General manager Ed Heller on the challenge of running Wickham Vineyard
PUBLISHED: 10:22 17 January 2017 | UPDATED: 10:22 17 January 2017
Hampshire excels as a wine growing region, yet finding the right recipe for success can be a tricky business. Viv Micklefield heads to the Meon Valley's Wickham Vineyard where it's time to raise a glass to its future
It might be January with a hoar frost turning everything that it touches into a winter wonderland. Yet, Ed Heller only has to step out of his front door to imagine enjoying a balmy summer’s evening with a chilled bottle of white wine, whilst the serried lines of vines that surround him bulge with ripening grapes.
A year after taking over as general manager of Wickham Vineyard, Ed’s not one to get carried away with the apparent idyll of living and working here. This trained chef, who previously ran the kitchen at Winchester’s Wykeham Arms and organised pop-up restaurants along the south coast, has to turn a grape harvest into liquid cash. A job he knows is far from straightforward.
Even to the casual observer Wickham, one of Hampshire’s most established vineyards, has had its setbacks. Originally planted in 1984, on land once used to grow apples, 18 acres of largely Germanic origin vines produced wine that graced The Queen’s table at a Diamond Jubilee lunch, was chosen as the House of Commons house wine, and scooped both national and international awards. Despite these accolades, the vineyard fell into administration in late 2012. And following a management buyout the 40-acre estate, which by then included an onsite winery, restaurant and shop alongside the vines and a nature reserve, was up for sale again.
“Three Choirs bought the vineyard in May 2014,” says Ed, who’s become the local face of the Gloucestershire-based winemaker, known for its successful track record within the industry. As he explains, it’s been a case of refocussing attention on what Wickham does well – producing grapes for great English wine, whilst making the most of their magnificent Meon Valley surroundings.
“We have Rondo and Triomphe vines here (among others) with some more than 30 years old which will either stop producing such good yields or die off. So the plan is to lift between two and three acres each year and to replace these with new varieties. This started about 18 months ago and we’ve already replanted about 2.5 acres with Chardonnay grapes. As a company, it’s the first time that we’ve planted this variety, however the heavy clay soil here in Hampshire lends itself well.”
Coupled with the impact of rising global temperatures, Pinot Noir is another grape that’s been introduced. This will, according to Ed, in time see Wickham produce its own Champagne-style fizz. However, in an increasingly crowded marketplace, maintaining their reputation for premium means white, red and rose remain the priority.
“We’ve seen a massive rise in the popularity of English wine. People like to buy local and are into provenance. If it’s not good quality they’re not going to buy, no matter where it comes from.”
This means taking good care of the vines themselves. And even while the mercury falls, Ed confirms there’s plenty of work to do.
“We’ve got a couple of gardeners here but also bring down a team from Gloucestershire so that during January and February we can prune the vines right back. Then they’ll sit in hibernation until the end of April, which is when you’ll see the first buds burst. Last spring, we had a late frost which damaged quite a lot of the vines and in July, when we rely on sunshine and photosynthesis to help feed the grapes, it was warm but overcast.”
This meant 2016’s harvest, particularly of white grape varieties ‘wasn’t great’ and saw almost an 80 per cent reduction in the 20 tonnes they expect to pick in early October, which normally produces around 15,000 bottles. On the upside, older vines continued to out-perform and all indications point to an “incredibly good quality” vintage.
Ed explains: “The grapes are transported overnight to Gloucestershire, where Martin our winemaker goes to work. To run a full-time winery and all the plant needed, that’s a massive overhead. We might be the fifth largest vineyard in Hampshire but are quite small compared with Three Choirs Gloucestershire which covers 100 acres. So pressing and making our wine there makes commercial sense.”
With the vineyard wines available in distinctive Burgundy-shaped bottles (the ones with sloping ‘shoulders’), the possibility of a Three Choirs house wine is revealed. Although, any suggestion that Wickham could lose its identity is quickly dispelled, as single estate wines will continue to be produced. And, despite vineyard tours ending, people can still try before they buy in the onsite shop.
“Instead of a cost incurring site, we want to be one that’s profit generating,” says Ed, confirming that the next stage in the vineyard’s rescue operation sees New Year’s Eve representing the restaurant’s final service.
Securing a future for the vineyard, which cost its current owners around £1.6million with another £500,000 spent so far on developing the site, means being business savvy. In another diversification, further investment aims to make this a top choice for weddings. Bookings for 2017 are buoyant, with couples planning to hold their nuptials beneath the beams of the Old Winery or in the purpose-built pavilion. Add-in the potential for onsite accommodation, and Ed believes they have a perfect setting for a perfect day.
“This vineyard is one of the most picturesque I’ve ever been round because the house, which I currently live in, was the original owner’s home and outside is beautiful. Wickham’s not laid out like most commercial vineyards, it’s more like a front garden. You’ll find little details like a pond next to the house, lovely oak trees are planted throughout and trellises themselves are widely spaced.
“If this means we can create a place for tailor-made weddings and produce fantastic wines, then we’re making the most of Wickham’s promise. Nobody wants to see the vineyard fail again.”
Where: Wickham Vineyard Botley Road, Shedfield SO32 2HL
When: for current shop opening hours or to buy wines online visit www.three-choirs-vineyards.co.uk/hampshire
Enquiries: call 01329 834700
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