Would you swap your Bordeaux for a bottle of Brum’s finest? To mark English Wine Week Mary Griffin visits Buzzards Valley vineyard near Tamworth to hear how homegrown wines are giving continental tipples a run for their money.
The word “vineyard” may conjure visions of tumbling Tuscan plains or sun-soaked swathes of Provence, but one Midlands family is painting the same picture much closer to home.
On the city’s outskirts, the Joneses are tending Buzzards Valley vineyard on a patch of land nestled between the M6 Toll road and the M42.
It may seem an unlikely spot but despite being just three minutes’ drive from the motorway this vineyard in Drayton Bassett feels like a rural idyll.
“We’re only 15 minutes’ drive from Birmingham wholesale markets,” says Leon Jones, whose father Ivan planted the vines just over a decade ago.
“When you leave the farm you can turn right and be in Tamworth in five minutes or left and be in Sutton Coldfield in the same time” he adds, “we’re right on the city’s doorstep.”
Yet this tranquil 60-acre farm feels miles from anywhere and its recent history tells a traditional rural tale of farmers diversifying to survive – and thrive.
Taking charge of the land in the early 1960s, Ivan Jones started out farming cattle. But after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth swept the country in 1967 he turned the land over to arable farming, first focusing on potatoes before moving into sprouts and leeks.
Later, with encouragement from son Andre, the farm diversified into the dried flower business before son and daughter Leon and Yvonne took over the running of an on-site restaurant and fishery, developing a rural haven for visitors from the neighbouring metropolis.
But twelve years ago Ivan surprised his family by planting 8,000 vines over seven acres of his land.
“It takes three years before you get decent growth,” says Leon, “but on that third year spray from a neighbouring farm ruined the crop. It was virtually obliterated.”
However, perseverance eventually paid off and in 2006 the Joneses enjoyed a bumper harvest, cropping 33 tonnes of grapes - each tonne creating 1,000 bottles of wine - and tasting the fruits of their labour for the very first time.
“It was pretty damn good!” recalls Leon. “It was such a pleasure to finally taste the wine we’d grown, especially as it had been such a long journey to get there.
“We wondered whether it was going to be good enough for us and whether it was going to be good enough for the general public. Fortunately, it was very good wine.”
Sadly, the year before their bumper harvest, the Joneses found out their dad, Ivan, had terminal throat cancer. He lived to taste the wine he had dreamed of but died the following year.
Now, Leon and Yvonne are continuing their father’s dream.
But they’ve have had to do some smart marketing to win over drinkers who are more used to a bottle of Beaujolais than its English counterpart.
Yvonne says: “We always have someone in the shop offering a taste of the wine so that people don’t have to worry about buying something before they’ve tried it, and my husband does as many farmers’ markets across the region as he can, giving passers-by a chance to try.”
Buzzards Valley has developed a range of 15 red, white, rose and sparkling wines, priced from £9.50 to £20.
It is among more than 400 vineyards across England, from the south coast all the way up to Yorkshire, producing nearly two million bottles of wine every year – and giving their French rivals a run for their money.
English wines are now picking up gongs from the world’s largest annual wine competitions.
Just this month another Midlands vineyard, Halfpenny Green, near Dudley, scooped a silver medal in this year’s Decanter awards for its Rondo.
The surprisingly robust red is made from grapes grown
during the hot summer of 2011, when the intensity of the sugar levels became concentrated, producing a wine with an alcohol strength of 15 per cent (more usually found in New World wines).
A rise in the popularity of sparkling wines has given another boost to English vineyards, which have become renowned for producing high quality and affordable alternatives to Champagne.
Nestled in Sussex, in one of the most bountiful regions for English wine, Ridgeview vineyard’s Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs (priced at £21.95) picked up the 2010 Decanter international trophy for sparkling wine, beating more than 700 Italian Proseccos, Californian and Australian sparkling wines, and top name Champagnes including Charles Heidseck, Taittinger, and Moët & Chandon.
And last year’s Royal Jubilee and Olympic celebrations are being hailed by English wine producers as giving their business a further patriotic push.
Leon says: “People sometimes go ‘Oh, English wine?’ and turn their noses up.”
But Yvonne adds: “I think nowadays the general public consider English wines to be very good.
“English wine is winning so many awards in competitions worldwide, we’ve proved we can compete with the best.”
Tour and a taste
This week is English Wine Week, the annual promotional week to boost English vineyards.
Buzzards Valley is offering 10 per cent off all wines and shop produce, plus free tours of the winery and free tastings.
Visit the vineyard at 37 Shirrall Drive, Drayton Bassett, B78 3EQ or call 0121 308 1951.