Muddy chats vines and wines with Woodchester Valley
Did someone say world class wines from Gloucestershire? Step this way madam ... We chat to the mother and daughter duo behind the bottles at award-winning Woodchester Valley Vineyard.
At Muddy we love a glass or four of wine and British vineyards are giving France, Spain and Italy a run for their money at the moment. So finding out Stroud is home to one of the hottest wine producers in the UK got us very excited.
Woodchester Valley is a family-run boutique vineyard and winery – imagine acres of Elysian fields with vines as far as the eye can see. It makes the Loire Valley seem soo 2019.
Woodchester is also a pleasure park for wine lovers, you can book a guided tour, get stuck into some tasting sessions, or snaffle some homegrown bottles in the shop. And, if sipping a world-class wine on your terrace with the dreamiest views in the ‘Wolds sounds, well, alright, you can do that too, staying in one of it’s guest rooms.
So who runs the show? Mum and daughter A-team Chloe and Fiona Shiner.
We caught up with the duo to chat grapes, gripes and the glamorous life of working on a vineyard.
Hello Fiona and Chloe … how did Woodchester come about?
Fiona: Back in 2007 I decided to plant one trial acre of vines at our home in Amberley, out of curiosity. I’d been living and working in Hong Kong as a lawyer (I went for one and stayed for 17) and when we decided to come back it felt like a great time to start something new. I’d spent a few years researching English wine as a hobby, and I was looking for an excuse not to go back to an office so it combined those two things! Plus, the children were growing into teenagers and I needed to occupy my time.
We had land surrounding our house, on steep slopes with limestone soil and we wanted to put it to use, the new era of English wine was also establishing – it felt like a really exciting time to be part of. The grapes we planted were Bacchus for still wine and Pinot Noir and Seyval Blanc for sparkling. That one acre has now increased to 55 and a team of two is now 12!
Owning a vineyard sounds like the dream?
Fiona: It was never part of my life plan originally, if you’d told me a few years ago I would come back to England, plant a vineyard, set up a winery and have visitors doing tours, tastings and stays, I would have laughed.
Add that to the fact that as a lawyer I am naturally very risk-averse and cautious, planting a vineyard in our marginal climate is not a sure thing. But once I’d planted the one acre I realised how much I loved it and it took off. I count myself lucky to live in a beautiful part of England and yes, I do pinch myself sometimes.
So what wines can we quaff there?
Chloe: We grow traditional varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris (for sparkling and still wine), we have a planting of Sauvignon Blanc which is rare in the UK and has won us two international gold medals and varieties such as Bacchus, Ortega and Seyval Blanc for our cool climate. We are single estate and have produced all our own wines, from grapes sourced only from our Cotswold vineyards. Unusually, for an English Vineyard we have an equal focus on still and sparkling wines.
What can one get up to at a vineyard?
Fiona: People love our classic tour which takes you through the journey of English wine making, into the vineyard and winery and introduces you to six of our wines with one sparkling included. We also offer Sparkling Wine Tours and special events such as Fizz and Chips evenings during the year.
Chloe: We’ve got a fantastic, close knit and friendly team, it’s one thing we really pride ourselves on, and they host our tours and events, they’re all extremely knowledgeable about wine (a lot more qualified than me!).
Chloe, was working at the family business a shoe-in?
Chloe: Not originally. I’d helped with the odd bit of planting & picking over the years while I was at university. One particularly memorable Spring we were planting 20,000 vines in Woodchester and we had to follow the planting machine putting little wooden sticks and guards around each vine! But I joined full time three years ago. I took a sabbatical from my job at Deloitte in London to come and help out for six months as the business was expanding, and I never went back. It’s been such an exciting few years for the English wine industry as a whole and I’ve loved being a part of that.
It’s totally different to my previous career though and as a small family business you get involved in every aspect from cleaning out tanks in the winery to promoting the wine at events, so there’s never a dull day. My main job is managing the day to day side of the business. I still occasionally put my accounting skills to use but there’s so much more to my job than that. I’d love to learn more about the viticulture and wine-making side but there’s always so much going on that it’s hard to find time!
Tell us something we’d never know about life on a vineyard?
Fiona: It’s actually hard work! Stilettos in the vineyard – sadly not – a working vineyard and winery is a lot of hard work, but if you love your work then the ‘hard’ has a different meaning – it is an ‘enjoyable’ hard if that makes sense …. the days are long and we have to keep up with the vigorous growth of the vines as it is a nightmare to play catch up. But wine is also one of life’s great pleasures and when I get to sip a glass of our
crisp Bacchus or pop the cork on a bottle of our Cotswold sparkling it’s does always feel special.
What’s the secret to staying sane working with family?
Fiona: Sane?! There is nothing sane about working with family. Work follows you home at the end of the day and then (in our case) you drink it together. I was surprised but delighted when I got the call from Chloe to say that she was looking to move from Deloitte as Woodchester was very much a start up it could not have come at a better time and although only originally on a career break from Deloitte Chloe has been with us 3 years her nickname in the office already is ‘The Boss’, which sums up the dynamics. We both have strong opinions so there has to be give and take depending on the area under discussion. But it is one of the highlights of the job to have a member of the family involved in it.
