24 hours at the Three Choirs vineyard
The Three Choirs vineyard in Gloucestershire lies a few miles northeast of the town of Newent, and gets its name from the Three Choirs Festival, which is held annually in the cathedral cities of Worcester, Hereford & Gloucester.
Friends had bought us a voucher for a vineyard tour for Christmas, which gave us a choice of around 15 different locations in the UK to choose from, but Three Choirs was one of the closest to Swindon (just over an hour away, depending on traffic over Birdlip!) and from their website it was clear that the vineyard and winery is a place worth spending a significant amount of time at. Not only are there vines, but they make the wines on site and boast a high class restaurant (with a great wine list of course) and accommodation. We decided to make it as full a trip as possible.
On arrival, we waited in the sunny courtyard between the shop and restaurant, wondering how many others would be arriving for the tour. We were surprised that on an ordinary Thursday in June, a crowd of around 16 guests gathered for the 11am tour.
Our guide, Bart, started off by offering us a glass of the classic cuvée - English sparkling wine - a traditionally-made glass of bubbles of very high quality. It is dry and subtle; pretty similar to a good champagne but at a fraction of the price! As we sipped, we wondered down to the edge of the vines, which were planted in 1973 over 75 acres. Each year, around an acre of old vine gets replaced with young vines that take couple of years to start producing usable grapes. The cycle of vineyard life means that the vines are heavily pruned in winter, new buds start to appear in April, and the grapes are ready to be picked in late September. All the grapes are picked by hand, which is quite a feat when you consider there are 45,000 vines. This makes it the second largest vineyard in the UK, after Denbies wine estate in Surrey. Three Choirs also have a sister vineyard in Hampshire (known as the "Wickham estate") but its grapes are all transferred to the Gloucestershire site for processing.
Back to the Three Choirs harvest, and the grapes are put into buckets, which get tipped into bulk bins and then transferred by trailer back to the winery, which sits adjacent to the restaurant.
I was hoping to spend longer looking around the vines, but there's not time within the 45 minute tour. Bart explained that there was a trail through the vines and guests were welcome - and encouraged - to explore at their leisure. Each row was labelled with its grape (and there are many different varietals being grown - Bacchus, Pinot Noir, Siegerrebe, Phoenix , Seyval Blanc, Reichensteiner, Schönburger, Madeleine Angevine, Huxelrebe, Rondo, Regent, and Triomphe).
Before heading to the winery, Bart replenishes our tasting glasses, this time with a still white made from 100% Bacchus grapes from the 2013 harvest. Bart told us how the conditions during the key ripening period in 2013 created distinctive flavours in the grape and a good acid structure in the finished wine. On such a sunny day, this was a perfect, elegant, dry and aromatic wine, which reminded me a little of cool climate sauvignon blancs. Bart explained this wine had gentle oak ageing, giving a long, but delicate finish. Glasses in hand, the tour wandered behind the toilet block to a large warehouse building out the back - this was the winery.
On this particular sunny June day, all was calm at the winery, although there is activity all year round. Wine is constantly being bottled from previous vintages, and there is packing and shipping to be done. With 250,000 bottles produced on an average year, there's no time to slack.
Following the harvesting of grapes, they are quickly transferred into the press, which looks like an oversized washing machine drum where the grapes are added into the top. Between the vines and the winery, the grapes can't be sat around in the sunshine for more than a few hours as the yeast on their skins runs the risk of starting the fermentation process prematurely. Once in the press, the juice can then flow freely into secondary tanks where it settles for 24 hours. It is then pumped to the winery for the fermentation process.
Once the fermentation process has turned the grape juice into wine, it is filtered, blended, tasted and finally bottled. Much of the process is mechanised, but the winery remains a rustic affair, with many operations still being carried out by hand. The chap in the photo was taking bottled sparkling wine from the crate and transferring (after a little shake of the sediment) into the gyro-palette. (More about that in a moment).
The sparkling wine is made by the "traditional method" (or sometimes called the "champagne method" even though many wine making areas outside the Champagne region use this method). Unlike Prosecco, sparkling wine made by the traditional method has a second fermentation in the bottle. This means that the blended wine is put in bottles along with yeast and a small amount of sugar, and then stopped with a crown cap (like a beer bottle top) and stored in a crate horizontally for a second fermentation.
