The Most Noble And Challenging Of Fruits

27th August 2010

It’s nearly 150 years since Malcolm Dunn, Head Gardener to several members of the Irish and Scottish nobility, described grapes as “the most noble and challenging of fruits…”. You can imagine him, weathered and worn, leaning on his spade as he regards a row of withered vines and shakes his head in despair.

Little is known about Dunn now, but many of today’s grapegrowers and winemakers would agree with him about the fascinating complexities of viticulture. Jill Glenn meets Simon and Natalie Tooley who are rising to the challenge at their Hertfordshire vineyard.

Simon, 49, and Natalie, 44, have owned the vineyard at Frithsden (a tiny hamlet tucked away between Berkhamsted and Hemel Hempstead) for just over four years. It all looks very organised, now, and very professional, but when they took on the land neither had no knowledge of commercial viticulture, or winemaking, at all – although Simon had always grown vines. “I had three in my back garden in London,” he says, adding casually, “I made a couple of bottles, that sort of thing…”. It’s better than no preparation at all, I guess, but the jump from domestic vines and hobby wines to full-on full-scale producer status is huge. His family and friends must have thought him mad, I venture. He laughs. “They still do.”

Natalie was completely on side from the start, though. If she’s ever questioned the wisdom of Simon’s ambitions, she’s not admitting. She, like he, is totally committed to the venture. When they began, Natalie was working full-time as a fashion designer, and had her own design business on the side too. It’s evident that they’re both very driven people. Although she no longer works full-time away from Frithsden she continues to design (her clothing range Calla Lily is available in the vineyard shop, along with the wine, plus other local produce and classy gifts) and manages the business.

It was when Simon moved to Berkhamsted to live with and marry Natalie that his long-held dream began, slowly, to come to fruition. His first action was to acquire an allotment and plant 60 vines – an improvement on the three in his London garden, but only ever a temporary solution.

They toyed with the idea of moving to France and buying a vineyard there. You might imagine that England was a second-best option, but it seems not: Simon later admits that he’s extremely glad that they didn’t take the French route. “I never knew how hard this would be,” he says. “Having to do it all, learn it all, and in a foreign language… that would have been madness.” And there’s the challenge of making English wine, too. Simon is confident that he can produce wines as good as any in the world: “I haven’t done it yet, but I will.”

He and Natalie literally stumbled into their new life one Sunday afternoon. Out for a walk, they were looking for the neighbourhood vineyard (there had been one on the site since 1971) in the hope of a tour and a tasting – and were highly disappointed to discover that Peter and Anne Latchford had stopped production and pulled up the vines three or four years previously. They fell into conversation with the Latchfords… and learned that the couple were considering selling the plot: they felt too old to stay in such a remote spot, and the land was going to waste.

The solution was obvious.

The following month Simon and Natalie offered to buy both the house and the land. The Latchfords were startled, even incredulous, but glad to sell to a couple whose intention was to run it as a vineyard.

The empty land gave Simon the advantage of a clean slate, and perhaps a little reassurance with the knowledge that vines had grown well here before. And it is an idyllic location. As you stand at the top of the slope and look over the neat rows to the valley beyond it is breathtakingly beautiful.

Within a month it was ploughed and planted with five thousand vines, and his life’s dream was on the way to being realised. “It’s scary,” he and Natalie agree, “to realise that four years have gone by since then…”

It has been, of course, a massive learning curve. Not only did Simon have minimal experience, he doesn’t even have the sort of background that one necessarily associates with vine-growing: when he and Natalie bought Frithsden he was working as a television cameraman, a job he initially maintained, full-time, along the equally full-time task of setting up the vineyard and the winery. It made life easier to be able to rely on a salary in the early, scary days… but I get the impression he didn’t have much sleep. Or much free time. It was only last year that he gave up the permanent BBC position, although he continues with occasional camera work on a freelance basis. He’s scheduled to do some filming for Never Mind The Buzzcocks this autumn, but he knows now that he can fit that around the vine-growing calendar, and that a steady stream of wine is on its way.

Output has increased year on year. In 2007 there was a small harvest, and, in defiance of received wisdom that they shouldn’t make wine from it, they went ahead with the vinification process and produced 400 bottles. It was a useful experience, Natalie explains, gently breaking them in for 4,000 bottles in 2008, and 5,000 in 2009. Having increased the planted area, they anticipate 10,000 bottles from the 2010 harvest.

Simon chose to grow hybrid vines, on the basis that they are now sufficiently developed to produce good-tasting wine, and have the advantage of being largely disease-resistant. The pure vine (vitis vinifera) is still popular in England, but it’s prone to diseases such as mildew, which require regular spraying with sulphur: expensive and time-consuming. So far his judgement has been proved correct: his white grapes have rarely needed to be sprayed, and he has only occasionally had to attend to the red.

He grows four varieties (the names of which are likely to be unfamiliar unless you are a fan of English wines, but which thrive on these soils): Solaris, Phoenix and Seyval Blanc – all whites – and Rondo, a red from which he produces rosé wine. Solaris was very new to the market when he chose it (how brave!) but grows well in Switzerland and Scandinavia, and has proved to be a great choice: it ripens in mid-September, with enough sugar content to produce a 13-14% alcohol wine – “and it tastes lovely”, Simon adds. I can agree with that. Sitting outside the winery on a sunny summer’s evening, sipping a glass of Solaris, you could be in any wine-growing region of Europe, imbibing a more-than-respectable local vintage.

Living at Frithsden has brought them close to the natural world. Last winter, for example, they looked out in the snow one evening to see eight or ten deer walking up their drive, eating the holly. Just the evening before I was there Simon had come across two stags – “complete with antlers” – peering into the greenhouse adjacent to their vegetable patch. It sounds incredibly romantic and amusing, but he confesses his reaction generally runs to “Oh God, not them again…”. The deer have destroyed walnut trees, all but killed the plum trees, even eaten their strawberries – and, of course, nibbled the vines. There’s not much he can do. Anti-deer fencing costs thousands.

For a man who has succumbed to the mad lure of a lifetime’s dream, Simon is nevertheless practical and pragmatic, and resolute in the face of adversity. It’s a physically demanding life, too, and there’s always something to do, even after the harvest when everyone thinks there’s nothing going on. One vine can take 20’ to prune, for example. That occupies a lot of winter. Apart from harvest, when he’s helped by a crowd of volunteers, he works the land alone.

He’s happy though, with how it’s all panning out. “I do love it, I do absolutely love it… but it’s not the idyllic lifestyle you imagine.” There are plenty of sleepless nights; there are long, long hours; there are natural challenges – the weather, the deer and the rabbits – and there are man-made ones – the law, the commercial demands of the business.

“I thought I’d just plant vines, make wine and sell it,” he says. Perhaps it hasn’t been quite as straightforward as that… but essentially that’s what he’s done.

How To See and Sample

Frithsden Vineyard is open to the public for vineyard tours, wine-tasting and sales: Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 11am to 6pm, and at other times by appointment.

Email for more info.

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