02 January 2012

welsh wine: ancre hill estates

Another year, more struggling. I didn't mean for the blog to come to a crashing halt in December. There were the usual holiday excuses; then in my alternate life working for a fashion company we opened a new shop in Paris. But I find it helpful to be reminded now and then that time spent drinking and writing about it is dear, moreso even than the wines under discussion...

Over the holidays I spent a few days in London and a few days in Wales. This means that once I get through a backlog of observations on Piemonte (still!), Burgundy, and Barcelona, readers can expect my customary spiteful quasi-Marxist critique of all UK wine culture. Actually I will have some nice things to say about one or two London discoveries, chief among them Raef Hodgson and 40 Maltby St. / Gergovie Imports.  

Quite predictably, there were rather less drinking options on the Welsh leg of my trip. My friends and their families and I were holed away in an adorable cabin in Snowdonia, unable to leave or see the sun due to constant freezing rain from all directions and the associated risk of pneumonia. We kept the fires lit; charades prompts grew increasingly obscene. Wines of discernible aesthetic interest ran out after the first night. I did, however, salvage a few impressions of one noteworthy wine, though I'll admit my interest was more cultural than aesthetic: a 2008 Welsh Sparkling Wine from Ancre Hill Estates, a family run domaine of 9 acres or so in Monmouth.

I'd picked it up at Fortnum & Mason, where last year I'd vaguely sworn never to return for wineshopping purposes. My excuse is I found myself in the area, and needed to buy several bottles of Bodegas Hidalgo's basic Manzanilla, which is relatively cheap in London and seemingly not distributed whatsoever in Paris. In perusing the British wine section I turned up the Ancre Hill, and in a fit of indulgant holiday dementia I purchased it for the forbiddingly high price of £25. I know  sparkling wine production isn't cheap. But coming from Paris it is impossible not to remember I could've had Vouette et Sorbée for around the same price. 

Richard and Joy Morris planted Ancre Hill's Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Seyval Blanc, and Triomphe in 2006-2007, so irrespective of other factors, it seems unrealistic to expect Champagne-levels of complexity in the wines. Also, I found out later that the 2008 we tasted, from Seyval Blanc, is their first vintage of sparkling wine; previous they've won regional awards for their still wines. (Though the concept of a Welsh regional wine award strikes me as being like an award for South African snowboarding.)

I have something in the realm of zero experience tasting Seyval Blanc, it being grown principally in England and New York. Given that England's winemaking culture is relatively very young, it concerns me that so much production is devoted to a lot of anonymous nobody hybrid varieties, many apparently chosen for their market-viability in cool climates rather than their potential for profundity or even marked typicity. I imagine this was partly a marketing decision; in the global marketplace nations have an incentive to 'brand' their wines with the association with distinctive varieties not grown elsewhere. Hence Seyval Blanc, hence Bacchus, etc. Until I taste real quality from these grapes I'll continue to suspect they're better for snacking than drinking.

If after this Christmas I'm still curious about Welsh / UK wine in general, and about Ancre Hill Estates in particular, it's because I read the latter are in conversion to biodynamy, and because the genre as a whole - a new cool-climate European wine region ! - still has massive novelty value. No one at the table, thank God, knew I'd paid Champagne prices at Fork-It-Over & Mason for what turned out to be a somewhat faceless, medium acid, gently pear-fruited sparkler. We clinked glasses, and tucked into the first of many massive meals. 

Related Links: 

A profile of Ancre Hill @ MadeInMonmouthshire
A 2010 mention of Ancre Hill in a typically flighty useless mass-market newspaper round-up of wineseller recommendations @ TheTelegraph

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