“The process used to make champagne is exactly the same”, assistant winemaker Sarah Midgley informs me. “Champagne makers normally use three different types of grape: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. We just use Pinot Noir – it’s so nice we think it’s a shame to mix it.”
Camel Valley vineyards, near Nanstallon in Cornwall, is in the business of pioneering new wines, not reproducing existing ones. “We aren’t replicating French champagne”, states Bob Lindo, “we don’t need to.” The Lindo family have been planting, pruning and picking for over 20 years on sun-blessed, south-facing slopes which they originally bought to farm sheep and cattle. In place of sheep and cows, cyclists on the Camel Valley trail, tourists, locals, even royal visitors and celebrities now flock to the vineyards every year to hear and taste how Bob, Annie and now son Sam, have built a World Champion wine-producing business.
The challenges faced by UK winemakers are no different to anywhere else in the world: climate and soil. As Bob explains, “All wine-producing regions have problems ranging from drought to fires and floods. If anything we have fewer extremes, even if we could sometimes do with the summers being a little warmer.”
Speaking as a former RAF squadron commander who broke his spine ejecting from a plane in a mid-air crash, Bob is well placed to speak of challenges. Early retirement from the RAF meant that the couple moved to Cornwall sooner than anticipated, where Bob slowly recovered, “I couldn’t stand, sit, do anything. But the electric fence had come down so I crawled around on my side mending it.” It was also during this period that he realised the potential of the warm micro-climate of the farm: south-facing fields in a sheltered valley meant that heat from the sun would be absorbed into the soil and reflected back onto any vines planted.
What initially started as 8,000 vines in 1989, is now 30,000, each hand-pruned and hand-picked throughout the year. Visiting each vine amounts to a total walk of 30 kilometres and with only a core team of four, plus the family and the fact that each vine will be visited eight times during the season, the total leg and arm work is nothing short of impressive. The couple each have their own vineyard – Bob for red and Annie’s for white. Annie has insisted on pruning her own 5,000 vines alone for the past 22 years and in celebration of her 100, 000th hand-pruned vine, her son Sam made an anniversary cuvée as featured on ITV’s ‘Cornwall’: Annie’s Anniversary Gold Medal Brut 2009. Aged for two and a half years, it has a more sophisticated taste which is less fruity than the Brut.
The early days were tough, as Annie admits, “We practically lived in the vineyard, doing all the work by hand and when it came to harvest time it was just us and a few friends for picking, then Bob would stay up all night crushing the grapes. But we loved it … we won a medal in the national English Wine competition for our first wine, so we knew we were doing something right.” Since then, the accolades haven’t stopped: international trophy for the Pinot Noir sparkling rosé, as well as World Champions for sparkling rosé in Italy at the Bollecini del Mondo in 2011 and 2012 and son Sam Lindo has been UK Winemaker of the Year three times out of the last five years and runner-up in the other two.
The main difference between French champagnes and English sparkling are what Bob calls the ‘primary fruit aromas.’ He goes on to explain that, “We’re looking for freshness and we don’t use ‘reserve’ wines to keep the taste constant every year. We celebrate the differences between each vintage.” These are wines that are best drunk young; champagne that is aged for longer becomes characterised by creamy, biscuit notes, while the buzz words to describe Camel Valley sparkling are elderflower, hedgerow, citrus and zesty: “These fresh crispy flavours are preserved in the wine because of the cool season. We like that because you can taste where the wine comes from,” Sarah adds.
Less sun in a UK climate also determines the type of grapes and essentially the types of wine that can be produced. The UK could never produce a full-bodied red – instead, Camel Valley reds are light and fruity with strawberry aromas, great with oily fish and barbecues. The sparkling red was initially made just for fun, but the brambly, lighter result, perfect for summer drinking, has become popular. The vineyard takes its lead from grapes grown in northern France and Germany where the season is equally long and cool. The bacchus variety, so Sarah tells us, is one to watch, “It’s the newest thing and becoming very fashionable, similar to sauvignon blanc”, and the addition of pinot noir has enabled the family to compete on an international level.
Guided wine tours (glass of wine included) are the best way to get behind the scenes. While a lot of the wine-making process is carried out by hand and automated machines are no substitute for experienced palates, there is also a lot of slick, sophisticated equipment to deal with the less highly-skilled jobs such as turning the bottles, corking and labeling. That the process of wine-making could never become fully-automated is apparent when Sarah describes the process for making the White Pinot Noir, “There is no recipe as such, it’s made in a traditional champagne style and when we taste it, if it’s not right, we just put it back and give it another year.”
A big silver rotating cylinder, punctured with grape-sized holes, replaces the act of feet stomping to crush the grapes. Sarah explains that the taste of wine is all in the skin and even the seed, which can be bitter, can add depth to a still wine. For sparkling wines, the whole grape is crushed and the juice fed through to tanks where temperature is crucial. Any solids still floating in the wine form a sediment which is fed to the cows on a neighbouring farm (apparently increasing their milk yield by 11%). The fermentation process follows, during which yeast and sugar are added and again, temperature is vital. Detail, absolute precision and supervision all day and night occur at this stage as nothing can be undone. The pressure within the bottle of a sparkling wine will reach up to three times that of a car tyre.
During the second fermentation in champagne bottles, the distinct Camel Valley flavours will develop and the longer it is left, the stronger the flavours. After 15 or 16 months, the sediment is ‘disgorged’, a cork inserted and Cornish/English traditional method sparkling wine is ready for the likes of royal dinners, the shelves of Fortnum’s and Waitrose and export to Japan as well as supplying local restaurants and shops in Cornwall itself.
To treat yourself to a bottle of Cornish bubbly and for more information on Camel Valley wines, tours, self-catering accommodation and mail order go to camelvalley.com or phone 01208 77959.