‘The good rain is like a bad preacher.’ I was reminded of this quote from American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, when I visited Harrow and Hope vineyard near Marlow, Buckinghamshire, at the end of September. I interpret Emerson’s words to mean that rain is welcome in certain circumstances but, at other times, like a ‘bad preacher’, never knows when it’s not needed, never knows when to leave off. When I arrived on a warm, cloudy afternoon, Henry Laithwaite, owner and winemaker at the vineyard, was fretting about the impending downpours. His Pinot Meunier had reached ripeness, and he was desperate to pick, but the rain - and the warm nights - meant that there was a risk of some of the grapes rotting, either on the vine, or waiting to be crushed in the winery, if picked wet.
The Laithwaite family are something of a vinous dynasty. Henry’s father, Tony, is founder of wine retailer, Laithwaite’s, and mother, Barbara, is winemaker at Wyfold, which is near Henley-on-Thames, upstream from Marlow (also situated by the Thames). Additionally, Tony and Barbara own vines in Windsor Royal Park. Henry, for his part, felt that wine would inevitably feature in his career. After helping with harvest in parts of France and McLaren Vale in Australia, he initially looked for degree courses in winemaking. This was before Plumpton College had set up their BSc in Oenology so Henry settled on a Biology degree at Durham University where he met his wife, Kaye, who was also reading Biology. After this he set up as a flying winemaker in Bordeaux and McLaren Vale before buying some vines in Castillon, Bordeaux. Soon he got wind of the ‘second wave’ of English sparkling winemakers, such as Wiston, Coates and Seely and Gusbourne, and, having tried (and been impressed with) their wines, felt he could contribute to the burgeoning U.K. winemaking industry. Henry chose a six and a half hectare site close to where he grew up, on a slope in the Thames Valley, overlooking Winter Hill. Buying the vineyard in early 2010, and planting vines later that year, he made a very small amount in the notoriously poor year of 2012 but didn’t release that commercially. The first proper vintage came in 2013, and Henry has just sold out of the last remaining bottles from that year.
The chalky site is full of flint, especially on the higher parts of the vineyard, and this gives rise to the name, Harrow and Hope, the inference being that harrowing the soil requires a certain amount of optimism in machinery surviving the rugged terrain. Henry feels that the Pinot Noir responds particularly well to the chalk, achieving more longevity, more acidity and a more linear style. The climate here is generally warmer than many of the South Coast sites although the corollary to that is the cooler spring temperatures, particularly at night, which leads to the inevitable danger of frosts. The most severe frost at Harrow and Hope was in 2016 not, curiously, in 2017 when many vineyard owners in the south woke up to severe damage. Henry deploys bougies but, since they are expensive, he has to make a tough decision as to when best to utilise them. Downy mildew is under control but botrytis is a problem, and this year it has slightly affected the Chardonnay. Fortunately, the vineyard has never had any difficulties with flying pests; the wasps tend to stay away – as do the birds – although Henry is worried about hungry Ring-necked Parakeets which have expanded their population from Surrey and Berkshire recently. Having to net the vines would be one more tedious job he could do without.
Henry never has any trouble selling his wines. He has a strong local following and has a loyal membership on his mailing list. He has a deal with Jascots, a lesser one with Laithwaite’s, and, amongst local pubs and restaurants, the biggest consumer is Tom Kerridge’s pub, The Coach, in Marlow. He sells to various outlets in London, notably the Savoy and the National Theatre. And, as other English producers have discovered recently, demand from overseas has increased of late.
Harrow and Hope make four different sparkling wines, all at their in-house winery. Much space is given over to the French oak barriques, and the use of oak is a priority in their winemaking, either for fermentation or the storage of reserve wines. The Vintage Reserve now on release is largely based on 2015 with 30% of 2014 reserve wines. This wine is the only currently available one to feature all three classic Champagne varieties. The proportions reflect the distribution in the vineyard, namely 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier. This has matured noticeably since I last tasted it in March, losing the rather naïve cider note I detected back then and gaining a markedly more yeasty nose, more stone fruit notes, lime and a real weight of texture. The 2015 Rosé, made from 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Pinot Meunier, is no shrinking violet either, having real fruity heft but also serious complexity. 30 months on lees and 30% fermentation in oak have helped to give this wine formidable maturity and beautiful toasty complexity with more power to add. Next, the 2014 Blanc de Blancs: like the two previous wines, the nose is notably fragrant and blooming. On the palate this wine has developed apricot and passion fruit flavours with a weighty mid-palate; there is an excellent balance between ripe fruit and autolytic character here. And finally, the 2013 Blanc de Noirs (now sold out, so you’ll have to wait for the 2015), made from 68% Pinot Noir and 32% Pinot Meunier: the colour of this wine astonished me with its clear dark yellow hue, with not a trace of black grape skin. Again, the fragrance of the nose and the backbone to the mid-taste stood out with this wine, as did - counter-intuitively, since the juice was clear - a prominent note of dark fruit (plum and blackcurrant).
Henry, when pressed, described his house style as having a textural, savoury quality with a noticeable mid-palate weight. He said he wanted to get away from what has been described as the ‘hedgerow’ notes of some English wines. For him, that stands for a greenness and a lack of phenolic ripeness that he personally dislikes. He has managed to steer clear of that flavour profile in all the wines he has produced commercially. Tony Jordan, the Australian sparkling winemaker, and consultant to Harrow and Hope, is quoted on the website as saying, ‘I am astonished by the quality Henry has achieved from such young vines. The future of Harrow and Hope looks bright.’ I would go even further and say that, as long as the ‘good rain’ stays away for long enough, it looks positively stellar.
- 15 Acres