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Our Fine Vintage

Martin Hesp talks to orchard and vineyard owners about Devon’s cider and wine making

Examining grapes in the Swanaford vineyard

It is a happy fact for Devon that various forms of fruit grow so well in certain warm, damp parts of the county, and that nature has designed a way for fruit sugars to turn to alcohol. That is why the county is world-famous for its ciders and why it is becoming known for its wines.

Justin Bartley, from Ridge & Furrow Cider near Cullompton, says: “Devon has a proud cider-making heritage and cider orchards were once a common sight here. Orchards are recognised culturally and for the wildlife-friendly habitats they provide.”

Justin, who creates award-winning craft cider in small batches from apples sourced from his traditional ridge and furrow orchards, says the county’s famous trade in fermented apple juice has experienced a tough 18 months. “Cider sales fell steeply during lockdown as festivals, events and county shows were removed from the calendar, and pubs and restaurants closed. Many cidermakers still have full vats of unsold cider. This means a drop-off in demand for apples, and poses a real threat to the future viability of orchards and the cultural and wildlife benefits that come with them.”

Despite the problems, Annette Hunt – an eighth-generation cidermaker at Hunts Cider near Paignton – loves the job her family has done for centuries. “There is nowhere better to work than in one of our ancient orchards. The yearly cycle means each season brings something different to enjoy – harvest, winter pruning, blossom in spring and the welcome shade in summer.”

Annette says that her Wednesday Wobbler cider tours have become popular. “With more people visiting Devon, it seems they can’t get enough of our orchards – our cider tours have been selling out every week.”

Rebekah Paterson, from award-winning Ostlers Cider Mill in Barnstaple, has witnessed another form of popularity. “Cider vinegar has taken off massively in recent years,” she says.

Luscombe Drinks’ Gabriel David began his company’s well-known journey by making apple juice. “Apples have been grown in Devon for close to millennia and being part of that heritage is deeply grounding,” he says. “I value those roots and have learned to accept the ebb and flow of weather patterns and external forces.”

Gabriel adds: “There is a lot of support for locally grown and produced food and drink. Whatever happens, we all need to eat and drink, and you can get great satisfaction from eating something that tastes ‘right’. It’s more than a trend. It’s becoming a way of life.

“The orchards have shared our tumultuous recent history – the cold spring and the extraordinarily dry April coincided with their blossom season. The cold meant fewer flying insects to pollinate the blossom and the dry spell was a challenge to putting out leaves at the right time.

“They probably feel a bit like us – discombobulated. But they take it in their stride. There is no alternative. The size of the harvest will be notably reduced after a stunning vintage last year. It will be a good time to prune and prepare for next year. The trees will have rested and conserved their energy.”

From apples to grapes, Duncan Schwab – CEO at Sharpham Wine and Sandridge Barton – is feeling upbeat: “The weather has been challenging this year with a slow start, but things are catching up with the recent spells of sunshine. And, for us, these are amazing and exciting times. We have just planted a further eight acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier vines on a limestone outcrop.

“It is a challenge to grow vines in what many call the ‘ultimate cool climate viticulture region’, but it is so rewarding when it all comes together – producing world-class wines with a regional identity from the Dart Valley,” Duncan adds.

At Huxbear Vineyard in Chudleigh, owner Lucy Hulland agrees the weather can be an issue, but says: “Grapevines like hills and there are plenty of those in Devon. However, vines need lots of sunshine and are happiest in hot, dry conditions. When it is wet, we have to work much harder to make sure the vines stay healthy and disease-free.

“The future is about sustainability, in terms of growing practices and wine produced,” she adds. “At Huxbear, we work with nature to keep the vines strong by encouraging a healthy biome in the vineyard. We minimise tractor usage, which results in a rich diversity of insects and wildlife. As we are fully off-grid, our wines are produced using the least amount of electricity possible.”

Ben Goulden, from Swanaford Vineyard in Bridford, says: “It’s fabulous being a grape grower in Devon! We have a great climate, supportive locals and tourists, and a fantastic community of other vineyard owners. Low intervention wines are all the rage and something we’re right behind. So much work goes into producing the highest quality grapes at Swanaford, and we feel they should be left to produce their own flavour profiles in the most natural way possible.”

There’s an increasing interest in local wine, as Jonathan Reynolds, co-founder of South West Wine School, knows only too well. “Our courses were hampered by Covid-19 but we’ve seen a lot of interest since the lockdowns eased. We’re announcing a new raft of Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses. These are being held at Darts Farm in Topsham, with a few spaces remaining on the Level 1 and 2 Award in Wines this September and October. WSET provides globally recognised education and qualifications in wine and spirits for professionals and enthusiasts,” he says.

The weather might continue to be hit and miss, but there is a great deal of hard work going on across the orchards, vineyards and specialist classrooms of Devon. Some of our artisan producers might well be rewarded for their labours at the Food Drink Devon Awards on 4 October.

As part of its ongoing media partnership with Taste Buds, this is a series of articles written by Food Drink Devon.

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