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June 04, 2018
We're brimming with pride about this article by wine writer Tamlyn Currin., currently featuring on the acclaimed Jancis Robinson website (a one-stop resource for wine reviews, tasting notes and everything wine related!). The piece tells the story of how Forty Hall Vineyard was founded by Sarah Vaughan-Roberts and includes an 'outstanding' review of our Sparkling wine too! We have kindly been given permission to share a copy with you here.
When you spend three years getting up at 5 am once a week to cycle across London to catch a train for the hour and a half trek out to East Sussex, England, you give yourself a bit of time to do some daydreaming. And when your weekly trek is to Plumpton College to study oenology, aside from your work in the non-profit sector and aside from bringing up two children, then you've obviously got more than a passing interest in wine. And when you're given a course project to write on establishing a vineyard, the obvious thing to do is to turn the daydreams into reality and establish a real vineyard – because a theoretical one is just not time-consuming enough.
Even more obviously, it would be to establish that vineyard in London, where there hasn't been a commercial vineyard since the Middle Ages. And you'd make it organic, of course. Because you need a challenge… Thus it was that Sarah Vaughan-Roberts (pictured above) found herself writing to various people asking them for land. In London. 'They were very nice to me', she said, 'although they clearly thought I was a dreamer'. How very British.
She didn't have much luck until she contacted Capel Manor College – a horticultural college in north London – hoping that as they were in the farming business they might know whether there was much land available in London for this sort of (hare-brained) scheme. In reply, she got a message from the vice chancellor suggesting she come for a chat. Capel Manor College has an organic farm, Forty Hall Farm, with a bit of spare land which they'd been renting out to Tottenham Football Club as practice fields.
It just so happened that at the time her letter landed on their desk, they'd been looking for ideas to put the land to good use. In a moment of serendipity, London's first organic vineyard was born. Of course, it's never quite as simple as that. The metamorphosis from football field to vineyard demands sweat and capital in unremitting amounts and then next thing Sarah was faced with was finding money and manpower.
Thanks to Capel Manor they had the use of land, office space, expertise and moral support. They also had a ride-on lawn mower and a vintage tractor. At the beginning of May 2009, thanks to the help of 100 volunteers, they managed to clear one acre and hand-plant 1,500 Bacchus vines. Sarah dug deep into her experience of grant writing and was not deterred when an application to the National Lottery for their Local Food Initiative fund was refused. In fact, she admitted, it was a blessing in disguise – she'd applied for money to build a winery and in hindsight that would have been a big mistake. She tried again, this time applying for funds to extend the vineyard, which was granted second time around. With £100,000 they could start to plant the remaining nine acres they'd been offered.
Right from the start Sarah envisaged the vineyard as a social enterprise business model – a not-for-profit, self-supporting, urban food project that would be very much a part of the local community and investing in people's lives as well as making seriously good wine. Right from the start, volunteers became the lifeblood of Forty Hall Vineyard. They came because they were retired, or working part-time, or working full-time and needing fresh air. They came for the exercise, for the company, to be outdoors, to escape, to learn something new, to keep busy, to meet people, to help. They came to plant, prune, pick, spray, mow and weed; to do sales, host tastings, run stalls, take on team-leading roles and eventually manage blocks of vineyards. 'Volunteers arrive knowing nothing and need a big investment in training, but they have HUGE commitment, 'You can't control tea breaks or take issue if they don't pitch up to work, but those long chats over a cup of tea are every bit as important as vineyard work.'
They now have around 65 regular volunteers: about 25–30 people every Wednesday and 10–15 people come two Sundays Within a short time Sarah began to notice that people kept saying, 'I feel so much better. Working on the vineyard makes me happy.' People's lives were improving, the vineyard was starting to produce wine, and Sarah, had she been a sensible person, would have been inordinately satisfied with that. Instead she put together her experience working with people undergoing real suffering and bereavement, and her experience in the area of urban regeneration and greening urban spaces, and decided that Forty Hall Vineyard could be more than just a community food project.
