Award winning wine paradise is yours to toast in Sheffield
With sunshine lighting up an idyllic setting as rows of vines stretch out before us, we raise a glass of award winning wine. Where is this paradise? Bordeaux? Tuscany? Actually, we’re 10 miles from Sheffield city centre.
This is Renishaw Hall Vineyard and our host is Kieron Atkinson, who manages the vines. He has just picked up gold, silver and bronze awards in the Wine GB annual awards.
Impressive. Yes really, because English wine is being taken seriously, beating famous names and producing some seriously good vintages.
The vineyard was founded in 1972 by Sir Rearsby Sitwell, the father of the current hall owner Alexandra. It is quintessentially English, sitting in a walled garden outside of which you can see two screens from Eckington cricket ground.
“Sir Rearsby was a wine enthusiast. He planted here not just to be a hobby, but with the intention of producing good wine,” says Kieron. “For 20 years it was the most northerly vineyard in the world, but then one sprung up in Sweden!”
Sitwell was a pioneer and from that era only two or three vineyards are still going.
“I think there was an element of eccentricity, but he was optimistic and that’s really positive,” says Kieron.
“With English viniculture you had to be enthusiastic but the weather has changed hugely in 50 years. We had hot summers, but not consistently hot weather.”
And that’s what you need to grow award winning wine. So what has changed?
“Of the warmest 10 summers in the last 100 years, eight have been in the last 10 years. Sunshine dictates whether you’re going to have flowers, leaf or tendril. If you have flowers, you have fruit.
“These vines are flowering now in July and for that you need sunshine. The rule is if it’s a dry Wimbledon, then we are in business.
“The risks have changed from are we going to have enough warm days? Now it is about escaping the Spring frost so as an insurance policy we plant different varieties.”
He shows us the early ripeners - Madelaine, Angevine, Rondo which are perfectly suited to the English climate. “These are actually too ripe, which means too much sugar and not enough acid. That’s almost unheard of. It means we are now picking in September wheareas it was more traditional to pick in November.
“The hallmark of English wine is the floral taste, which comes because it spends so much time on the vine so it develops rosehip and elderflower flavours.
“There is a longer accumulation of sugar and the hotter it is the quicker the sugar accumulates.
“The best wines were from Bordeaux or Burgundy because of their weather systems.
“As the weather got warmer here and less variable we can make great wine, not just good wine.”
Imagine, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Sheffield
“When you think of Sheffield you don’t think of vineyards or wine, you think of the industrial heritage,” says Kieron.
“But Renishaw is quite low and in a warm spot, surrounded by a walled garden so it is sheltered. That’s good for photosynthesis which makes sugars and it is all about sugars and acids. They combine with perfect grape varieties.”
There is one wine they can’t grow and that is Cabernet Sauvignon. “It’s not warm enough. If I’m going to make it, I want it to be really good.
“You do the best you can do, which is dry white, sparkling and Rose.
“I have made some good red wine, a Burgundian Pinot Noir, but people are not used to it.”
And there remains a distrust of English wine, which Kieron wants to put right.
“Unfortunately, if someone has had a bad experience with something they relate that to everything else like it.
“It’s like Chardonnay, which for me is the greatest grape in the world because there’s so much you can do with it, from rich buttery white wines to monumentally serious sparkling wines. But there were so many it became anything but Chardonnay.”
He wants wine to become all about Renishaw. “The heritage is great and now it has got an opportunity to show that off and it’s value. If you make good wine, it doesn’t matter where you are from.
“My aim is to help everyone here make good wine so you always have a good experience when you try it.
“We’re so much more professional than when I started 10 years ago and within 10 years this will be a £1billion industry.”
To show the progress made, you can now do a degree in wine at Plumpton College in Brighton. This is where Kieron, now 43, studied after serving as a captain in the Light Dragoons, doing tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The vineyard is roughly the size of three football pitches and steel poles hold the vines in place. The Sheffield connection continues as they are anchored using a system made by city firm Gripple. The anchor is four feet underground to hold the weight of the vines.
They are flowering now and will become bunches of grapes - each shoot can produce a bottle of wine. There could be close to 10,000 bottles worth on the plot now.
They will be picked in October. A cold start to this summer didn’t bode well, but more recent sunny spells means they are about a week behind schedule.
The type they will make depends on the weather because that dictates sugar and yeast level. Sounds almost simple. “It is!” says Kieron. “It is intuitive. The biggest mistake is to tinker with the wine and the process. It’s really about simple procedures and not making mistakes. Gentle handling of fruit is key. I’ve got a 2020 white I’m handling very softly so it becomes more voluminous.”
This year’s gold award was for the rose and the wines he is making now will be at their best in 2025 so it is a slow process but the signs are good.
“We need to maximise what we do. We can make great wine, we win awards each time we enter but we need to improve and increase our tonnage. We get around three tonnes an acre, in Champagne that’s 10 tonnes an acre. I don’t know if it is possible but it would make it a more viable business.”
The wines are sold in Waitrose and the Co-op, costing around £25-£30. “People shouldn’t flinch at that. A bottle of wine is not one drink. You would pay £5 for a craft beer, a bottle of wine is six glasses so it’s £5 a glass.
“It is something which has grown, matured and takes six months for the base of a sparkling wine to be ready.
“For the sheer amount of time and effort to get to the stage where it’s ready, £5 a glass is a bargain.”
He wants families to have English wine on the table at Christmas, at weddings and has a good argument. “Our sparkling is as good if not better than the majority of champagnes.
“When we go head to head we win. Our white sparkling won silver and is on the same footing as Bollinger, Moet, Veuve Cliquot.”
Kieron praises the Langham vineyard in Dorset which won the International Wine & Spirit Competition Sparkling Wine Producer of the Year 2020, beating the Champagne houses.
“We are on that level at sparkling wine,” says Kieron, who also owns an urban winery in Derby.
He says: “It’s so exciting to see the confidence that’s building in the industry; the knowledge, skills and assurance that wine makers in our country are showing today is incredible. We’re in a great place to grow our national product to something truly global.”
As advocates of the English wine industry, Kieron teamed up with experts Oz Clarke and Charlie Womersley to celebrate the country’s superb and diverse range of wines during English Wine Week.
In an online discussion the trio discussed the huge steps the country has made in wine production in the past decade, leading with the message to buy local and support your local producers.
They also celebrated the quality of the still Chardonnays being produced by numerous wine producers across the country.
Oz said: “We're really getting there. The vintages show that England is poised to become one of Europe's most exciting cool climate Chardonnay producers in the next few years.”
Charlie added: “It is a fascinating journey finding out about the massive diversity of English wine - from Newcastle to the Lizard Peninsula. The passion, commitment and hard work all seem to be paying off for this relatively young trade, and the wines are lovely too!”
But let’s leave the last word to Kieran and Renishaw.
“People go to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, do all the local stuff and go to a winery. They buy wine and support them forever.
“This vineyard is 10 miles from Sheffield, you don’t have to fly here, you can have great food, a great dining experience and you don’t have to spend a fortune. How about that for a staycation?”
The next vineyard tour is on September 12. To book a public or private group tour, contact Kieron Atkinson at [email protected] For more vineyard details visit https://www.renishaw-hall.co.uk/vineyard/