Exploring the wines made in the hills around Stratford
What better way to celebrate than with a bottle of wine made from grapes grown on land that once belonged to Shakespeare. Gill Oliver went to the Welcombe Hill Vineyard to find out about the successful wine business on our doorstep.
Most of us cracked open a bottle or two to toast the festive season.
And it’s increasingly likely the sauvignon blanc or pinot noir your were quaffing was made right here in the UK.
Thanks to warmer weather and skilled producers on this side of the Channel, the British wine business is booming.
Sales jumped by almost a third to reach seven million bottles in 2020, according to wine trade association Wine GB.
It’s true that most of the 800 vineyards are in the south but there’s also a thriving industry in other regions of the British Isles, including Stratford.
Meet husband and wife Nichola and Jonathan Kelsey of Welcombe Hills Vineyard who grow the grapes for medal-winning white, red and sparkling wines.
Pretty impressive for a couple who fell into the wine business only four years ago.
They left London in 2017 after falling in love with a house on Welcombe Hill, that happened to come with a small vineyard.
“We’d always wanted to find a house that offered a second income and we stumbled across this place. But not for one moment did we imagine we’d have a vineyard in the future,” Nichola said.
Vineyards, even small ones, are incredibly labour-intensive, the pair soon discovered.
Armed with copious notes from previous owners Chris and Jane Gallimore who planted the vines in 2001, they set about speaking to a winery, pouring over books and wine-making guides and watching YouTube videos.
“A lot of it is self-taught or what you’d call trial and error,” Nichola explained.
She recalled how they over-enthusiastically pruned the vines in their first winter. Luckily, they quickly realised their error, so only eight were adversely affected and didn’t produce any grapes the following summer. But if they hadn’t stopped when they did, it would have ruined the entire harvest.
The official growing season runs from May to September, but a huge amount needs to be done throughout the rest of the year such as winter pruning, tying down, bud-rubbing and leaf-thinning.
Between mid-September to mid-October, it’s all hands on deck for the harvest and once the grapes are harvested, they’re sent to a winery in South Staffordshire to be crushed, pressed and fermented in steel tanks.
The wine is then bottled and returned to the vineyard where it can be bought either in-person or via the online store which offers free delivery within 20 mile radius. It’s also stocked by a number of independent shops.
The combination of south-facing land, rocky clay soil and good drainage down to the Avon seems to provide ideal conditions for growing.
So, despite having only two-and-a-half acres of vines, the duo grow no less than nine varieties of grapes, including pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, bacchus, chardonnay, kerner, Dornfelder and auxerrois and seyval blanc and pinot noir précoce.
Having produced a highly respectable 4,500 bottles this year, they’re expecting to top 5,000 by the end of 2022.
And while managing the vineyard, they’re also busy caring for their two sons, aged nine and six.
“They really enjoy learning about all the things we’re doing and when it comes to bud-rubbing and leaf rubbing, they’re the perfect height,” Nichola joked.
As if owning their own vineyard isn’t romantic enough, it turns out Nichola and Jonathan’s land was once owned by the Shakespeare family. It’s with a nod to this heritage that their wines were named Twelfth Night, Othello, The Tempest, Ophelia and A Rose by any other Name.
The duo won silver medals in the national Wine GB awards for whites Twelfth Night and The Tempest, as well as red Othello and sparkling rosé Ophelia. Plus they were awarded bronze for still rosé A Rose by any other Name.
“That gave us confidence and encouragement to carry on,” Nichola said.
The couple planted another 2,000 vines this year which will be ready to harvest in 2024, doubling capacity to 10,000 bottles.
Up until recently, Nichola was working in the events business and Jonathan in marketing, so they’re harnessed their skills to run vineyard tours and wine tastings, offer an ‘adopt-a-vine’ scheme and launch a range of gin blended with white wine.
“We’ve found people are keen to support local businesses and are often pleasantly surprised to find they have a local vineyard on the doorstep,” Nichola said.
“We get a lot of people on our tours who didn’t know you could grow grapes in the Midlands and haven’t experienced English wine before, so it’s wonderful being able to introduce customers to the industry.
She added: “We’re really proud of our wine and that’s borne out in the awards that we’ve won but we also encourage people to try different grapes and vintages, because there’s some truly fantastic English wine throughout the country.”