Enjoying a glass of wine in the heart of the home counties

September 14, 2018

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When considering the world of wine, several famous wine producing areas spring to mind: Loire Valley, Rhône, the Barossa Valley, Bedfordshire...

Bedfordshire!? I hear you ask in disbelief. Not in the home counties, surely? But yes, within view of Cardington's famous aircraft hangers lies a vineyard that has been in existence, in some form or another, since the 12th century, albeit with a 450-year break following Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries.

Warden Abbey Vineyard, in Old Warden, has been around in its current form since the mid-1980s, and was originally the site of a Cistercian monastery, one of only seven to cultivate vines in England and Wales.

During several hundred years of mixed fortunes and ups and downs, the abbey was well regarded amongst the local population. But in 1537, the abbey had to surrender to Henry VIII, who needed the income and assets from the abbey to fund his military campaigns. The abbey was pulled down and the vines torn out.

The Whitbread family bought the site in 1786, and it remains in the family's hands to this day. In 1986, Lady Jane Whitbread decided she wanted a vineyard back on the site and the little vineyard was replanted, with the former site of the larger vineyard remaining empty.

Tucked away from the main drag, it can't been seen from the passing road, but if you come along on one of its open days, you get the chance to see the 3,500 vines stretched over five acres, with thousands of large bunches of grapes ready for picking. Its latest open day was held last Sunday with a chance to sample some of the wares.

The vineyard, which has been leased by the Bedfordshire Rural Communities Charity since 2010, is now run by one part-time manager and has around 100 volunteers on its books.

The open day also gave visitors an opportunity to be taken on a tour of the vineyard, as well as watch the morris dancing, and, if you felt so inclined, purchase some actual local wine.

Some of the grape vines at Warden Abbey Vineyard

Warden Abbey produces wine from four different varieties of white grape - Bacchus, Reichensteiner, Regner, and Muller Thurgau, with Bacchus being the favourite.

Bacchus is a premium grape and is very popular. Warden Abbey Vineyard has won awards with its The Nonconformist wine including being commended in the Decanter World Wine Awards. Bacchus produces a 'fragrant' Sauvignon Blanc-style wine, we were told on the tour, and steps are being taken to phase out the Regner grape, which has poor yields and replace it with more Bacchus vines.

When it comes to making the wine, master of wine consultant, Derek Smedley, who is only one of 380 masters in the world, provides the vineyard with expert information on what grapes should be mixed together. The grapes are then sent to Denbies Wine Estate, in Dorking, Surrey, who press, bottle, cork and label the wine and send it back.

A glass of The Nonconformist wine by Warden Abbey

The output of the vineyard has been variable over the years, and, in the mid-90s, it produced 24,000 bottles of wine, but on average it yields 4,000 to 6,000 bottles a year. However, the vineyard has had a tough time of it in the last couple of years, with late frosts in May having a severe impact on yields, killing the flower buds as they begin to unfurl. This has meant the vineyard was only able to produce around 650 bottles last year.

But the charity isn't giving up and has started a programme of vine replacement to ensure its longer term future. As is usual with community run projects, donations are required so the programme can continue. Each vine costs around £10 and sponsoring one is pretty straightforward.

If you are interested in visiting the vineyard, it holds regular tours. You can find out more at www.wardenvineyard.org.uk/

alcohol, LocalFood, producer, wine


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