During the secondary fermentation, the carbon dioxide is trapped in the wine in solution. The amount of added sugar determines the pressure of the bottle. The standard value is 6 bars (600 kPa) inside the bottle during this stage, which is incredible pressure when you consider a car tyre has around 2 - 2.5 bars. That's why the bottles are made of thicker glass than ordinary wine bottles.
So to the gyro palette. The bottle of sparkling wine isn't ready until the the dead yeast cells and any other sediment has been removed. To do this, the bottles go through a process of "riddling". In the old days, bottles would be stored at a 45 degree angle in a riddling rack (with neck facing down) and turned gently every 1-2 days so that the dead yeast cells (called lees) and sediment gradually drops to the neck of the bottle. In Gloucestershire, the gyropalette does the same job, turning 1000 bottles with a fraction of the effort.
Bart showed us the machine that the bottles are finally placed in to undergo the removal of the lees. Neck down, the machine freezes the neck to minus 30 degrees, so that a frozen plug of unwanted gunk can pop out. The bottle is topped up and secured with the cork we all know and love. The finished bottles are then labelled by machine and packaged.
The 45 minute tour ended with another glass to enjoy whilst relaxing in the sunny courtyard. This time a 2015 rosé, made from a blend of Phoenix, Reichensteiner, and Rondo grapes. Bursting with summer berry fruit, it was the perfect wine for June. Cheers!
The Three Choirs restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, with an impressive menu bursting with fresh and seasonal ingredients, locally sourced from farms in the area. Each item on the menu has a recommendation for a wine pairing.
I chose a roasted Aubergine dish with halloumi cheese and a herby crust, which was delicious, and matched perfectly with a glass of Siegerrebe 2015.
There are lots of details we liked, from the lampshades made of retro 70s wine glasses, to the terrace for pre-dinner drinks over looking the sweeping valley of vines. In winter, the restaurant is equipped with a large log burner and cosy sofas for pre or after dinner drinks.
For the evening meal, we couldn't resist choosing steak. Then came the quandary - a good steak needs a hearty red, which can't be found within the Three Choirs produced wines (our climate just isn't suited to growing or ripening the grapes needed for full bodied red wines). The wine list did include offerings from other countries, so we chose - albeit with a little guilt - a bold Australian number.
As we were staying over, breakfast was also taken in the restaurant. A great range of healthy options, such as yoghurts and fruits, followed by a choice of cooked breakfast - a feast of meat form the local butcher, or eggs benedict / royale, or smoked salmon with scrambled eggs. Along with bold cafetiere coffee and chunky slabs of toast, this was perfect.
A stone's throw from the restaurant is an accommodation block comprising eight single story "suites". By suite, I mean a bathroom and roomy double bedroom with a parking space outside the front door. The selling point of the accommodation is the patio doors from the bedroom, leading out onto a terrace area overlooking the valley of vines. Complete with wrought iron table and chairs, guests can sit in tranquility and leave the stress of the modern world miles away.
The rooms, although sporting nice arty canvas prints of grapes and vines on the walls, weren't as modern as anticipated. Maybe Three Choirs could take the approach of periodically refurbishing a suite each time they replace an acre of ageing vines. The bed was comfy enough, and the room was equipped with the standard fare - such as tea making facilities - but the plumbing was creaky and there was a missed opportunity to have a fridge in the room containing fresh milk, chilled water and a range of their own wines (to be paid for of course).
At £145 a night, the accommodation itself didn't feel particularly good value, but you are paying the premium for the location, the experience, and the delicious breakfast. A highlight for me was drawing back the curtains at daybreak and witnessing a down of hares frolicking in the vines (Yes, I had to look that up - and there are ten other collective nouns for hares! Who knew?) One of them even paused to box an invisible opponent. Hares are a pest to the vineyard; they love grapes, but a delight to me.
A new addition to the accommodation are three lodges constructed amongst the vines, about ten minute's stroll from the restaurant. A stay in a lodge comes complete with a torch for finding your way back in the pitch black of night. The lodges are pricier than the "vineyard view" rooms, but offer a greater level of privacy and retreat.
Our 24 hours at Three Choirs didn't feel long enough, and it was such a treat to have good food and drink combined with peace and a laid back approach to the site. We took the trail through the vines (as encouraged) and discovered information boards, listening posts (although half of them were sadly broken) and a range of wildlife. There are plenty of areas within the site where you could chill out and enjoy the sun, tranquility and the soundtrack of nature.
We will certainly be back.