‘Very flat, Norfolk’. That quip, attributed to Noël Coward, is nothing but a dastardly canard; having walked along the North East Norfolk coast I can tell you it’s anything but flat and the interior has hills which are decidedly undulating. Coward was probably thinking of the Norfolk Broads. Or perhaps the Fens (most of which lie in Cambridgeshire, anyway). Most of South Norfolk, where the vineyard of Flint is situated, also gives the lie to Coward’s remark and a plot of Flint’s Bacchus grapes is planted on a fairly steep east-facing slope.
Flint vineyard (so-called because of the copious amounts of that stone on the site) is the concern of Ben and Hannah Witchell. In 2015 they went into partnership with local farmer, Adrian Hipwell, who had a plot of land and various buildings going spare. Ben had long coveted his own vineyard in his native country after stints making sparkling wine in Sussex and as an Assistant Winemaker in Morgon, Beaujolais. He recognized the potential for growing vines on this site because of the low rainfall, well-drained soil and relative freedom from frost. The vines will not be ready to bear wine-making fruit until 2019 but in the meantime, Ben has made two vintages sourced from two East Anglian vineyards, Humbleyard in nearby Mulbarton and Martin’s Lane in Stow Maries near Chelmsford. In 2016 he produced two whites (a Bacchus and a barrel-aged Pinot Blanc).
When I visited, it was the launch day of the 2017 vintage with a Bacchus, a Rosé and a Red released to the public (I observed the first lot of 15,000 bottles positively fly out of the shop!) A sparkling wine using the Charmat (tank) method and a Méthode Champenoise wine are also currently in production. The Witchells have planted Bacchus, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir Précoce in the vineyard which covers several bases, the Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir grapes being suited to making still and sparkling. Over the next year they plan to plant another 11,000 vines, including a small quantity of Pinot Gris, taking the total to 27,000.
After an explanation from Ben outside in the vineyard about the agricultural aspects of winemaking including mechanized planting methods, pruning (they use the single guyot method) and frost treatments, he led us to the winery. This building was an old grain store in which they installed an epoxy draining floor and filled with stainless steel tanks from Slovenia, a mechanized sorting table and a crusher. They use a nitrogen system on top of the tanks – one of the few wineries in England to do so – to prevent oxidation taking place. They have also installed a laboratory where they conduct analysis of the wines and administer research into Bacchus, the money for which has been provided by a government grant.
Photos with thanks to Simon Buck & Flint Vineyard
And so to the Tasting Room where Ben took us through the brand new 2017 wines. The Bacchus, sourced predominantly from Martin’s Lane, has plenty of tropical fruit character on the nose and gooseberry, crisp citrus, herbs and just a little elderflower on the palate. Ben said that elderflower characteristics were becoming a bit of a cliché with Bacchus and he had endeavoured to tone this down in the 2017. I was struck by the full body of this wine compared to the relatively slight 2016. The Rosé came next, made from Rondo and Cabernet Cortis (grown at Humbleyard), a relative of Cabernet Sauvignon. This gave the wine a darker colour and a fuller body than many English Rosés that I’ve tried. It’s bursting with gorgeous flavours of pink grapefruit, rhubarb and cranberry with an extremely fragrant strawberry aroma.
Finally, the Red, made from Pinot Précoce grown at Martin’s Lane, created an instant impression with its concentrated red fruit character and flavours of mushroom and, from the oak, caramel. I was surprised that this wine measured only 10.5% alcohol given the intensity of flavour on offer. Half the grapes were whole bunch pressed and the other half were crushed after being destemmed in what Ben described as a "semi-carbonic maceration" process. This amply demonstrates Ben’s experience in Beaujolais and he was keen to stress that his winemaking is an alchemy of these traditional techniques and the latest scientific research. He was also eager to get across how his wines are relatively untampered with; little chaptalization is deployed, and no fining agents or de-acidification takes place.
Then it was time for food, styled by Hannah as ‘The 15-mile Lunch’. This included local charcuterie, cheese, bread and butter all from producers located within 15 miles of the vineyard. This was a very generous platter, incredibly tasty and complemented the wine excellently, with, in particular, the Bacchus’s acidity cutting through the richness of some of the meats.
I am really looking forward to tasting the first vintage from Flint, the 2019. If Ben makes wines from his own grapes anywhere near as good as those he’s created from other vineyards, then we’re in for a treat. Thanks go to Ben for his comprehensive and entertaining explanation of the winemaking processes at Flint (and for his stoicism in the face of the cold wind!) and to Hannah for her cheery hospitality. Surveying the nascent vines and the newly installed canes and wires for one last time, I couldn’t help feeling that continued and greater success is just around the corner for Ben and Hannah Witchell and Flint Vineyard.
- 7.9 Acres
- By Appointment