So she teamed up with UK charity Mind to be a part of Ecominds, a project which puts 'ecotherapy' at the heart of mental health. Forty Hall became part of an evidence-based project to test the notion that engagement in the outdoors and working with nature was meaningful therapy, as effective as drug therapy or talking therapy. Paid ecotherapists joined the team and began to work in the vineyard alongside people struggling with depression, anxiety, isolation, mental disorders, relationship problems, bereavement, brain injuries and learning disabilities. Not that you would know. Participants leave their diagnoses at the gates, and they are not under any obligation to talk to anyone. Volunteers, therapists and participants alike get stuck in with secateurs, skulk off for cups of tea and a natter, or bask in the sunlight with a jacket-potato lunch. For some, it's a chance to talk and be with people, for others, it's a chance to do rather than talk, working rhythmically in a quiet space alone with their thoughts. Over the years participants have gone on to get full-time jobs, get involved in other community volunteering, develop leadership skills and go into vocational training.
Despite all this, Sarah is adamant that this is not a mental health project. It's a vineyard and they're there to make wine – the best wine they can. In 2009, without prior warning, she turned up on the doorstep of leading UK organic winemaker Will Davenport. She explained. He listened. He signed up then and there. 'I will sing his praises forever', she told me, and I could hear in her voice that even nine years later she still means every word. Under Will Davenport's guidance and direction, the vineyards have taken shape. Plantings have increased, volunteers have been trained (and continue to be trained), and all their vineyards are certified organic by the Soil Association.
They qualified for the Environmental Management BS8555 Standard in 2013, which monitors, maintains and improves high standards of environmental performance and together with the farm, work to use energy and water as efficiently as possible as well as minimising waste. They even bought a horse-drawn plough to reduce compaction and energy consumption – but it turned out the horse they had was too old to pull it! (At this point Sarah muttered ruefully about resorting to crowdfunding for a horse…) They've now planted 10 acres of vines: Bacchus, Ortega, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
55% goes into their sparkling wine. Their first vintage was 2013 and they released a varietal Ortega. In 2015 they released their first London Sparkling Brut. Davenport, a strong proponent of low-intervention winemaking, vinifies the grapes in his East Sussex winery. When I asked Sarah about the biggest challenges Forty Hall faced, she rattled off a short list: weeds (barely kept at bay by their embattled, ancient tractor with its single disc and the dogged hands of volunteers) and funding. Then she hesitated. 'In fact', she said, 'the biggest problem is that people assume that not-for-profit enterprise produces inferior wine'. Well, there was really only one response to that. I ordered myself a bottle of Forty Hall London Sparkling Brut (sadly they've sold out of their Bacchus and Ortega still wines). I tasted it along with a line-up of organic English wines (and a few non-organic wines). It was outstanding.
Forty Hall, London Brut 2015 England Certified organic. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier. Champagne method.
Grapes grown in London, vinified in East Sussex by Will Davenport. Unfiltered. Low sulphur. Lemon yellow.
A thick necklace of tiny bubbles. Fragrant – mimosa blossom and lemon cream. Mouth-filling and, quite frankly, gorgeous. Chalky, sinewy texture – it feels alive and as if it’s somersaulting across the palate. Cirque du Soleil in a glass. Hay meadow and intense, almost sweet, yuzu lemon. A hint of English elderflower. Crystalline and practically crackling with electric energy. A finish as neat and crisp as freshly ironed and folded white linen. (TC)11.5% Drink 2018-2022 £28.99 Forty Hall Vineyard 17
Quite aside from the fact that this is the only wine made from grapes grown in London (Renegade and Cru both make wine in London, but the grapes come from Europe and around the UK), that it has green as well as genuinely noble credentials, and that it's social impact is powerful, the wine is beautifully made. It's worthy of a place among the best sparkling wines of the UK.
Words, Tamlyn Currin.
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