A breed apart
I am beginning to think that I should, for the sake of the English wine industry, stop visiting our 160-odd vineyards. With every visit I make, I bring with me the sort of weather that can wipe out an entire vintage.
I once arrived at a vineyard in a thunder storm - and my more recent trip to Bothy Vineyards at Frilford Heath came on a day when freezing temperatures and biting winds were a real threat to the all-important bud development. I can understand why Bothy's owner and winemaker, Richard Liwicki, was looking a tad nervous.
Still, English winemakers are made of stern stuff, and despite the appalling weather we strode off into the vineyards. Richard and his wife, Sian, have five acres in total, and one of the sites most striking features is its flatness.
Flat ground such as this makes frost a real threat, and I am not surprised to learn that a late frost in May 2005 meant that the entire crop was lost.
As I say, the likes of Richard are an optimistic breed and, with a gentle shrug of the shoulders, he moves quickly on to all that is good about the Bothy site.
The deep, sandy soils offer both excellent drainage and warmth while the trees that surround the vineyard provide a buffer to the worst that the weather has to offer.
Bothy is the only estate in Oxfordshire to being doing everything from grape growing to fermenting and bottling on-site.
The vineyards were originally planted in 1978, giving Richard an enviable history of how different vines have performed on the site over the last 30 years. This information has proved invaluable in developing the optimum pruning system for his vines and also which varieties are worth keeping and which are better grubbed up.
It's with a wry smile that Richard talks about Optima; a grape variety he says it would have been more accurate to name pesima'. He found it difficult to train along the trellis system they've employed in the vineyard and became increasingly frustrated with it's sickly personality. On short, it had to go.
With Optima out of the equation, Richard's two current wines are a blend of Ortega, Perle, Findling, Huxelrube and Abalogna. The latter of these was a new one on me and doesn't even feature in my wine books at home. Its anonymity is of no concern to Richard who is focused solely on ensuring that his collective gang of grapes will each year deliver him the necessary components to deliver a high-quality wine. Abalogna secures its place on the team by being a late-ripener that holds its acidity well; a great asset in those years when other varieties have too low levels of acidity.
More recently, Richard has introduced plantings of red grape varieties. Dornfelder, Dunkenfelder, Regent and Rondo were all planted in 2004 and a first red for the estate must be imminent. "There's less science and more art in red wine making it could well take two to three years to get right" explains Richard.
By now we have left the vineyard and are starting to defrost in the winery. Bothy is the only estate in Oxfordshire to being doing everything from grape growing to fermenting and bottling on-site. My sense of scale has never been terribly reliable but I'm confident that this is the smallest winery I've ever seen.
I vividly recall seeing a Spanish bottling line at one of the country's biggest wineries some years ago. Each day a quarter of a million bottle were filled, labelled, put on pallets and loaded onto lorries with barely two-full time members of staff. At Bothy vineyards it takes 6 people to bottle 2000 wines a day on their substantially more modest bottling machine. And, if you're thinking that all that labour must mean an extra bob or two on the cost of the bottle; think again.
As with the previous owners, Richard and Sian recruit volunteers year round to help them with the work at the vineyard. If you want to get your hands dirty and have a go at harvesting or bottling then I'm sure they'd be only too happy to hear from you. I'm told you get a pretty good lunch (with wine) and if you're in charge of bottling there seems to be an understanding that there will be a few more breakages in the afternoon.
At the end of my visit there are three wines from the 2007 vintage to try. Oxford Dry is ever so slightly blush in appearance with excellent, clean, refreshing fruit. It's perfectly formed and delightful to drink. Next up is a Rosé which is a blend of all four of the red varieties and some Huxelrube too. It's not too long in bottle and at first it's a bit backward in coming forward. After ten minutes or so you begin to see what may yet be to come with some lovely bright red fruits. Renaissance is an off-dry wine that is made predominantly from Ortega. For me this was a wine that delivered lovely white orchard fruits on the nose and on the palate.
Each wine was clean, correct and really delightful to drink. It seems to me that if you are able to secure one of the 9000 bottles a year that Bothy Vineyards are currently producing, then you're pretty lucky. Each is available at £7.00.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that a vineyard operated on this scale, in the sometimes cruel British weather isn't the easiest way to make a living. For that reason, Richard continues to work three days a week and spends the rest of the time (weekends included!) in the vineyard. He acknowledges that all the family have had to make sacrifices. Because of the demands of the vineyard, holidays are rare - and short - and can only really be taken in winter.
Owning, running and making wines at Bothy Vineyards is, it seems to me, a real passion for Richard. He talks eagerly, engagingly and enthusiastically about his wines, his plans and English wine-making in general. I think that the industry is lucky to have him.
There's an excellent opportunity to visit and learn more about the vineyard during English Wine Week at the end of May. On the 24th, 25th, 26th & 31st May and 1st June you will be able to walk freely through the vineyards from 10.00 until 5.00 and see for yourself the work that's being done here. At 11.00 each morning you will also be able to take part in a free tour, being given by Richard himself. I can't recommend it highly enough.
Bothy Vineyard Faringdon Road Frilford Heath Oxon OX13 6QW 01865 390067 firstname.lastname@example.org