Discover Ancre Hill Estates in Wales

16th February 2023

A Glass of Sussex

To adopt newly hip and au courant Biodynamic grape growing philosophies in the 1970’s, required planned commitments and long term strategies: new owners of Ancre Hill Estate vineyards Richard & Joy Morris, from the purchased fallow vineyards in the Wye Valley rain shadows, needed to embrace a drier growing climate, and the Ancre Hill Estate vineyards slope maximizing grapes favorable trellising to sun exposure.

Most newly financed viticulture businesses choose the safety net afforded by conventional planting and trellising a vineyard in the world of grape growing. But winemaking has changed dramatically over the past 80 years, hence the adoption of Organic/Biodynamic Viticulture and farming practices has been embraced making alternatives to the same conventional wines. The results of Biodynamically farming wine rests upon choices, and protocols adhered throughout the cellar & vineyard cycle.

I freely admit to being raised on contemporary and conventionally made wine. When bottles smelled upon opening of burnt match sticks (like in certain old school white burgundy or Mosel Rieslings), most professional wine writers would ascribe to hygienic fermentations that include an extra dose of sulphur ensuring positive aging potential, but not initial impressions. It certainly didn’t encourage opening a second bottle in the short term. In less skilled or careless hands, the results can be woefully underserved wines that reconfirm naysayers of the organic folly of such an endeavor, and highlight the clean Conventional winemaking guarantees. However, at what cost of a wine vintage’s individuality? The perceived wine tasted may be an aberration, or a snapshot picture of Botoxed wine, free from the wrinkles that explain the struggles it took to become what those wines are.

In 1987 I was invited to taste the heralded Loire Savennières of the monopole Coulée de Serrant (a vineyard 100% owned by the Joly family), I was honored to be included as a guest by the US importer. After an introduction of Nicolas from the dais, the hosts began the sit down wine tasting, all recently certificated DEMETER organically raised wines, but the Joly Estate had gone further, employing Biodynamic principles in the vineyard and cellar prior to 1979 certificates. In 1985, Biodynamic was whispered often as EST or Transcendentalism, a misunderstood extension of organics vinous mysticism. In wine circles, this was catnip to international Vignerons aspiring to capture the best vineyard exposure results, positive practices for the planet’s environment, and hopefully contributing a je ne sais pas quoi to the finished wine.

“The 12 hectares of vines at Ancre Hill Estate are inspected by DEMETER every year to ensure all cultural practices in the Vineyard go above and beyond Organic standards in line with the full Biodynamic accreditation achieved in 2014.

Great care and attention is paid in applying the Biodynamic preparations to the vineyard. These are stirred by hand, in rain water and sprayed strictly under the correct conditions. Only with this level of detail and personal involvement can Biodynamic practices allow the vines to find the balance of life forces necessary for healthy growth and quality production.

A regular spray programme based on Organic and Biodynamic principles is employed. The use of sulphur is kept to a minimum with the addition of wild plant tisanes made on the Estate. Insecticides, Pesticides and Herbicides are not used at all, with weeds ploughed out from under the vines.

Extensive canopy management is practiced, maximising air flow through the canopy and sun and light exposure to suit the season. This is further assisted by the Geneva Double Curtain trellising system designed for cooler climates.”

At Ancre Hill Estates “a programme of cultivation provides the soil with aeration necessary for the development of a healthy micro-organism population, negating the need for petro-chemical fertilisers. Co-plantation and the promotion of wild flora and fauna help maintain the balance of the eco-system and soils at the Estate.”

I had seen a video programme highlighting superb unknown wineries and other fine comestibles from Wales. I was soon trekking in 2015 to Dublin, an international city if ever there was one, for a wedding.

First of all, I doubted I would be able to travel to Wales for a winery visit. The video (episode 4) was sponsored by MUNCHIES and hosted by the charming Charlet Duboc. Her objective: discovering new finely researched and promoted food & wine in Wales. Her travels led to Monmouthshire and ultimately uphill to the Wye Valley, home of Ancre Hill Estate. Ms. Duboc’s initial tasting revealed the Ancre Hill Blanc de Blancs (Chardonnay) sparkling wine. The winemaker, in the video, expressed his mild dissatisfaction with the previous vintage, he may have an inside reveal to the challenges of biodynamics farming and vinification allowing him to be hyper critical. I only know if the previous winemakers aren’t in tune with the synchronous vineyards to fully express their character.

Back in Dublin, at the Winding Stair restaurant, a fellow dining guest intrigued by my enthusiasm inquired if the next day I’d like to taste Ancre Hill wines? He invited me to his office to open two recent Ancre Hill Estate offerings. Wine enthusiasts are generous from birth, rarely considering quid pro quo accountability.

I was impressed finding the Ancre Hill Estate Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine’s pearlescent bubbles, fineness, and assertive core fruit yet absent of cidery contributions most often revealed by humble fermentation techniques. This clearly is a wine team striving to achieve exceptional goals. The wine’s finish lasts 30 seconds, inviting a second glass! The Ancre Hill Estate young, still Pinot Noir was richly textured, with an alluring pale color, yet deeply shimmering mirror surface to the wine. The aroma of plum fruits combined with raspberries kept things lively, with an undertone of terroir minerality found most often in Burgundy.

One of the most iconic Biodynamic grape farmers in the Loire, the Famille Joly of Coulée de Serrant (the vineyard aka Savennières). I was fortunate to have in Restaurant ElizabethDaniel’s cellar the 1985 Nicolas Joly Coulée de Serrant wine (monopole vineyard post Demeter certificate), I allowed to mature until the year 2000. A winemaker friend with dinner reservations at the restaurant (I was the sommelier), asked if I had something uniquely delicious to celebrate with tonight’s dinner. This was an opportunity to share a rare treat, a cellared Nicolas Joly Coulée de Serrant. Organic/Biodynamic (natural) wines are slow to “come around” and become the wines they are meant to be. These wines require equally the same respect and matriculation.

We three (winemaker, Chef, and myself) sniffed, slurped and cogitated over that ‘85 wine bottle for hours, it was an eye opening possibility to the wonderful opportunities biodynamics can produce with an exceptional vineyard and a committed grower. In my view, you require all three pillars firmly established (favorable vineyard, canopy management and a cellar team’s commitment) to make as great a wine as your vineyard can produce.

Ancre Hill Estate makes a superb case for Biodynamic sparkling, and still Pinot Noir wines. My next trip will include Wales’ Wye Valley in Monmouthshire to taste the Chardonnay and Albariño wines!

Peter Birmingham

Restaurant General Manager, Corporate Beverage Director, & Hospitality Consultant, with these qualities he represents a Triple Threat: a culinary tableside historian, an accomplished wine taster with the casual ability to make flavor relationships and beverage quality value accessible.