Chloe: I think my mum would say I usually win the arguments but I’d say the other way round! On the big decisions we tend to have the same end goal in sight though, one of the good things about working with family is that you do feel you can properly share your views and opinions. Sometimes it’s hard to strike a balance between where work stops and family time starts and I’d say that this is the hardest part.
Tell us the favourite wine that you produce?
Chloe: At the moment I’m really enjoying our Orpheus
Bacchus & our Pinot Rosé for the warmer summer evenings.
Tell us the best and worst of times at the vineyard?
Fiona: In the early days, when I had just learned to drive our small vineyard tractor (called ‘Pablo’!) I caught the back of the tractor on our deer fencing and pulled a large section of it down behind the tractor just after we had spent a fortune putting it up – I felt very embarrassed and it was either laugh or cry. And Chloe cleaning out the press for the first time – you have to get inside the press, emerging unaware that she had mascara smudged all over the place was a real picture (it is a drenching experience). It is challenging to grow wine grapes in our climate and yields are smaller here than in the more traditional wine growing regions so we have to be picking the right varieties to make it all work.
How has crazy 2020 been for you at the vineyard?
Fiona: Lockdown started at the beginning of the vineyards growing season – budburst, and there is nothing virtual about the vineyards. So we have continued working full time in the vines within the social distancing rules which is easy to achieve given the space and the outdoors. Family and friends have been drafted in for picking which doesn’t end until October which can be glorious if sunny or cold and wet.
With the shop and the tasting room closed we have been very appreciative of the support from our local customers to and those buying online, it has kept us going. And thankfully our lovely accomodation (above) is now fully reopen, including our three vineyard rooms, Retreat Farmhouse (sleeps 4) and our large Valley House (sleeps 12).
Chloe: It’s definitely been a challenging few months. All our events had to be postponed, we also chose to close our shop despite it falling under the ‘essential’ off-licence category and switch to online and over the phone sales. But we’ve also seen lots of new customers trying the wines for the first time – there’s been lots of talk about English wine during the lockdown period and a focus on supporting local so we’ve been delighted by people choosing to try our wines.
Any celebs ever drop by for a bottle or three?
Fiona: Not sure … maybe incognito … but our Culver Hill white wine was served at the Vintner’s dinner event at the table of HRH the Duchess of Cornwall recently, that was a real highlight.
Chloe: We’ve had a few customers whose names I recognised buying from the shop (top secret though sorry!) which is always exciting.
We’re whisking you away to your dream vineyard. Where shall we set the satnav?
Chloe: I was lucky enough to visit the Willamette Valley in Oregon a couple of years ago which has some lovely wines and a similar climate to us in the UK so that was a really interesting trip. I’ve never been to Champagne so there please.
Where would we find you hanging out in Glos?
Chloe: I love taking the dog for a walk and exploring the local area, through the Five Valleys, usually ending up a one of the many pubs. I love Nailsworth for a bite to eat at any of the restaurants and I’m also a big fan of the Cheltenham festivals – all four of them – so you’d find me there.
What other wines do you love when you’re not sipping your own?
Chloe: We had some fantastic wines from Argentina & Chile on our most recent family holiday, aka research trip! But I also love exploring some of the other wines from England & Wales.
English wine is so hot right now, is it a jungle out there in the rolling hills?
Chloe: It’s generally really supportive although of course a bit of friendly competition never hurt anyone. The industry is still in its infancy and it’s a small world so there’s lots of familiar faces – for example our winemaker Jeremy did his oenology degree alongside other winemakers now heading up wineries in the UK. There’s lots of positivity about English wine, lots of wine writers supporting the industry, and I think everyone in the UK wine world wants to see the reputation of English wine continue to grow.
Share your lust-list wine accessories or spots with us?
Chloe: Sadly our budget tends to go on kit for the vineyard and winery and lab equipment! But our favourite spot is out in the winery garden, where we’ve got a raised terrace which looks out across the vines and catches the last sun of the day – we get some lovely sunsets there.
And your perfect evening wine vibe?
Chloe: I’ve recently been listening to the Normal People soundtrack having binge watched the TV series which is a good chilled one for working to. And bookwise I’m about to read ‘An American Marriage’ and ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’. I like to listen to a podcast called ‘There’s No Such Thing as a Fish’ too.
We’ve embraced the sustainable ‘Good Life’ in masses across the UK since lockdown. Any tips for would-be vineyard-istas?
Fiona : A must-read for anyone into Viticulture by Stephen Skelton. It tells you all you need to know about growing vines in the UK and I highly recommend it.
What’s the next big thing for Woodchester?
Chloe: We’ve recently released our new Atcombe White which is the first of our 2019 vintage wines, it’s a heady mix of peach blossom, pear and citrus with a whiff of elderflower and nettle. And we have more new releases coming later in the year. We’ve got some plans for a Wine Club coming later this year which we’re really excited about and of course being September it’s harvest time again which is the busiest, most tiring but most exciting time of year for us. And watch this space, as we’re looking at creating a still Chardonnay as a new wine for us this year.