Holidaying abroad this year is tricky and a staycation may be on the cards, but before you book a long trek to Cornwall or the Highlands, why not consider the wine-country of Wales?
No, this is not a joke. Despite being relatively small on a global scale, Welsh wines won six awards at the recent International Wine Challenge blind-tasting and it now has over 30 vineyards, including the UK’s first ever Vineyard Hotel, the impossibly instagrammable Llanerch Vineyard in the romantic Vale of Glamorgan. At less than three hour’s drive from London, it’s perfect for that weekend away.
Llanerch’s award-winning hotel may seem like an amorous holiday for couples and it certainly can be. You can sip glasses of sparkling home-grown wine on your balcony overlooking the green fields and vineyards before heading to beds so large you can each starfish all night long without even touching. No one can be accused of hogging the mattress here. However, their 37 boutique rooms are perfect for families too and include some special dog-friendly ones too, so feel free to bring Fido along, especially given all the incredible local walks and the short drive to the nearby beaches.
Eating is all part of the experience here with award-winning Chef Andy Aston creating sustainable, seasonal and locally-sourced dishes from classic Welsh lamb to the more enterprising sea-trout and scallop sausage roll. The newly opened dining room is another picture-perfect moment, hung with warmly glowing lights and green foliage everywhere, an olive tree takes centre stage and every table has a view of the vines. Not being one to miss a magical-trick, once darkness falls the vines are lit by strings of fairy lights so that day or night you are in for a visual treat.
The atmosphere is one of slickly luxurious, convivial bubbliness which Ryan Davies the owner was inspired to create after his travels through New Zealand and the vineyard hospitality he witnessed there. What started as a 7 bedroom B&B in 2011 now also includes a function room for 80 and a marquee for weddings of up to 200 and this ‘man-with-a-plan’ intends to add a gym, spa and 6 more acres of vines in the near future.
Though it makes a perfect “tourist” get away, locals eat, drink and tour here too. The menu is paired with a variety of wines, including the Vineyard’s own range ‘Cariad’, which so impressed me I took home a bottle of their still blush rosé. Ryan predicts this will be their best-seller this summer but the bad news on that front is that they sell out so fast locally you can only buy them if you visit Llanerch itself.
However, one cannot spend all day sipping fine local wine on their sunny terrace, there are many other vineyards to explore in the area because Wales (a bit like prestigious Burgundy) has such a diverse range of climates, landscapes and styles that no two vineyards are alike and as we know, it pays to be wine-curious.
Just 20 minutes down the road and two minutes from the historic market town of Cowbridge is the oldest vineyard in Wales, Glyndwr, founded in 1979.
This three-generation, family-run vineyard is the epitome of charming, offering two 2-bed, self-catering cottages on the grounds, overlooking picturesque ponds and backing onto meadows of wild-flowers. A vineyard run mainly on organic principles, chickens, ducks and pheasants roam free, hedges grow wild to encourage birdlife and bees and ladybirds nest in the vineyard’s wood. Turn a corner and you may be in for a surprise with a buttercup strewn field full of mini-sheep to trim the grass and packs of friendly llamas. Part of the National Garden Scheme, Glyndwr even has orchards to create cider and apple brandy.
At 10am it was a little early to try the brandy, but I did sample the wine which is one of the few wines made in Wales that’s consistently stocked by Waitrose and whose Glyndwr Red was the first wine in history to win a double gold at the South Wales Vineyards Association competition.
While in France, founder Richard Norris was told it would not be possible to make wine in Wales, but he forged on with his dream and created an enchanting labour of love for his whole family. His son, Louis, remembers working in the vines when he was only two years old, though he did once plant an entire row accidentally upside down. Now his brother and their own children work the land today with their father taking visitors around on tours and their mother tending to the kitchen garden and preparing home cooked meals and platters for visitors such as quiches, coronation chicken and locally-picked strawberries.
They can host barn or marquee weddings for up to 65 but the emphasis here is on relaxation, going with the flow and doing what feels right for the land. Friendly and laid-back this is a place to kick off your shoes, open a bottle and watch the wildlife go by.
Wales has a reputation for being wet and rainy, but actually Monmouthshire has its own little micro-climate. It gets less rain a year than France’s Bordeaux and, with a similar climate to the Loire Valley, it is ideal for ripening a whole host of grapes including White Castle’s Pinot Noir, which just won the Silver Medal at the International Wine Challenge blind tasting. Another delicious bottle I could not help but take home with me.
Plumpton College Alumni, Robb and Nicola Merchant specialise in taking calculated gambles, which seem to continuously pay off in good quality wine. Originally from an agricultural (and royal mail) background, Robb purchased this land at auction to realise a life-long dream. Only later did they find the sweeping slopes contained a listed 16th Century barn which, while converting the milk shed into their own home, they have lovingly restored and can now host weddings and parties of 50.
White Castle has a field onsite for campervans to pitch up on and tours Friday to Sunday led by Robb and Nicola themselves and ending with a tasting which must be booked in advance. With their wines gaining awards and ground on restaurant wines lists, it is definitely one to not to miss.
We then popped just 20 minutes down the road to Ancre Hill Estate, owned by the warmly welcoming Richard and Joy Morris who create terroir-driven natural wines using organic and biodynamic methods.
Stepping out of the car the first thing that hit me was the sheer volume of birdsong, followed by the impossible greenness of our surroundings. Vines surround the house and tasting room and they also own an orchard for cider with a babbling brook marking the border. You can stay in this bucolic setting at their three bedroom self-catering cottage with glorious views over the vineyards and up the Wye Valley.
What started as a hobby, quickly grew into a passion inspired by their own travels around the global wine tourism destinations such as New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. Richard designed and built a winery as an extension of their environmental philosophy, using natural material such as straw bales for the walls and a living, green roof. This couple share an infectious enthusiasm for the planet and create excellent wines with as little manipulation as possible. It may not always be the cheapest option as a winemaker explains Richard, but the quality and positive impact on the environment makes it worth it.
Anyone who is even vaguely into the hip and trendy natural wine scene will have seen Ancre Hill’s famously eye-catching Clockwork Orange wine. Apparently, we Londoners cannot get enough of the stuff, but it was the sheer elegance of their sparkling blanc de blanc and blanc de noir which blew me (and any of my preconceptions on natural, biodynamic wines) away.
With a range of cellar-door tasting, tour and luncheon packages there really is a wine here for everyone and if you are one of those Doubting Thomas’s when it comes to natural wines (I will guiltily hold my hand up here), then let this place convince you otherwise! Delight your palate while polishing your environmental halo.
The bottom line is that wine from Wales is on the rise and with its rolling green countryside, nearby beaches, historic villages and growing plethora of vineyards why not make your summer staycation that bit less of a drive. Escape to the sounds of birdsong and the baas of sheep and pour yourself a glass of excellent local wine. Close enough for a weekend get-away and with such a diverse range of accommodation, food and wine, this is set to be one of the wine tourism scenes of the future.
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Libby Zietsman-Brodie is the Founder of Bacchus & Brodie, an independent wine consultant and co-creator and presenter of Boozy & The Beast: How To Drink Better – an irreverent series on wine, without the snobbery. Instagram: @a_little_sip_of_me_time @boozybeastTV