A tour around Flint Vineyard
23 August 2018
There is something quite hypnotic about someone who is so completely in love with his or her craft that, even when they are talking about it for the hundredth time, they still have the enthusiasm and freshness as though it was the first time ever. Ben Witchell of Flint Vineyard is one of those people.
I noticed a random tweet a few weeks ago from a satisfied customer of Flint’s regular tours. Flint is a newcomer on the British wine scene, but one that has made a splash from the start. I read a little bit about their story, and knew that I wanted to find out more. So I booked onto the next tour that I could.
Wine production in the UK is growing in energy and interest. There are some parts of the country that are suited to wine production, and we’re learning all the time about the nuances of how to navigate our interesting climate to do so more successfully. East Anglia, where I live, is one of the best places. It is overall the driest and the sunniest region of the UK. So if you were being truly organised about where you might set up a vineyard, it’s the sort of place you would find yourself locating.
Which is pretty much how Ben and his wife Hannah ended up there. Having studied viticulture and then gotten expert hands-on experience in a number of top wineries across the world, Ben identified East Anglia as home to some sites that would be suitable. They ideally needed to have a south-facing slope so that there would be maximum heat, and - hopefully - good drainage for both water and cold air frosts in the spring.
That’s a fairly specific ask, and they contacted a farmer in the area to enquire if he might know of any suitable plots of land in the vicinity. As it happened, he farmed some plots that fitted the description exactly. They met. They went into business together.
It was a perfect day for a tour when we arrived just before 10am on the Saturday morning. A little cloudy and gently warm - none of the fierce heat of the main summer. We were led by Ben to look at the vineyard, and to hear about the three different types of grapes grown there. In common with a number of British winemakers, they grow the Bacchus grape - one that came to Britain from Germany where the cooler climate is closest to that of the UK. In addition, they grow Pinot blanc and Pinot noir which they use for a rose and a sparkling rose.
It was fascinating studying the vines, and talking about their experimentation with organic methods to control weeds and pests. Being sensitive to the environment is a key tenet of their approach. And when you discover how much of the routine work of the vineyard at the moment is done by hand, you begin to appreciate why British wines may carry a respectable price tag - there is a lot of work that goes into getting the quality right.
Ben explained that they weren’t cropping from their own vineyard yet - it takes several years for the vines to be mature enough to be fully cropped. Their current wine production comes from sourcing from other local vineyards in the area growing similar grapes and using their expertise at the winery to create the blends for each specific wine.
This is one of the areas where you get a sense of wonder from the Flint operation. They chose as their logo a Venn diagram because of Ben’s determination that the company would be the meeting point for the traditional craft and the developing science of winemaking. You could see that the commitment for building a profound understanding of the different varieties and how they are affected by the various growing conditions is deeply ingrained - and a lot of time is spent on the blending process as a result.
We were shown the winery, with the sorting table and the fermentation tanks - all the very latest state of the art equipment so that the company, right now, can produce 25,000 bottles of the best quality wine. There is still empty space to grow into, and in due course Flint will be able to produce twice that volume.
Talk is cheap, however, so no tour would be complete without a tasting. Tasting British wine has often been a disappointing affair in my experience, with occasional bright spots when one vintage came together, but otherwise surrounded by some pretty high-priced and mediocre stuff. But the Flint wines avoided this altogether, with all three of the wines we tasted being excellent. The Bacchus was fruity with plenty of citrus and herb flavours, and had a nice floral finish. I bought a bottle more or less there and then.
I can take or leave rosé as a rule, but I had to accept that Flint’s rosé was really well put together - a very flavourful and full-bodied wine with strawberry and rhubarb mixed in with flavours I couldn’t put a name to (I’m not a practiced wine buff, as you can tell).
The final taster was of the sparkling rosé Charmat wine - named after the method of production that is effectively a halfway house between the sweeter process of the prosecco producers and the more complex flavours developed by the champagne producers. The result was a more interesting and complex sparkling wine than you might be used to if you’re a habitual prosecco drinker - and it was all the better for it.
We finished the tour with lunch - a platter put together of top quality produce all of which had been sourced from within 15 miles of the Vineyard. This included some fantastic artisan bread, particularly the lovely sourdough spread with the beautiful local raw milk butter. There was some beautiful charcuterie and fantastic local cheeses, including the Baron Bigod Brie that is the powerful British answer to the standard French version. All washed down, naturally, with a glass of wine of our choice from the Flint stable.
If you get the chance to experience one of the Flint Vineyard tours (you’ll have to rush for 2018, because they stop in a month or so) I would highly recommend them.
For the avoidance of doubt, this blog post is not sponsored in any way.