Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Women who turned stony soil into thriving vineyard

LITTLE did Cherry Thompson realise when she bought a one-hectare plot of land near her home in Wyfold that it would become an award-winning vineyard.

LITTLE did Cherry Thompson realise when she bought a one-hectare plot of land near her home in Wyfold that it would become an award-winning vineyard.

She admits that she only made the purchase because she was fond of the trees surrounding it.

Yet, 10 years later, the 2009 vintage of the English sparkling wine produced on the plot won the prestigious 2013 Judgement of Parson’s Green award, seeing off competition from 84 other wines, including three champagnes.

Now Mrs Thompson, 69, and her business partner Barbara Laithwaite, 67, plan to extend Wyfold Vineyard to one-and-a-half hectares in order to accommodate another 2,000 vines and increase their stock to meet demand.

But the women’s success has not been achieved without a lot of hard work, beginning with planting the original vines.

Mrs Laithwaite, who lives in Peppard Common, says: “Now people come in with huge machines and laser guides for straight rows but we did it with a group of friends and colleagues with spades and we did it slowly.”

After half an hour of digging, none of the volunteers had finished even one hole.

“It was horrendous,” recalls Mrs Laithwaite. “We had to down spades because the ground was so stony.”

In the end, they had to use an auger, a type of drill, to create the holes for the plants.

Mrs Laithwaite, who is non- executive chairman of wine merchants Laithwaites Wines, first met Mrs Thompson at the gates of Peppard Primary School, where their eldest sons were classmates, in 1989.

Mrs Thompson, a former psychology lecturer, had recently returned to the area with her husband Harvey, a motor racing designer and technical director, after living in Italy, where they developed a keen interest in wine.

She says: “Drinking local wines is fantastic and we were very enthusiastic about it because every time we went out we were always surrounded by wonderful wines.” After her husband died in 1999, Mrs Thompson decided to become a wine maker herself and bought the plot from a farmer.

She recalls: “I knew the farmer very well and he always used to say the land was really warm.

“He used to plant corn there but the ground is full of stones and used to destroy his ploughing equipment.”

She then talked to Mrs Laithwaite and her husband Tony, who founded Laithwaites Wines in the Seventies.

“It then developed until we got to that magical point where we said, ‘let’s go for it’,” said Mrs Thompson. “It was like a jigsaw slotting into place.”

After completing a viticulture course at Plumpton College in 2003, the women began designing their own vineyard, enlisting Ridgeway Wine Estate to look at the site and advise them.

They originally planted 14 rows of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier classic grape varieties before expanding to 25 rows in 2004 and 47 rows two years later.

Mrs Thompson recalls: “My mother was a bit worried about whether we could cope but everyone else just let us get on with it. They knew we were healthy and headstrong and I don’t regret it.”

Not only are the women enthusiastic, they are committed to their venture and even throw themselves into manual labour, come rain or shine.

“In the winter, we’ll come down just for a couple of hours because that’s all you can do when it’s minus two degrees,” says Mrs Laithwaite, adding that she puts on her skiwear and snow boots when the temperatures plunge.

Mrs Thompson adds: “It’s a small vineyard but we are working here all the time, seeing what is happening with the vines.

“You can’t let the vines get overgrown, you have to keep them healthy and maintain a close eye on things.”

Mrs Laithwaite says that despite her involvement with the family’s personal and professional vineyards in Bordeaux, she has found developing Wyfold Vineyard a steep learning curve.

“I had some background knowledge from our business but this process was very different,” she says. “You have to learn a lot about your site and its benefits and possible problems.

“You have to look at it every day because if you have got a problem then it can get through the whole vineyard in a couple of days.

“I treat it as a job and schedule in the number of hours I need to do during the week. We harvest some time in October, take November and December off and then we are back in the first week of January.”

The women’s first harvest was in 2006 and the grapes were good but didn’t produce a large quantity of wine as they had agreed that Ridgeway could have a significant proportion as payment for the wine-making process. In 2009, the pair decided to pay to make the wine themselves so they could make full use of all of the grapes.

It was this vintage that won them the award and having their wine chosen as the best by 17 experts was a huge confidence boost.

“I was absolutely astonished when we won the prize,” says Mrs Thompson. “It gave me so much confidence about the decisions we were making.

“A lot of people come into planting from different industries and have invested a lot of money so for our little vineyard to win against them was amazing. Because the vineyard is so personal to us it was nice to succeed.

“I was lucky that I bought the land and knew the Laithwaites with all their experience and expertise. I wouldn’t even have started if I hadn’t talked to them and Barbara hadn’t said, ‘let’s do it’.”

Now the women have high hopes for their 2010 vintage, which was recently finished and will go on sale this month. The 2011 harvest is halfway through the wine-making process.

Last year’s harvest was poor due to the cold summer but this year’s grapes, which will be picked in two or three weeks, are looking promising.

Mrs Laithwaite says: “The year started off really terribly because we had a very late spring. We had cold nights even in June so we didn’t think it was going to get good as we need a certain number of days over 20 degrees.

“However, the weather picked up, meaning we have had a longer growing season and the grapes have had time to mature.”

The women say they welcome the competition as English sparkling wine becomes increasingly popular.

Mrs Laithwaite says: “It is good for you and we like to exchange ideas with the industry and talk about the problems of each grape variety.

“English sparkling wine is now winning competitions around the world against all other regions, including champagne.

“Laithwaites has been selling it since the Nineties and I’ve always loved it but the quality is much better now and we have had so much good publicity that we keep running out of wine.

“Wyfold has proven itself and, 10 years later, we can say that we have a good site.”

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