English Wine Week: Warden Abbey Vineyard

English Wine Week is currently in full swing and runs from 25th May – 2nd June. To celebrate, find out more about grape growing on your doorstep.

You may not expect to find grapes growing in England, and particularly not in Bedfordshire. However, grapes have been almost continuously grown in the region since medieval times, firstly to serve the needs of monks and the aristocracy, and in more recent decades for entry into the burgeoning English wine market, now worth over £130 million.

Nestled between Old Warden and Cardington on the outskirts of Bedford lies Warden Abbey Vineyard, where a team of volunteers cultivate thousands of vines on gentle south-facing slopes – just as the Abbey’s monks did in the 12th Century. The vineyard, which has been leased by the Bedfordshire Rural Communities Charity since 2010, produces 4-6,000 bottles per year sold on a not-for-profit basis, with all funds reinvested into upkeep of the historic vineyard and the work of the project.

Jane Markham, Vineyard Manager at Warden Abbey, answers our questions about the English wine, the vineyard project, and the impact that the vineyard is having on the local community.

1) Hi Jane, welcome to the blog. Could you start by providing some background on Warden Abbey Vineyard and explain what first encouraged you and the team to begin producing English wine?
It all started centuries ago, when extensive vineyards were planted by monks at Warden Abbey. The abbey was founded in 1135 and dissolved in 1537 under the English Reformation, but it’s hard to know precisely when the vineyards were planted or dug up. The monastic vineyard wasn’t uncommon – the wine would have been used for religious ceremonies and for guests, and the monks themselves had a daily ration. The second chapter comes in the mid 1980’s when, against a backdrop of a renewed interest in English wine growing, Lady Whitbread decided to replant the monks’ “Little Vineyard”. She knew about the medieval vineyard, and after a fact-finding visit to Bordeaux, the first vines of the modern vineyard were planted in 1986. The wines were very successful – even being selected by Tony Blair to serve to the Queen at the Prime Minister’s lunch in Banqueting House in Whitehall to celebrate her Golden Wedding in 1997. The family decided to lease out the vineyard in 2009, which is when the charity stepped forward and the current chapter as a community vineyard started to be written.

The vineyard is a community project run on a not-for-profit basis.2) Tell us about the thought process behind Bedfordshire Rural Communities Charity’s decision to lease the vineyard.
BRCC has been promoting local food, the rural economy and sustainable tourism for a long time. When we saw an article in the local paper about the vineyard being up for lease, it seemed a great opportunity to develop a distinctive enterprise and provide a unique resource for education and community use. There were really good links to be made with other aspects of BRCC’s work, and the charity saw its potential for learning and skills projects, supporting people into employment or voluntary work, social and therapeutic horticulture, wildlife and heritage projects.

3) What is the ethos behind the project, and what impact has the vineyard had on the local community? What do your volunteers get out of being involved with the project?
The vineyard is run as a social enterprise so all the profits from the wine production go back into the project for the benefit of the community, and to help secure the future of the vineyard. Volunteering is absolutely key, and our fantastic volunteers are fully involved in all aspects of the vineyard’s running, care, and wider development. As well as caring for the vines all year round (and in all weathers!), they sell wine, run vineyard tours, and tirelessly support the project through fundraising and business planning. They run visits for local schools keen to offer pupils a chance to experience work outdoors in the countryside or learn about medieval life here. There’s a lot of evidence about how working in a green outdoor environment promotes health and well-being. Some of our volunteers come to us with specific physical or mental health needs, but the benefits extend to all of us. We’ve found the joy of learning new skills and our volunteers report benefits such as reduced isolation, reduced stress and being able to “switch off” for a few hours, increased confidence, satisfaction from making a difference, and feeling part of a community.

4) What is your grape-growing process throughout the year? Which varieties do you cultivate and why have you chosen these specific grapes?
We’ve three varieties here: Bacchus, Muller Thurgau and Reichensteiner. Back in the 80’s when the modern vineyard was planted, English vineyards looked towards Germany for what varieties might work in our climate and soils, and Warden Abbey was no exception – our three varieties all have Riesling in their origins somewhere. All our varieties produce white wine – the weather is too marginal on our site to ripen red varieties consistently.

Volunteers vine planting at Warden Abbey Vineyard

5) What are the most challenging and most rewarding parts of managing the vineyard?
Every year brings its own challenges in terms of the growing conditions, so you’re always learning, but that goes with the territory. I guess the really big challenge is trying to fit in everything we’re trying to do when there aren’t infinite hours in the week and resources are limited. I can’t imagine anything better than doing such varied, constantly changing and sometimes surprising work alongside such a friendly community of volunteers in a beautiful setting – especially when we literally get to taste the fruit of our labours.

6) And finally, onto the wine! Which is your favourite Warden Abbey wine and why, and what can first time English wine drinkers expect from your wines?
My absolute favourite is our sparkling white wine Warden Abbey Brut 2015. It’s made the same way as champagne and was matured for 30 months on the lees in the bottle which gives it a richer toasty character. Really moreish! Generally, our wines are very dry, crisp and fresh, but they change each year because each year’s conditions are different. They’re not wines that are produced on an industrial scale where there’s scope to select grapes from multiple vineyards to produce a consistent wine. We even call one of our wines The Nonconformist because its different each time! Every vintage is a unique reflection of the growing season which is really rewarding given the time and love that’s spent.

For more information on Warden Abbey Vineyard and its wines, visit: www.wardenvineyard.co.uk.  To get involved, please contact the organiser, Jane Markham on 07981 113714 or info@wardenvineyard.org.uk for more details. How to buy the wine.

All photos from www.wardenvineyard.co.uk.