a vision worth watching
I've not always been a fan of the wines produced by Dedham Vale, a local wine producer near me in Colchester.
I enjoyed them when I first moved to the area (a fair few years ago) but in those days English wine struggled with a reputation that winemaking was little more than a glorified hobby.
As the years have passed I felt that their wines were going into decline. They seemed staid, average, and to have been overtaken by vineyards who had realised that English wines (particularly sparkling) could hold their head up, challenge overseas markets and win major respect throughout the world.
I avoided Dedham Vale for a number of years, and if their name came up I tutted regretfully and thought about how good they used to be, but how I wouldn't go near them presently. Then I was asked if I'd like to go along, meet the new owners, talk to the winemaker and see just what was stirring in their vineyard in Essex. I almost resisted, but was so glad that I didn't.
At the moment it isn't open to the general public, but Jan and Michael, the owners of Dedham Vale Vineyard, have big plans and, as you'll read, they want to make
this enterprise a beacon for top quality wine production.
Usually, you arrive at a vineyard and get to chat with one or two people, but I was ushered in to the family home by Jan before being joined by Michael, Chus (the winemaker) Ulia (handling promotion) and Richie (their son) for a couple of hours of excellent company and conversation about a range of subjects that stretched far beyond winemaking in Essex. Jan started by giving me a little bit of background information.
Jan: Michael is a second marriage (we were married in 2010) and we bought this place together.
Winefullness Magazine Why? what made you decide to buy this place?
Jan: I'm really honest; because I am a designer. I spent my life designing 5 star hotels. I'm trained as an architect, and architects are always wanting to build things. Therefore when Mike and I got together we decided we wanted to build a lovely place in the country, and by coincidence Michael knew, through his business background, The Bunting family who owned this place and actually wanted to sell. So, we knew about this place.
Winefullness: I was fascinated when you contacted me to come and see what was going on.
Michael: When we bought the place there had been no real investment, and slowly we're building back that investment.
Winefullness: Are you linking with lots of other vineyards in the area.
Michael: If you know Mark Baines from Thorrington.
Jan: Mark Baines has done some landscaping work here, because we really we bought the place and thought we knew nothing about growing wine. So we thought that we should get a horticulturalist and ask him to advise us. Mark Baines is a local farmer who also has a small vineyard. He came here and helped us with landscaping...
Suddenly, a man walk in and I'm introduced by Jan.
This is Chus. He's not just some winemaker, he's a very talented man.
Winefullness: That's good to hear because it wouldn't be good to have an untalented winemaker. What else did have you changed since you took over?
Jan: We've planted another three and half acres.
Winefullness: I noticed that some is Albariño.
Michael: I'm sure Chus can explain why. We realised that we can never be a truly large vineyard, so I can see us as a slightly experimental vineyard where we will try and grow things and see what we can do to sort of move the world forward very much in the spirit of Mary Mudd (the lady who first planted grapes here many years ago).
For a very small vineyard of four and a bit acres we have produced six, seven, eight different wine styles depending on how the harvest has been, and with Chus' help this has been his third year. He has been very instrumental in suggesting that we plant the Albariño. It's in the nature of an experiment. What can we get out of that grape in these climates.
Winefullness: Very California in approach.
Jan: It's not quite like that because when we first met Chus, we'd taken the management of the vineyard back from The Buntings and Chus had worked for us.
Chus: Advising on the spraying and the health of the vines. The manager was a different person.
Jan: We liked his philosophy. The way he approached this vineyard is something that greatly impressed us. Chus' family lived in the area of Spain just above the Douro, and the whole family had vineyards there.
Chus: Both sides. My dad's part of the family would make the wine and my mum's part of the family would sell it in bars. Recently I bought my grandmother's house for my daughter. It's got a granite trough where they used to press the grapes, and they used to sell most of those grapes down the river.
After a while it wasn't financially viable to run the family vineyard, so some friends and I went up to the family to try to recover the vineyards, but they had all gone and the laws about growing had changed in Europe, so anything that wasn't viable was lost. A few years later my friend and I went to Spain to start recovering other people's vineyards. They had been abandoned but were clearly vineyards. They needed three or four years recovery, and we started getting people coming to our house and asking us to take on their vineyards. Amazing properties with such potential. In one of the villages we counted up to 23 different varieties in a vineyard that was smaller than a hectare.
Winefullness: Did you look at what worked or did you try to keep all the varieties?
Chus: We did everything and it was difficult because there was not a formal description of what the vines actually were.
Winefullness: There are lots of new varieties at Dedham Vale. Are you moving away from the traditional Northern European varieties that have dominated English winemaking for decades?
Jan: The basis of our philosophy relies on this. Here is a winemaker who is prepared to experiment, who has bought things back to life, and we love this philosophy of taking something small, because we're never going to be like Australia or American wines, who can grow vines on thousands of acres. we're just not in that market, we can't do it. Ours is always going to be bespoke, specialist wine. so we want to make something which is very
special, and we believe Chus is the man who could do it this for us. he's done it before.
Winefullness: How long have you owned it?
Michael: Since 2013, but for the first five or six years we left it to The Buntings because we had so many other things to do we couldn't possibly contemplate spending the time here.
They left at the end of 2018 and Chus came in 2019, which of course has not been the most wonderful three years in terms of commerce, but has been a really good pause point. We're restructuring the vineyard, we've got permission to build a new proper tasting barn and new winery on the site of the old winery because they used to make the wine here, but since Chus came onboard we've had all the wine made at Chilford Hall Vineyard. That's probably why the wines taste different. It's still our grapes but, of course, you need a decent, modern winery to get the best out of them. It's the way of the world. There are far more vineyards than wineries, and because of the huge number of plantings in this particular area we think a new winery here; an all-singing, all-dancing winery will be quite attractive for the number of new plantings there are around here, but most importantly it just gives us a base and that's what Chus' expertise is.
