The UK’s smallest commercial vineyard?

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.

Tony in the Vines

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.

Trains Opposite

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.

Safe in Devon

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.

Now v2

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.

2012 Vintage

Tony Laithwaite’s book ‘Direct’, detailing the history behind the rise of his current empire, is now available via various book retailers including Amazon.

 

 

Laithwaites Autumn Press Tasting – Standout Sparklers!

One of the suppliers I rely on for my wine consumption is Laithwaites.  Having been a customer of theirs for several years and liking to taste widely I was comfortable that I had tasted a good portion of their wines on offer.

I found out how wrong I was at their recent Autumn tasting, held at their flagship London store near to London Bridge.  My pre-tasting strategy was originally going to focus on tasting familiar wines in a critical environment and trying the wider ranges of my favourite producers but, as it transpired, I had only tasted a mere handful of the wines presented.

laith-press-taste

Upon arrival I was warmly greeted by wine buyer Beth Willard who has been responsible for sourcing some of my previously blogged about favourites from Romania (Paris Street) and I spent the afternoon tasting alongside such luminaries as Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, Julia Harding MW and Victoria Moore (wine correspondent for the Telegraph).

With 155 wines on show I managed to taste just over half of them over the course of several hours.  I won’t go too far in to detailed tasting notes as these can be a chore to read if you’re not a Laithwaites customer and think you may never ever taste the wine, but I will pick out my highlights; wines that I felt privileged to taste or producers that I think you may consider to follow in the future.

In this first half of my report I will list my favourites amongst the Sparkling wines on offer.

Laithwaites Theale Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Berkshire, England, 12%, £24.99

These vineyards and the Laithwaites head office are only a short drive away from where I live in Berkshire and so I will always be a big supporter.  The 2011 vintage in the UK was something of a roller-coaster with a great start followed by a lack-lustre summer followed by great harvesting conditions.

This pure Chardonnay had a lovely light and airy palate, a fresh and quaffable mousse and focussed on the citric forward lemon qualities.  With a touch of nice bitterness on the back palate to add some substance, this was at once immediate and yet structured enough to see some mid-range ageing.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV Champagne, France, 12%, £42

Charles Heidsieck continually win award after award and so I naturally gravitated towards this bottle.  A lovely gold colour in the glass and a rich bold lemon flavour on the nose, this blends complexity with a light quaffability that just evaporates in the mouth.

Given that 40% of this NV blend comes from reserve wines that can be over a decade old it’s easy to understand how they marry such depth with such immediacy.  Long-lasting finish.

blanc-des-millenaires-95

Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995, Champagne, France, 12%, £120

Moving up the quality ladder and on to their prestige offering I must admit that I didn’t spit this wine out as tasting etiquette would dictate, and I also went back for seconds!

There is the customary biscuit and bread notes of a lees aged Champagne on the nose. With 21 years under its belt this wine manages to retain an awesome freshness with a lush acid that makes the palate almost evaporate.  As well as the customary citrus notes there is a lovely moodiness that permeates throughout.  Delicious.

I’ll leave it there for the Sparkling on show (with a small apology that the above doesn’t even touch upon the myriad of different levels of Prosecco available), but a final honourable mention must go to the:

Lanson Noble Cuvée Brut 2000, Champagne, France, 12.5%, £90

I’d personally had two bottles of this previously and the first showed wonderfully, being both fresh for 16 years old, as well as deep with honeyed ageing characters.

The second bottle that I opened, which I did with friends on a special occasion, had an over-whelming blue cheese nose that carried on to the palate.  I hastily retired the bottle believing it to be something of a fault but, when trying the Vintage again at this tasting, the blue cheese note was once again evident.

I chatted this through with wine buyer Davy Zyw who could detect what I was referring to but felt it was a natural part of the overall evolution of the wine as opposed to a fault.  It was certainly interesting to compare them but I remain unconvinced that the cleaner wine was the odd one out.

Checking the official Lanson tasting notes it certainly makes no mention of it, and offers up traits of honey, pear and spices instead.  It therefore remains a mystery to me at this time as to which bottle wasn’t showing correctly.  Intriguing.

In my next piece based on the tasting I will go in to the best of the whites and reds that I tried and would recommend.

With thanks to MHP Communications and Laithwaites for inviting me to this event.

Enjoyed this article?  Please take a moment to ‘Like’ and share using the buttons below. Keep looking around my site for more of the same.  Cheers!