I blame the blonde
“Well, Roy, you’d have to know more about wine than just how to drink it.”
Wendy Gedney is a petite bundle of energy and an inspiration. Wendy leads vineyard tours with her company Vin En Vacances in the Languedoc-Rousillon region of France, just this side of the Pyrenees around Cathar country.
She gave me a single piece of advice that has both daunted me and driven me on. When I asked her what it would take to do what she does, she said, candidly and without judgement: “Well, Roy, you’d have to know more about wine than just how to drink it.”
It’s a fair point. Wendy’s a wine master, but she wasn’t always. The circumstances that led her to leaving rural Warwickshire to ramble the maquis seeking out fabulous local vineyards in a region that was once a poor relation of the French wine industry, then showcasing them to a wider audience, are poignant to say the least.
It was an area she and her late husband loved to visit. When he died in a car accident Wendy was left with a huge hole in her life (now filled, thankfully) and a substantial cellar of wine, about which she knew only a little. She filled the void in one by learning all she could about the other.
She established a business in the UK, the Wine Wise Company, which led to a further venture combining the wine with the terroir though the birth of Vin en Vacances, her wine tours business.
For a while she ran both, but now the Wine Wise Company has been taken on by Nina Smith, while Wendy has turned a part time business into a full time lifestyle.
She’s written one book already about the Vineyards of the Languedoc-Roussillon and if this feeble stab at emulating her success works out, I’ll be happy-ish. I won’t be leading vineyard tours of the Algarve, which was the original idea and the reason behind the question that led to the answer that still drives me, but it’s a start.
You can follow Wendy’s adventures on her blog here, and if you’re ever down Carcassonne way, get in touch. I guarantee you’ll have a fabulous experience.
So, meeting Wendy and taking one of her tours as a day out while staying at Le Vieux Relais, a lovely chambres d’ hotês in Pepieux, near the Canal du Midi port of Homps, run by British couple Val and Mike Slowther, was the seed of this idea.
Finding out that an Indian family from the unlikely environs of South Telford had created a vineyard not a mile from our then home between Telford and Shrewsbury was the catalyst for a little more self-education on a much more local scale.
I already knew about the vineyard at Wroxeter, south east of Shrewsbury, and I was aware of the Halfpenny Green vineyard between Wolverhampton and Stourbridge. I didn’t know that, as a county, Shropshire was in the top 15 wine producing areas of the UK, nor that there were, at that time, no fewer than 10 vineyards in the SY postcode alone. Now there are 11 - and those are just the commercial ones.
I was lucky enough to meet head of the Rodington Vineyard family, Ram Chahal, early on, probably before their first harvest. Rodington is a haven of around 1.6 hectares that slopes gently towards the Wrekin. Like Wendy, Ram had a story, and his was even more unlikely.
Ram was a foundry-man who figuratively ploughed his redundancy cheque into the soil, spent five years nurturing a vineyard that was originally supposed to have been a market garden and was rewarded with an award-winning, slightly sparkling Solaris from his first harvest.
Ram and his family represent a small, family-based, almost DIY brand of wine maker. More recently, I’ve seen the future of Shropshire wine. It’s a future called Hencote and it’s like the Manchester City of viticulture suddenly appeared in the League One of wine making in the county.
Hencote, in the family friendly version of Dr Emmett Brown’s description of time travel in Back to the Future (part one, the original and best) is ‘serious stuff’. I was very pleased to meet the owner Martin Stevens and his son Mark at their 2018 Solaris launch. They seem to know what they’re at and, what’s more, are very clear about where they’re heading.
The interesting thing is that behind every Shropshire vineyard there seems to be a story of one kind or another. I’ll try to tell them all here.
So, I dedicate this section to Wendy, and Ram for their advice, their patience (and samples), in the hope that the future for Shropshire’s vineyards is as bright as it appears right now.