Winefullness: What do you think is gonna be your point of difference?
Michael: I think we'll be able to produce a couple of wines which will be taken wholly by one or two buyers for their restaurant. For example, all our Rosé from 2019 was taken by Sketch in London. If you get Michelin star restaurants to take the whole it has a premium value, a special value. That point of difference is also the fact that the sommelier likes the quality, and the style of your wine fits in with everything else he's doing. Our point of difference will really be trying to produce these really special wines in small batches that therefore appeal to that sort of purchaser.
Winefullness: What about your relationship with the local community?
Michael: When you say that do you mean the wine community or just folk around about? We have only got one bottle for every six people in a year. That's how small we are, therefore when we're placed with a couple of restaurants that have a reasonable sort of profile we can sell them a batch, but we just don't have the volume to do anything really meaningful locally other than to find a few people who will become outlets for us because they're known for their specialist wines.
Jan: You have to remember that we've just been through two years of Covid and we haven't been able to have people on site, and the majority of our sales were historically local. We had a tasting barn and people would come for tasting and then get to know our wines and buy them. We haven't had that facility it's been a tough business so we've had to search for a different type of business.
I hear people on the radio asking why English wine isn't the same price as Australian, and the reality is that by the time you put the tax on it and you look at the volume. It's not financially viable.
Michael: Land is so expensive.
Jan: Mark Baines was telling us that there are enough small vineyards in the locality to set up an East Anglian Grape Growers Association.
Michael: What Mark was talking about is the cooperative system of sharing equipment, purchasing power and everything you need. From our point of view, a lot of these people will need a winery to process their grapes, and this is where our new winery could fit in.
I could see the Stour Valley being a version of Napa Valley with vines all the way up and down, but you're talking fifty to one hundred years in the future.
Right now it's just a little thing and slowly beginning to coalesce and work together. Our philosophy at the moment is to produce particular wines that appeal to a particular market so that we can consider sending a proportion abroad.
Winefullness: Are you going to plant even more varietals?
Chus: We've got plenty. I will make the wines separately and then see which of them might be suitable for blending each year. For example, the Albariño will probably mix well with Chardonnay.
It's interesting that the rain here is similar to some of the regions of Spain. I will let you know after I've made the wines.
Winefullness: I look forward to hearing about that. What do you think is the future for you because we're in uncertain times?
Jan: Make no mistake. We bought this place because we think it's beautiful. We want to live here. That was our original incentive for buying the site, and also both Michael and I have used any monies we've acquired throughout how other professional lives to reinvest in this land, in this place, in something we believe could be very, very good.
We're never going to be the biggest in the world, but we're going to do something really well and hopefully there is a market that recognises our search for excellence. Chus is here because he's that sort of person.
Winefullness: How did the two of you (Michael and Jan) end up here. What is your story?
Michael: One of my past lives was helping companies get equity. In the old days, nearly 30 years ago, The Buntings had a business in beneficials and they'd developed this business in their old glass houses in Horkesley. Like all new businesses it needed a phenomenal amount of capital, and I was introduced to them and I helped them to sell that business. Then they bought property some around here and did farming. Unfortunately they expanded too
fast, took on too much debt, but in their plan they had bought this place because they saw this as part of their agricultural holdings. I knew that it was for sale but we were based in London. We thought that we might need an exit plan from London.
Jan: And as I explained, I'd always wanted to build something because of my architectural background. One of the things that Michael and I do, because he has a background in development, is that we like building things, designing things, and this seemed to be the perfect site. We're trying to do something good here that also creates a lifestyle for us.
Winefullness: What wines do you enjoy?
Jan: I'm Australian, and let me tell you that the best red wine is from a vineyard in Victoria. It's the most beautiful, nutty red.
Michael: It's a Petit Verdot and it just works so well. I love big California wines, particularly from Monterey County. I think they're just marvellous wines. So it seems that for us the Reds come from Australia and the whites come from California.
Jan: Michael was at Cambridge, and when he was there the chap who bought for his college cellar used to spend his time cycling around Germany in the fifties.
Michael: We had an amazingly stocked cellar of Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and the like. By the time I got there they were beautiful drinkers and that was the start of my journey. I was introduced to the finest German Wines that were on the market and I was but a wee lad!
And there we finished! Well not really because we continued to chat for an age about all manner of topics until it was time to leave.
I was aware that I as I pulled away from Dedham Vale Vineyard I had the sort of smile that one has when the vibe has been laidback, the conversation interesting, and the enthusiasm infectious.
If Jan and Michael don't succeed it won't be for want of ambition. With a winemaker like Chus they are laying the groundwork for a business that should grow, and I found their future plans to be exciting and worth following.
I did love how much, during our conversation, Jan excitedly gave credit to others. To me, this demonstrated a sense of family that I always find when one looks at the best wine producers. I hope that one day I will be able to talk about Dedham Vale in that company, but for now I'll settle for some of that Albarino please.
One to Try
Dedham Vale Vineyards - Børge Red
After years of making wine that was at best mildly quaffable, the new owners (and their star winemaker) have taken the viticultural bull by the horns and produced something that is worth writing about, and worth ordering in a restaurant.
It is made exclusively from Rondo and Dunkelfelder and the best has been drawn from these north European of grape varieties.
I'm getting a smooth balance of red fruit aromas, with a smattering of cassis in the mix. The tannins are restrained and there's a balance of acidity that brings a freshness.
5 out of 7