English vineyard tours have been making headlines for years, and the internet is awash with excitement about London's first whisky distillery, yet Welsh wine and whisky have so far remained under-appreciated. Today, the tide is finally turning. We sent Eleanor Aldridge on a road trip around the Welsh countryside to find out more.
Welsh wine and whisky are starting to be taken seriously. It’s been ten years since the first barrel of Welsh whisky was unstoppered and over fifteen years since the inaugural cork was popped on a bottle of Welsh wine. Fast-forward to today, and the country is home to over twenty vineyards and a couple of distilleries.
With the tentativeness of a Londoner venturing outside the M25 for the first time, critics are slowly coming round. English sparkling wines once shocked the wine community by beating champagne in blind tastings, and with a growing collection of international awards, Welsh producers are on track to do the same. The weather here is ideal for barrel ageing – damp days reduce the “angels’ share” (evaporation) – and cool-climate German varieties like Pinot Noir and Müller-Thurgau are thriving alongside the undisputed star, Bacchus.
Yet it’s only in the last few years that small-scale producers have started to offer tours and tastings. It’s an exciting opportunity. The wine and whisky trail is opening up new parts of this beautiful country, and while the drinks may shatter your preconceptions, it’s the warmth of the farmers, winemakers and distillers that’s likely to leave a lasting impression. If you want to find out how wines and spirits go from field to fireside, there’s no better place to do it.
You’ll be in good company, too, following in the improbable footsteps of Prince Charles and the Hairy Bikers. Fortunately you won’t need a royal entourage or TV crew, but there are a few things to help you on your way: a car, a designated driver and a bit of practice pronouncing “iechyd da” – cheers.
WHISKY IN THE BRECON BEACONS AND BEYOND
Successfully navigate the switchbacks leading down from the Brecon Beacons, passing wild ponies and waterfalls along the roadside, and you’ll find yourself at the first Welsh distillery for more than a hundred years, Penderyn.
They’re understandably keen to blow their own trumpet. Video presentations inform you that since 2004 they’ve picked up a host of IWSC awards and that their range is sold in sixteen countries. More interesting is a sample of clear, 92 per cent spirit straight from their still, and a sniff inside the ex-sherry, madeira and port barrels used to age the whiskies. Old bourbon casks are classically used to impart character, depth and colour, but Penderyn are experimenting with these more distinctive finishes.
Photograph by Eleanor Aldridge
When it comes to tasting their single malts, you’ll want to give them a good “cwtch” first. This little “cuddle” warms the whisky, allowing the flavours to evolve. If you dare to add water, you’ll need to know what you’re doing: try filling an empty glass with water then pouring it out, leaving barely a dewy-sheen, then add the whisky – just two drops of water are needed to soften the spirit.
Further west at Dà Mhìle in Ceredigion, a dynamic family team is also making inroads on the spirits scene. They previously shipped their wash up to Springbank in Scotland, but now have a their own still, and will be producing and ageing whisky on site. During the hands-on tour of their secluded farm they take visitors through the workings of a small-scale distillery. Their passion for experimentation is infectious.
Visitors can put their tastebuds to test trying to detect foraged gorse, elderflower and camomile among the botanicals in their gin, or sample their signature seaweed-infused special. “We have tried it with oysters”, admits distiller John-James. “That’s kind of the most decadent way of having this stuff. Have an oyster, pour the gin into the shell and drink it from there.”
VINEYARDS IN THE WYE VALLEY
Back towards the English border lies the heartland of the Welsh wine industry: the Wye Valley. Sandstone cottages, farmland and narrow lanes – their banks once built up by drovers to herd sheep – distinguish these low hills from the otherworldly Beacons. These landscapes inspired what some claim to be the first British travel guide, Observations on the River Wye, by the Reverend William Gilpin, along with the likes of Turner and Wordsworth, in the 1700s.
White Castle is one of the newer vineyards here. Congenial owners Robb and Nicola are gradually turning the grazing land behind their Grade II listed stone barns over to grape growing. Their personal tours offer an insight into modern viticulture, while a glass of their mulberry-laced Rondo is proof that red grapes can be grown successfully here. A Welsh red will never have the powerful tannins of a Malbec or intensity of a Cabernet Sauvignon (which need warmer weather to ripen), but those who favour lighter, delicate wines are in luck.
A trip to Wernddu Organics is less structured. Phoenix, Schonburger and Seyval Blanc vines share this small farm with a herd of friendly alpacas (remember that they like to spit). Their unusual, oaked Pinot Noir rosé is only sold on-site, a contrast to wines made at nearby Ancre Hill, which are already popping up at the likes of Fortnum & Mason.
Photograph by Eleanor Aldridge
The more traditional Parva Farm boasts beautiful views towards the ruins of Tintern Abbey. “When we first came here there was real surprise that there was a vineyard in Wales”, remembers charming owner Judith Dudley. Things are a little different these days. On slopes once planted by the Romans, they now grow the aromatic Bacchus – a grape aptly named after the Roman god of wine. More unusual is their spicy mead. The recipe for this ancient honey wine was honed here by the Abbey’s monks several hundred years ago.
WINEMAKING AROUND THE FOREST OF DEAN
For now, the only thing many Wye Valley vineyards lack is a winery. Most schlep their grapes over the border to use the facilities at Three Choirs. With their smart restaurant and vineyard-view hotel rooms, Three Choirs offers a glimpse into the future of the Welsh wine industry. Their slick tour explains their rise from humble fruit farm to a 250,000-bottle-a-year behemoth.
The highlight of the tasting is the little-known Siegerrebe (a cross between Madeleine Angevine and Gewürztraminer). Its heady elderflower scent is wonderfully evocative of British summer days – a fitting image to end this “grape” escape.
NEED TO KNOW
There are a variety of self-catering cottages near the border at the enchanting Puzzlewood, a Tolkein-esque forest of moss and ferns amid a weathered iron ore mine. Further west, you can wake up to views of the Brecon Beacons at the Old Rectory Stables near Abergavenny.
Jill Berryman’s specialty is setting up surprise woodland proposals, but she’ll also delight wine-wearied palates with gourmet picnics across the Wye Valley. A restorative bowl of cawl, the national lamb, potato, carrot and swede soup, at the idiosyncratic Penn y Cae Inn is is the ideal post-Penderyn treat (look out for the meerkat enclosure in the back garden). Pub-lovers should hole up in a booth at the Ostrich Inn after a visit to Three Choirs.
It’s around a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Welsh border from London. We travelled with Rhino Car Hire.