Gold Medallists at the Independent English Wine Awards for an outstanding 2020 Pinot Noir Rosé, Fenny Castle have certainly been making a name for themselves recently. I was keen to catch up and meet the elusive James Cumming, winemaker of the Somerset vineyard, so I hopped in the car for what turned out to be his last tasting tour of the season before harvest.
I was joined by a mixed group of individuals, from wine enthusiasts to curious locals. There’s certainly a hidden, off-the-radar feel to Fenny Castle. With awe-inspiring views of Glastonbury Tor in the distance, I was struck by the beauty and magic of the place. Situated right on the edge of the Somerset Levels, in the tiny village of Worth, close to Wells, Fenny Castle have three parcels of vines. These produce a 100% Pinot Noir ‘Blanc de Noir’ sparkling wine, made in the traditional Méthode Champenoise and two single Cépage stills (Ortega, their signature variety and a delicate, dry Bacchus).
A former Londoner, James and his wife Gill arrived in the area in 2005 and dreamt of planting a small vineyard. It was clear the topography of the land and soil were well-suited to growing vines. The hill on which the main vineyard stands has an area designated as a SSSI owing to the geology of Tea Green, Red Marl and Celestine soils. With the rolling hills that the vineyard overlooks, it’s no surprise to learn why it’s such a rewarding lifestyle.
“I always wanted to be a farmer, but London life always got in the way”, says James. Intent on fulfilling the site’s potential, James and Gill set up home with their three children and an additional flock of Suffolk sheep. After graduating from Plumpton College, Europe’s leading centre for Wine Studies, James took the leap of planting a parcel of Bacchus vines in 2011. The remaining Pinot Noir and Ortega vines went in the ground the following year. The rest is history. Today, Fenny Castle are multi-award winners, delighting judges at blind tastings and fast gaining recognition.
Despite the hype, James prefers to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground, remaining true to his initial vision of focussing on small, quality production sold directly to consumers (the wines are available from the online shop, www. fennycastlevineyard.co.uk. He also has a selection of stockists across the South-West). His down-to-earth attitude is certainly refreshing; James has a patient, earthy demeanour and you wonder where the vines end and he begins. This is without doubt a project of passion, a family pursuit and a journey. Listening to him speak about the wines, you get the impression of an artist unveiling his paintings, an intimacy that’s reflected in his vision to distribute wines directly to consumers. “I’m interested in retaining quality, which is easier to achieve on a smaller scale”, says James. This hand-crafted production, handled with unparalleled care and attention, proves without doubt that this is a venture with a lot of heart.
The main vineyard site is divided into two distinct parts. The top half rising over 50m above sea level gives way to panoramic views and offers a unique microclimate, perfect for late ripening Pinot Noir. The remaining parcel gently slopes to the south, planted with early ripening Ortega, Fenny Castle’s signature variety, producing wines with freshness and concentration. It’s clear a lot of work went into preparing the site. “Pulling up in the car around the hill bend, I’m still amazed every time I see the place”, adds James with a thoughtful smile.
For the concluding part of the tour, James illustrates his technical winemaking skills with engaging insight. He carefully covers the process of second fermentation typical of the traditional Champenoise method, showing us where the yeast sits in the bottle. This imbues the resulting wine with generous toasty notes. With three and a half years ageing on the lees, his 2017 ‘Blanc de Noir’ reveals a delicate mousse, vibrant acidity, rich notes of red apple and pear fruit, and integrated brioche aromas. The tour group were equally impressed with his 2020 Pinot Noir Rosé. I was initially struck by its paleness which he explains is due to the gentlest pressing to avoid colour pick-up. This wine has structured acidity, with a superb strawberry character and a generous creamy weight – I took a bottle home and paired it with a thyme and shiitake mushroom risotto, which it coped with admirably.
Glastonbury is not only associated with the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail. It is also know for the myth of Joseph of Arimathea. The story goes that when Joseph planted his staff near the Tor, he saw it bloom into the ‘Glastonbury Thorn’. James Cumming has staked his claim in a somewhat similar fashion. I hope for some Josephian magic from him in the future and I wish him luck in finding his vinous holy grail.
Additional photos with thanks to Fenny Castle Vineyard