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FINE WINE IS WORTH THE WAIT

PUBLISHED: 11:15 28 August 2008 | UPDATED: 10:02 23 August 2010

REAL BOTTLE: David Grey with his award-winning wines.

REAL BOTTLE: David Grey with his award-winning wines.

ITALIAN, French, Argentinean, or maybe you prefer Portuguese. Whatever your taste in wine, each week millions of shoppers visit hundreds of regions as they trawl the endless bottles of wine in the never-ending supermarket aisles. But have you thought of

A VINE EFFORT: David Grey stands proudly in his vineyard.

ITALIAN, French, Argentinean, or maybe you prefer Portuguese. Whatever your taste in wine, each week millions of shoppers visit hundreds of regions as they trawl the endless bottles of wine in the never-ending supermarket aisles.

But have you thought of looking closer to home? Set in the picturesque North Downs is one of the UK's most unique vineyards.

Created in 1991 by wine enthusiasts Pauline and David Grey, Meopham Valley Vineyard in the Happy Valley is a gem in north Kent.

And after years of hard work, boosting their reputation through farmers markets and internet sales, and winning endless awards for their wine, the couple are negotiating the tricky transition to supermarket shelves.

Waitrose stores in Sevenoaks, Paddock Wood and Tonbridge will soon be selling bottles of Meopham Valley Vineyard Sparkling Rosé 2005. If the launch is successful they could be stocked permanently across the UK, bringing the grapes of north Kent to the masses.

Mr Grey, 69, said: "It was quite by chance that Waitrose became interested. We entered our wine in a competition a while ago. Obviously the panel is made up of different judges and one happened to be a professional taster for Waitrose.

"After, she said they would like to stock some of our wine for a trial. It is quite remarkable really. When you go to a supermarket at the moment, you see perhaps three of four types of UK-produced wine, among all those wines from across the world.

"It is very interesting and the process is different to what we are used to. We are ready to go and it is definitely going to happen soon, but we need to get a new label done and then we were asked to sort out barcodes. It is great to have our wine recognised by such a reputable and respected company."

An accountant by trade, Mr Grey decided he did not want to spend his working life tied to a desk and, after visiting France and seeing the miles of vineyards, he decided to create his own in the UK.

The couple attended a five-week course run by wine expert Gillian Pearkes and started looking for land.

When he settled on the four-acre site in Happy Valley, Meopham, he was abruptly told by an advisor that it was the 'worst site in England'.

"We spent ages looking for the perfect site and then we were told that it wasn't an ideal site, but all the other signs were positive," he said. "It's south east facing, perfect for the sun in this country, when you get it that is. It is also chalk and well drained so it was pretty much what we wanted and that was it, we went for it."

For about six months in 1991, relatives and friends helped create their dream. About 10,000 vines, costing between £10,000 and £15,000 were planted on the sloping land.

Small trees bordering the vineyard were planted, and today they tower over the North Downs acting as a wind-breaker to protect the vulnerable vines from gale force winds.

Seventeen years later, 8,500 vines remain, after those on the flatter land fell victim to frost. The vineyard has produced exceptional harvests year after year between September and October.

To put it into context, Denbies vineyard in Dorking covers a staggering 300 acres, compared to Meopham's modest four acres.

"You can never tell when the vineyard is at its prime, there is no such thing really, each year's different," he explained. "Sometimes you will have tonnes and tonnes of good grapes that make a great wine. Other years you may have a few less that make a quality wine which has never tasted so great.

"In 2006 we harvested 29 tonnes of grapes that could make 29,000 bottles of Meopham Valley Vineyard wine."

Although the potential for mass produced wine from Meopham is vast, only about 4,000 to 5,000 bottles a year are made at the moment. Grapes from Meopham are often sold by the ton to other vineyards around the country as a quick source of income, allowing the couple to produce enough bottles to sell throughout the year.

Those sent to the winemakers are crushed and white and red wine is then produced.

"It takes six to nine months before a still wine is ready and up to two years until the sparkling is ready for sale, but it is well worth the wait," he revealed.

For years, grapes sent for winemaking were loaded onto a lorry and sent to Owen Elias, a winemaker at Chapel Down in Tenterden. This year another specialist in sparkling wine based near Worthing is taking over producing Meopham Valley Vineyard wine.

"Winemaking and vineyards in the UK are growing, they are becoming more popular," he said. "There is a certain romance about working on, and owning, a vineyard. We learned that during the first six months when everyone was helping us.

"And the people and customers we meet at the farmers markets and through the production have become good friends, with a mutual interest - creating and drinking great wine from the UK.

"In the past it has been common for growers to only try a small selection of grapes, the classics like the Chardonnay were never even considered in this country. But look at it now, we have it right here in Meopham.

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