Into the grape unknown: the great Welsh wine tasting

Wines ready for tasting © Kerry Walker

The words ‘Welsh wine’ might once have raised a quizzical eyebrow, but no longer. As climate change has seen the terroir shift steadily north, even these wet, chilly hills can now produce a thoroughly decent drop. A growing crop of wineries have invested passion and effort to seriously raise the bar, embracing hardy, early ripening grape varieties suited to cool climates like Seyval, Phoenix and Rondo, Siegerrebe and Pinot Noir. The result? You might be pleasantly surprised…

We certainly were when we put three of the country’s most innovative and unique wineries to the taste test. From the vineyard with the world’s longest wine name to a winery with White House associations, we found wines that though small in scale are big in character – rather like Wales itself.

The wineries in the taste-off…

Jabajak

The story

Straddling the border between Carmarthen and Pembrokeshire, Jabajak winery, restaurant and rooms reclines in peaceful countryside in West Wales. The vineyards slope gently south to face the sea breezes and wines are slowly pressed and fermented in stainless steel at cool temperatures to retain maximum aroma. At the helm of this family-run venture, offering cellar-door tastings, is Amanda Stuart-Robson, who reveals a passion both for grape growing and cooking (pairing wines with food to great effect). The winery produced its first bottles in 2014 and has since scooped awards. Their aim is for their wines to capture the hard-to-translate Welsh concept of hiraeth – a nostalgic longing for home or, in this instance, ‘wine that speaks of its terroir’.

It’s a bold ambition but one that Mr John Adams, the second president of the United States, would have been well familiar with. He was the grandson of a farmer called David Adams from Llanboidy in West Wales who, before leaving for America to find his fortune, grew up on the drover’s farm that later became the Jabajak Estate. The White House was given its present name during his presidency, long before it was actually white. And one local theory goes that this was because the owner’s house on the farm would have been white, with workers referring to it as the ‘White House’.

A taste of summer with The White House sparkling rosé © Kerry Walker

The wines

We kicked off our Welsh wine tasting in celebratory fashion with The White House sparkling rosé. And what a way to begin: a wine gold-pink like the setting sun, with a distinctive nose of fresh strawberries giving way to aromas of ripe summer fruits on the palate. The wine is a blend of Seyval and Phoenix grapes, blushed with Rondo. On an early spring day, it had us dreaming of the warm, lazy days of summer, of cornfields and coastal walks. A great one for special occasions or just because…

Next up was The White House white, nicely balanced, with notes of elderflower and apple, with a clean, crisp finish, which we felt would go very nicely with seafood.

Red Wharf Bay

The story

It takes balls and a certain leap of imagination to look at the sultry, vine-streaked plains of Andalucía and say that you want to recreate a little slice of that honeyed Spanish heaven back home on the wind-lashed Isle of Anglesey in North Wales. But that’s exactly what Kevin Mawdesley of Red Wharf Bay Vineyard decided to do – unite Spain and Wales in spirit and in the bottle. Seizing his inspiration from Spanish wine, he planted his first vines back in 2010 in the Traeth Coch Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and, by his own admission, ‘mismanaged them’, producing a small amount of an ‘unremarkable’ wine.

Fast-forward 11 years, however, and Kevin has learned a lot. His winery is deliberately small and intimate, with magnificent views across the broad sweep of Red Wharf Bay. His grapes are the hardy Rondo and Solaris varieties, which can bear the brunt of the wild Irish Sea. The best way to try them, naturally, is to make the journey to Anglesey and hook onto a tour that concludes with a tasting paired with tapas. But failing that, order a bottle and have a go at tasting the Welsh-Spanish connection for yourself.

A taste of Spain from the Isle of Anglesey, Red Wharf Bay wines © Kerry Walker

The wines

Coming in at just 11%, Solaris is a light white with a big claim to fame: it is the wine with the longest name in the world. A play on the tongue-twisting town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, close to the vineyard, its full name (take a deep breath…) is GwinllanynLlainGamsy ’nedrychdrosddyffrynafonNodwyddaThraethCochynardaloharddwchnaturioleithriadolYnysMôn, which means ‘Vineyard in the crooked field overlooking the valley of the River Noddwyth and Red Wharf Bay in the Traeth Coch Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the island of Anglesey, Mother of Wales’.

So how was it? Pretty good. Another fine white for summer and great match for seafood and starters, it was zingy and crisp, with notes of grapefruit, Granny Smith and lemon. As one taster described it: it’s a bit Pouilly-Fumé. 

The red Llain Gam Rondo takes its name from the dark-skinned hybrid grape. Smoky and smooth, it’s an easy drinking wine that we can imagine pairs well with tapas or light dishes of pasta, pork and chicken.

White Castle

The story

Since realising their dream and planting their first grapes in 2009, Robb and Nicola Merchant have invested a lot of love, time and effort in White Castle Vineyard in the gentle borderlands in Llanvetherine just east of Abergavenny and the Brecon Beacons. Gently sloping, south-facing fields nurture cool-climate grape varieties like Pinot Noir, Regent, Rondo, Seyval Blanc, Phoenix and Siegerrebe – all of which are hand harvested with care. In fact, you can even ‘adopt a vine’ and join in with the picking during the grape harvest should you so wish. 

The wines – white, sparkling, rosé, red and fortified – are all vegan. Naturally the best way to appreciate them is at the source on one of their informal winery tours and tastings, but for now you might want to give them a whirl by ordering a bottle or two online.

White Castle Pinot Noir Reserve © Kerry Walker

The wines

At 11%, Gwin gwyn 2019 is a dry delicate white made from a selected blend of grapes. Pale straw in colour, we found it refreshing and summery, with good minerality, slightly floral aromas and elderflower and citrus on the palate. We felt its acidity would make it a good match for fatty, salty or even spicy foods.

Our final wine was the vintage 2018 Pinot Noir Reserve. This was an utter surprise, being fuller bodied than most of Pinot noirs, with silky tannins, aromas of blackberry, sloe and damson, hints of smoky vanilla, plenty of depth and well balanced acidity – no doubt helped by its traditional ageing in French oak barrels. One taster liked it so much, he said he would order it as a gift for a wine aficionado to show just how good Welsh wine could be today. High praise indeed.

The verdict

Welsh wine is coming on leaps and bounds – and with a few genuine surprises. Our favourites from the three wineries who participated in the taste test were, in no particular order: Jabajak The White House sparkling rosé, Red Wharf Bay Solaris white and White Castle Pinot Noir Reserve.

For more on Welsh wine and Welsh Wine Week (4-13 June in 2021), watch this cork-popping space.

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