I’ve known Mike Huskins, co-owner of Dalwood Vineyard in East Devon, for some time. He’s one of those larger-than-life characters that is a real blast to catch up with and, one sunny Saturday morning, I had the chance to visit his vineyard in Axminster to learn about and taste his increasingly delicious wines.
Dalwood is an unconventional English wine story. It all happened at the local village skittles club one early morning at 1 am after a night of skittles and booze. “Did you know the Romans once grew vines up on Danes Hill?”, said one of the drinkers. Almost certainly, the alcohol (appropriately) played a large part in the discussions that followed which resulted in the group of villagers forming the syndicate which founded Dalwood Vineyard.
All of the 3,000 or so vines at Dalwood were planted by hand, with the first eleven rows of Seyval Blanc being planted in 2009, followed by Solaris, Madeleine Angevine and Pinot Noir in 2010. Winemaking duties are handled by Brooksbank Bars in Somerset. Mike himself is effectively the face of Dalwood; he’s the man you’ll see if you visit the vineyard, or enter into an often humorous social media exchange. He’s got a fun and creative, no-holds-barred way of describing his journey as a wine grower. Particularly memorable are the ways he describes each grape variety and the nature of growing these vines in Devon.
First off is Seyval Blanc, Mike’s ‘David Beckham’ of the vineyard. Likening Seyval’s hardiness and reliability to the footballer’s dependability, Mike describes the grape as “the one who always turns up to training, never misses a session, and never, ever lets you down.” Selecting the right grape varieties has been critical on this site which is particularly wet and perhaps a little over-sheltered in places. The team at Dalwood green harvest the Seyval Blanc to reduce yields by 20-30% to ensure they get good flavour concentration and keep the acidity in the grapes under control. Seyval Blanc is often talked down in the industry, in my opinion, and it is the mastery of this grape that has led to Dalwood gaining early award recognition, and resulted in the latest wines having some real stand-out qualities.
Among the rest of Mike’s squad of grape varieties, we have the delicate flower, Madeleine Angevine, that has to be really looked after to prevent it from being bullied by the elements, and the wasps! Then there’s Solaris, quite a different beast, the ‘Martin Johnson’ of the vineyard, which has to be controlled diligently to ensure that it doesn’t take over the vineyard entirely. Finally, there’s that awkward classmate, Pinot Noir. He likens his Pinot to the kid at school who underachieved in youth, was never picked for sports, but turned up at a swanky bar many years later with a beautiful wife and stories of his job as a high-flying hedge fund manager. Mike sums it all up by explaining that Pinot Noir “is that grape that puts the laces on a great pair of shoes.”
(Pinot Noir) “is that grape that puts the laces on a great pair of shoes.”
– Mike Huskins
It’s Mike’s affable nature, and his ability to humanise the various aspects of the vineyard, that has really helped to make Dalwood a success. Word-of-mouth has been strong, resulting in 40% of wine sales being made directly from the vineyard. Private tours can be booked by getting in touch with Dalwood, and Mike always hosts, so a good time is guaranteed for all!
Getting on to the wines specifically, and a good few vintages in from their first crop in 2013, it’s clear to see all the components, the four members of Mike’s grape variety squad, are starting to make their mark. The latest 2018 vintage of the Dalwood white, a blend of Seyval Blanc, Solaris and Madeleine Angevine, is my favourite wine from them to date. There’s a beautiful balance between the linear, fresh energy of the Seyval and the ripe tropical and stone fruit richness of the Solaris, seasoned with the elegance and pretty notes of the Madeleine. It’s a fabulous wine and, I have to say, it tasted even better in Mike’s presence, surrounded by a sea of green Devon landscape.
The current release of the Dalwood Brut 2016 is in a great place right now too, compared to how it tasted previously on release, having found that sweet spot of additional lees ageing (now around three years with three months under cork). It’s a blend of 65% Seyval Blanc and 35% Pinot Noir with a low dosage of 4g/l. Mike explained during our tour that producers that use Seyval for a young release sparkling with minimal ageing are making a mistake. Indeed, one only has to look at the Seyval belonging to Breaky Bottom’s Peter Hall, with often up to five years of bottle ageing, to see just how textural and structured the grape can become. Looking at the Dalwood Brut 2016 specifically, it now has a real sense of harmony with a fusion of ripe stone fruit and baked fruit pastry richness, enveloping the drive and energy that is characteristic of Seyval Blanc. It’s classy, well-structured and very keenly priced at £25 a bottle for a case of six (or £28 individually).
By managing distribution, and not wanting to rush new wines to market in the future, one can expect that sparkling vintages from Dalwood will arrive with this greater sense of balance and composure. The next vintage, 2017, will be of the same grape blend as the current 2016 vintage, and will be released later in the year. Keeping with Dalwood’s vision of making the wines that each vintage allows, the 2018 vintage will see the blending tip in Pinot Noir’s favour, with an 80% Pinot to 20% Seyval Blanc rosé blend. This is one wine I really look forward to trying, as it will be the first chance for Mike to allow the red fruit, his smart shoelaces, to really sing out.
Overall, I think Dalwood is one of those smaller-scale producers that is doing something different and interesting with their approach. As such, it is one vineyard that I strongly recommend a visit to in order to get a sense of what they are trying to achieve. Tours are approximately two hours long and £15 per head, and can be booked by contacting Mike via the Dalwood website (see link below).