keep his local roots, but when the business had outgrown their humble railway arch premises, he was looking for suitable land to grow the business.
In a south facing site located just off the M4 in the Berkshire town of Theale, he found enough space for the office and, in the barren land in the back where the builders were storing their machinery and redundant materials, the space to plant a vineyard.
In 1998, under the supervision of Champagne doyen Thierry Lesne, 704 Chardonnay vines were planted over a mere 0.14 of a hectare. In addition to being a commercial venture and marketing tool for customers, the vines doubled as both a staff labour of love (each vine was tagged with one of their names) and for training exercises. The first vintage was the 2002.
Situated directly across from road from Theale train station, the shelter and heat of the surrounding estate buildings were enablers to coaxing out the full maturity of the grapes. Even with the most meticulous of hand harvesting, grape picking took just a couple of hours.
With no vinification facilities on site Tony consulted his address book, roping in the late Mike Roberts of English Sparkling legends Ridgeview to produce the final cuvée. With the 2003 giving 756 bottles, the bumper crop of 2004 giving 1,274 and the much smaller 2011 giving 600 bottles, the average yearly yield for the site was around just 750 bottles per year.
When Laithwaites decided to relocate their HQ a few years later the landlord requested that the vineyard be removed at the same time, and 2015 saw the last grape harvest from the Theale site.
It was impossible though to consider that the vines should simply be ripped up. Uprooting any well-established plant is usually folly, but doing it 704 times would be unthinkable. Wouldn’t it?
Using industrial machinery, the removal of the vines commenced in March 2016 and, against the odds, they were successfully transported over 100 miles away to Devon where they now thrive once again.
Sadly, and such is the nature of progress, the Theale vineyard land is now the flat, grey and uninspiring dispatch area for online giant Amazon.
The recently released, but increasingly rare 2012 is now available. The next couple of years will see the arrival of the ‘13, ’14 and ‘15. The last vintages from a vineyard that no longer exists. Rare wine indeed.
Tony Laithwaite’s book ‘Direct’, detailing the history behind the rise of his current empire, is now available via various book retailers including Amazon.