After visiting Three Choirs, I decided to cross the border into Wales and visit Wernddu Winery. Run by husband and wife team Frank and Leigh Strawford, their one and a quarter acre vineyard in the heart of Monmouthshire is densely planted with over 2000 vines and, unusually is entirely organic. In 2002, they planted two hundred Reichensteiner vines in their sandy clay loam soils. In the past decade they have put down more disease resistant varieties including Phoenix, Pinot Noir and Seyval Blanc, and are one of only two vineyards in Wales with a winery on site.
But what appeals most about this vineyard is the atmosphere you get when you visit it. There isn't any fancy winery in a purpose built facility with perfectly manicured vineyards. This is their home, a farmhouse with a few outbuildings down high banked roads in the hills above Monmouth. Alpacas stroll around a pasture next to the vineyard with killer geese chasing off any trespassers. Roger the dog potters around the place while pipe smoking Frank makes his wines in small tanks that fill up the garage when he isn't tinkering with the classic motorbike that he has spent the past twenty years restoring. The couple do absolutely everything from planting to weeding to making the wine and selling it at farmers markets, it is the sort of place you can't help liking.
And I couldn't help liking Frank. Having sold up his business, he learnt how to make wine by 'going on a couple of courses' and then put some vines in the ground, covered them with muck and hoped they would grow. And grow they did, ending up "fourteen bloody feet tall". They drank the first harvest, and then started making wine properly after that. He is the first person to tell you what is not perfect with his vineyards and wines. The PH of the vineyard is too low, being organic is his biggest problem and you get the impression that his vineyard is too densely planted for his liking, but he has a wonderfully positive energy coming off him it really doesn't matter. He took me into the garage to try some tank samples.
Firstly was the 2011 Wernddu White Wine, a blend of Reichensteiner and Phoenix. It had a bright lemon aroma with some banana coming off that was quite tasty. Nicely balanced, even though it was from tank, and I'd be happy drinking that any day of the week. The next tank sample was a 2010 & 2011 Pinot Noir. Frank had intended on trying to make a red Pinot Noir in 2010 but it got to being a rosé and then stopped extracting colour from the skins. Undeterred, he made it again in 2011 and the same thing happened, so he tipped all the second year's wine into the first and threw in some oak chips. Too many oak chips. So what is he going to do for 2012? Probably the same, but, assuming he leaves it oak free, he might be able to balance out this tri-vintage pink wine. The sample I had was actually quite nice. Sure, there was too much oak, but it had lovely sweet berries, a slight seriousness to it as well that gave it some structure. I thought it quite pleasant.
Frank very kindly gave me a couple of bottles to take away with me, a single varietal Regant and firstly, a very old Chardonnay.
The 1994 (yep, that isn't a typo) Wernddu Chardonnay was grown in a now defunct vineyard in Chepstow in south Monmouthshire. After being sat in a vacuum tank for a decade, Frank tried it and didn't think that much of it. Then after a small while he tried it again, thought 'actually, that's not bad' and put it into bottle. It had a musky aroma with some honey and apple coming off the nose and a lemon hint as well. A simple palate, a touch old for my liking with some pencil lead minerality and a bit of tart sweet citrus mixed with Granny Smiths apple flavour. Nicely drinkable, needs some food with it though, but considering its age and price (£7.00 per bottle!) it a great wine tasting experience. 82pts
I then tried his 2004 Wernddu Regent. I'd been told by Three Choirs that they weren't able to make good, bigger bodied reds, but over the border in Wales, Frank and Leigh had done just that. This wine had oodles of big, juicy dried fruit mingling with very ripe plum, cinnamon and a lot of perfume and clay. It made me think of a southern Italian wine that has had some of the grapes dried in the sun. The palate has more of the dried sweet up front fruit, and then settles with a dry, earthy note. There is then a hole in the mid palate before sweeter berries come back with some tar like flavours and a bit of sweet tobacco. The only thing that is stopping this wine being great is that hole, that could be fixed by blending it with something else. Even with that glitch, it is a good, solid wine that they should be proud of. 87pts
I like Frank, I like his vineyard, his experimental philosophy and his tiny winery in Wales. I liked his wines as well, and I think that his older wines are a solid base on which to make better wines - the tank samples I tried proving this point. I hope to visit Wernddu again in a couple of years and I know that he will have taken his wines up another level. In the meantime, I really do suggest you pay him a visit and buy a few of his wines from the cellar, sorry, garage door.
Regent is a dark skinned grape created in 1967 by breeding Silvaner and Müller Thurgau with Chambourcin. The grape has medium levels of acidity and can be quite tannic and is mainly seen in Germany and the UK.