Flint Vineyard, Norfolk, England – Bacchus 2018
Philip Day looks close to home, discovering a British company, Flint Vineyard, that creates delightful wines in Norfolk, including the sublime Bacchus 2018.
Located in the sun-lit but well sheltered Waveney Valley in south Norfolk, winemakers Ben and Hannah Witchell craft award winning English wines using a blend of innovation while demonstrating a great respect for tradition.
One of their triumphs has to be their Bacchus white wine, proof that English still wines deserve to be celebrated, building on the reputation that English sparkling wines have forged over the last two decades.
Bacchus is the fourth most planted grape variety in England. The wines it is used to create are regarded as having a style similar to Sauvignon Blanc. English winemakers increasingly have adopted the grape, as our own cooler climate tends to result in lower yields than in other European countries, crucially producing wines with higher natural acid levels.
The white wine grape Bacchus was created as a result of German vine breeding at the Geilweilerhof Institute for Grape Breeding in the Palatinate (German: Pfalz) in 1933 by viticulturalist Peter Morio. The offspring of a Silvaner x Riesling crossing and Müller-Thurgau, Bacchus is a hardy variety that ripens early and does not require much in the way of specifics of its planting site.
On the Continent, Bacchus wines are recognised for their powerful flavours, but only when given the chance to mature fully. Its lack of acidity when grown there makes it difficult to blend with high-acid musts, so it is often used for blending to strengthen the character of other grape varieties.
In the UK, the Bacchus variety is valued for its must weights (a measure of the amount of sugar in grape juice (must) which is an indication of the amount of alcohol that could be produced if it were all fermented into alcohol.) It is the second most planted white grape variety after Chardonnay. Thanks to the generally lower yields and higher acidity when cultivated in the UK, it does not go on to make ‘flabby wines’ – lacking in structure and balance, as is often the case of examples where Bacchus is grown in a much warmer climate.
Ben and Hannah Witchell have always had a passion for wine. In 2007, the couple quit their jobs after deciding to pursue their interest further and set off on an exploration of some of the most famous wine-making regions in the world.
On their return to the UK, the couple moved to Sussex and Ben enrolled himself into a 3 year degree in Oenology and Viticulture at Plumpton College.
Successfully graduating with a first class degree, they moved to Beaujolais, France, where Ben had secured his first wine-making post. Here, while Ben was exposed to a more intuitive and creative way of wine making, Hannah taught English to young French children and it was here that their first daughter, Rosie was born. After two years it was time to return home and begin a new life together making wine in England.
A number of speculative emails were sent out to enquire if anyone knew of any small plots of land for sale in south Norfolk or Suffolk. This area of England was of particular interest to the couple since it had the reputation of being one of the driest and sunniest regions of the UK. One such email arrived in the in-box of local farmer and entrepreneur, Adrian Hipwell. Ben knew that there were locations of suitable soil for a vineyard in that area but he was unaware that Adrian currently farmed one of them. Adrian Hipwell, offered the couple a great site with gentle slopes and free-draining flint soils, with a small number of farm buildings that could be easily adapted to create a state-of-the-art winery and laboratory.
A visit to the area showed the potential of the site and a subsequent detailed site analysis confirmed the couple’s initial hopes that the plot was suitable for grapevines. Flint Vineyard was born.
Ben oversees every detail of wine production at Flint Vineyard from grape to bottle, with meticulous care. Hannah having previously worked in marketing and the travel industry, manages the marketing and sales operations at Flint Vineyard including running the ‘VENN Club’ and cellar door events. Adrian Hipwell, continues his association with the Witchells is the farmer at Flint Vineyard continuing the farming tradition at the site, following on from his father. A great supporter of local diversification and a lover of good food and drink, Adrian is also a very practical and indispensable business partner offering guidance on the many aspects of managing a farm.
Ben has also been working with Camden BRI, one of the leading analytical wine laboratories in Europe, to research the unique aromatic qualities of Bacchus, a variety he sees with the potential to produce exciting, and aromatically compelling wines, to compete on the world stage.
|Planted Acreage||Total: 3 hectares (7.4 acres)|
|Grape varieties||Bacchus, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir|
|Wines produced||See below|
|Sandy, free-draining flint soils.|
|Top Vintages Produced||2016, 2017, 2018|
“South Norfolk is thought be one of the combined driest and sunniest regions in the UK. This factor as well as the free-draining gravel and flint soil gave us the confidence to plant Flint Vineyard.”
The site of Flint Vineyard overlooks the villages of Earsham and Bungay of the Waveney Valley in South Norfolk. Facing south-eastwards, the vines benefit from exposure to the early morning sun, which helps heat up the sandy soil quickly.
Originally planted in 2016, the vines won’t bear harvestable fruit until 2019, but in the meantime their development is closely monitored to ensure they are fully established and as healthily as possible. Until this time, Ben has been working closely with vine growers in East Anglia to source the best grapes possible in order to turn them into marketable blends.
The winery at Flint Vineyard has been specified to Ben’s requirements and contains some of the best equipment possible, allowing for gentle and considered wine-making. It was installed in-house by Ben and Adrian to ensure that all equipment and wine-making processes were optimised. This also helped save money, which is a concern for a small winemaker.
At Flint Vineyard, Ben takes a considered approach to viticulture. He believes in a sustainable approach and balancing the best of the organic ethos with the technology available to modern farming.
