Just outside the town of Abergavenny in South Wales, in the little pocket of beauty that is Llanvetherine, lies the bucolic White Castle Vineyard. In the words of a friend, it’s a haven of tranquility. Owned by husband and wife, Robb and Nicola Merchant, its first vines were planted in 2009 and it has garnered nothing but interest and acclaim since. When Oz Clarke is banging the drum for you, I think you’re clearly doing something right!
They purchased the 12 acre small holding in 1995, converting the milk parlour into a home, with no intention of starting a vineyard at the time. It was Nicola’s interest in other people doing so abroad that prompted them to start planting and they purchased an additional 5 acre field in 2008. This is their south-facing plot and they have also since added a 1.5 acre, north-facing plot. It’s interesting to see north-facing vines at this latitude and they are currently trialling Cabernet Franc there, which I cannot wait to experience the results of.
I was given a warm welcome by Nicola on arrival while I admired the various awards and displays in the well-presented reception room. The tour was then conducted by Robb, an interesting, amiable and engaging man with a clear passion for and devotion to his craft. Following a chat about their busy time with Welsh Wine Week (www.welshwineweek.co.uk) we entered the vineyard after passing through their beautiful, 16th Century, Grade 2 listed barn (which will provide the setting for their first wedding next year) and were first introduced to their Phoenix and Seyval Blanc vines. These are blended to produce their Gwin Gwyn and Sparkling wines.
The Gwin Gwyn has a lightly floral nose, with notes of citrus, nettles and hay. On the palate it is wonderfully fresh and rounded, with lemon juice, passion fruit and crunchy green apple. A perfect wine for the time of year.
We gradually climbed the gently sloping site while Robb talked us through their history and growing practices. The harvest is undertaken by hand and usually occurs around mid-October, generally beginning with the Phoenix and ending with the late-ripening Rondo. The vines are trellised and head-trained with cane pruning on a soil of sand and loam in the south-facing plot and exclusively sand in the north-facing plot. It was nice to visit when veraison was just starting to make its presence known. Fortunately, the rain abated for the duration of the visit and we were even afforded the luxury of radiating sunshine as we admired these little green spheres of promise!
After reaching the summit (which was noticeably warmer than the starting point) we were presented with a stunning view of the surrounding hills. Having visited the Phoenix, Seyval Blanc and Siegerrebe vines we then crossed over to the reds, namely Pinot Noir Précoce, Rondo and Regent. No surprise that the Pinot is apparently the most fickle to grow. The reds are varietally made but they have blended the 2018 and 2019 Rondo with excellent results (again…love to try this). We then descended to the relative coolness of the lower level.
It’s interesting to note that the Seyval Blanc is of French origin, while the Phoenix, Rondo, Regent, Siegerrebe and Pinot Noir Précoce hail from Germany.
In terms of vinification, their wines are fermented in stainless steel with the whites avoiding malolactic fermentation, lees contact and oak ageing (preserving their fresh, delicate profile) while the reds do receive ageing in French oak (with the Pinot Noir Précoce remaining in barrel for up to 18 months). I tasted the 2018, unoaked Pinot while I was there and bought a bottle of the 2017, oaked Pinot Reserve to taste at home. The 2018 is crisp, light and floral with juicy red cherry, cranberry and raspberry on the nose and palate. Dangerously drinkable, especially on a sundeck! The 2017 has a more feral edge. Wild strawberry, sweet dark plum and violets on the nose with hints of herbs and cinnamon. The same primary fruit but also with sour red cherry and a hint of mushroom on the palate. There is a subtle warmth given to the flavours by the oak. Lovely colour too, edging towards garnet.
We then returned to the shop to taste the wines. In addition to the wines already mentioned, I also tasted the Rosé and the Regent. The Rosé blend varies depending on the vintage but this release (2018) consists of Siegerrebe, Phoenix and Pinot Noir Précoce. The Siegerrebe’s acidity is evident, giving the blend a pleasing lift. Really nice, summery notes of strawberries and raspberries with a vein of lemon and lime running through.
The Siegerebbe has an interesting nose of ginger, lychee, peach and apricot with some honeydew melon. On the palate it is light and refreshing with high acidity and a degree of minerality, along with the same stone fruit character and a hint of white pepper.
Finally, we tasted the Regent. Wow. It’s Robb’s favourite wine of theirs and I have to agree. It has great depth of flavour and a dark, seductive ruby colour. Very fruity with blackberry, black cherry and blackcurrant sitting together perfectly with hints of pepper, cedar and clove which hang nicely on the palate. I had this with steak, expecting it to be overpowered (considering its 11.5% strength) but its character rose to the challenge!
As previously mentioned, they also produce a sparkling wine, made by traditional method, and a limited ‘1581’ port-style fortified wine made entirely from Regent, which has been classed as one of the top 50 wines produced in the UK. I have to try these! If it means making a return trip then so be it…
After chatting to Robb further, while making my inevitable purchases, I left and decided to write a few words about my visit. I can’t think of a better place to start a blog than with this gem of a vineyard that is only an hour from home. It made me proud to be Welsh and I hope its reputation continues to grow for years to come. With quality like this, how could it not?
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Also, watch this for God’s sake: https://youtu.be/Moj3VcU2RdA