Grasses are encouraged to grow in-between rows to prevent soil erosion and foster a healthy humus in the soil. Pest management has been kept to a minimum and, where essential, in the kindest way possible. Ben cited the example of their electric deer fence, designed to prevent deer becoming entangled, as can often happen with conventional fencing.
All wine-making operations are carried out by hand in the winery at Flint Vineyard, including sorting the grapes and them into the press. Inert gas can be employed throughout various aspects of the wine production process (including inside the specially designed press; during the transfer of wine to the storage tanks as well as inside the tanks) to ensure minimum loss of aromatics, crucial when making vibrant English wine such as Bacchus. Ben likes to have control over all stages of wine-making but also is respectful of when intuition and tradition can play their parts. Some wines are fermented and aged in barrels, since this is where science departs and the magic of wine-making takes over.
The winery is also home to a fully-equipped laboratory allowing Ben to test, measure and understand the wine at every stage of the process, treating the wine from each lot, down to an individual barrel, as a distinct entity.
“At Flint Vineyard we spend a great deal of time blending our wines. Prior to this, during pressing and fermentation, the different juice fractions are kept separate. We always ferment the free-run juice individually to ensure that the highest quality can always be achieved with minimal intervention. When the component wines are ready, they are blended together to give different layers of complexity.”
Thanks to being in receipt of a research grant to examine the aromatic qualities of the Bacchus variety, the innovative couple have been busy conducting experiments with juice oxidisation, skin contact, use of enzymes, yeast selection and the influence of ageing. Every behavioural aspect of this delicious grape variety is being examined in minute detail, resulting in some really interesting parcels of wines that have been blended together to generate some fascinating profiles of Bacchus wines.
Flint Vineyard’s Bacchus 2017 was named by The Independent as ‘Indy Best Buy English Still Wine 2018‘ and included in ‘The Times Top 50 White Wines.’
The company has also entered into a partnership with Berry Bros and Rudd, who are exclusively distributing Flint Vineyard’s wines within the UK. Flint Vineyard are ‘the first English still wine producer to be listed’ by the prestigious wine and spirits merchants. Moreover, the English wines can now be found in some of London’s most exclusive restaurants.
In addition to Bacchus, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir varieties have also been planted at Flint Vineyard.
The current profile of wines made by Flint Vineyard is as follows:
(All notes and descriptions taken from the company website)
Bacchus 2018 12% ABV
‘This is a vibrant yet delicate Bacchus from the excellent 2018 vintage. Fermented in eight small lots including a subtle use of neutral oak barrels, the wine expresses many layers of the Bacchus grape.
The nose is floral with a peppery spice, citrus fruit and a mineral background. A saline minerality carries through to the palate, which also explodes with pithy lime fruit.
A delicate yet structured and complex Bacchus that will drink beautifully on its own, as an aperitif or with spicy foods.
No fining agents have been used so the wine is vegan friendly gluten free.’
(Bacchus 2017 won a Bronze medal in the 2018 WineGB Awards)
Charmat Rosé 2018 12.5% ABV
‘The Charmat method involves a secondary fermentation in tank rather than bottle, the latter being the traditional method used in Champagne. Secondary fermentation under pressure, creates carbon dioxide, which dissolves into the wine and gives it a natural fizz. By fermenting in tank rather than bottle and releasing the wine earlier, a more fruit-driven and approachable style of wine is produced.
Our first Charmat release in 2017 was a huge success, being proclaimed as ‘the finest example of a Charmat method wine’ by Matthew Jukes, wine writer for the Daily Mail. It was the first of its kind in England and an experiment on our part.
We are really pleased that it has been a success and hope to continue this with the 2018 release.
The wine is a blend of four aromatic German grape varieties: Solaris, Cabernet Cortis, Reichenstiner and Rondo.’
Pinot Noir Précoce 2018 12.5% ABV
‘Pinot Noir Précoce is a close relative of Pinot Noir that ripens very early and is particularly suited to England’s climate. It is revered for its aromatic qualities and soft tannins.’
(Pinot Noir Précoce 2017 won a Bronze medal in the 2018 WineGB Awards)
Rosé 2017 11% ABV
‘This rosé is a blend of two very distinct early ripening grape varieties: Cabernet Cortis and Rondo. Cabernet Cortis is related to Cabernet Sauvignon but ripens very early and produces wines that are full of pink grapefruit and confected aromas. Rondo is a deep red skinned variety that lends complexity and texture.’
Silex Blanc 2018 11.5% ABV
‘Silex (French for Flint) is a blend of white Pinot Noir and Solaris, both fermented in stainless steel then aged in neutral Burgundian oak barrels. This is a complex wine, with breezy floral notes overlaying fresh spice and toasted almond. It is zippy on the palate, clean and linear with good structure and can be enjoyed now or cellared for up to five years.
No fining agents have been used so the wine is vegan friendly gluten free.’
Address: Flint Vineyard
Telephone: +44 (0)1986 893942
- Robinson, Jancis & Harding, Julia (2015) The Oxford Companion to Wine (Fourth Ed.) Oxford University Press, UK.
- MacNeill, Karen (2015) The Wine Bible (Second Ed.) Workman Publishing Co., Inc, New York USA.
- Kindly provided by Flint Vineyard.