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A taste of Dorset: Putting the sparkle into West Dorset

The quality of the wine produced by the Furleigh Estate vineyard is already being appreciated both locally and further afield. John Newth reports.

Growing vines requires meticulous attention to each plant, much of the work being done by hand. Here the vineyard staff, Jim Pitcher and Darren Johnson, remove the leaves from around the bunches of grapes. This is done during the last month before harvest so that the grapes get as much sunshine as possible.

Furleigh Estate vineyard at Salway Ash may be a comparative newcomer to Dorset’s producers of food and drink, but there is a pleasing sense of coming full circle about it. Rebecca Hansford, who runs the business with her husband, Ian Edwards, grew up at Furleigh when it was a dairy farm, but she moved away to pursue a career in London and her father sold the farm in the 1990s. When Ian and she decided to exchange Epsom for something more rural, it was a happy coincidence that the 80-acre property was on the market again, and so Rebecca came home to Dorset and Furleigh became the base for their new venture.
That was in 2004 and the 22,000 vines were planted in 2005 and 2006, with a further 30,000 just down the road at Wootton Fitzpaine. Although the Hansfords had considered other opportunities for a rural business, a vineyard was always the favourite because of Ian’s interest in wine. Eventually he went back to university to do a degree in winemaking and now is responsible for all the wine produced at Furleigh.
In their previous lives, Ian and Rebecca had had invaluable business experience. Although passionately enthusiastic about what they were doing with the vineyard, they were not blind to the hard facts and figures. Among these was that the first few years would be all about expenditure and little about income: ‘Our spreadsheets were very red for a long time,’ remembers Rebecca. The first vintage was in 2009, which was not released until 2011, six years after their first vines went into the West Dorset soil. Apart from their living expenses during that time, there was also the cost of putting up a fully equipped winery on the farm, ready to receive the grapes. Now the spreadsheets are starting to turn black, as performance exceeds expectations.

Rebecca Hansford and Ian Edwards about to enjoy the fruits of their labours

Out of the 60,000 bottles that Furleigh will produce in an average year, 50,000 are sparkling wine. The English climate is especially suitable for producing sparkling wine because we do not have the steady high temperatures of, for example, the Mediterranean, so the grapes retain some of the acidity that is desirable in a sparkling wine. The majority of vines are growing the three classic champagne grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meurnier – with some Bacchus for the still white and Rondo for the still red and the rosé.
Immediately after the harvest, every one of the vines is pruned by hand and the unwanted growth is pulled out and returned to the land as a mulch or burned. When the sap starts to rise, the vines are re-tied to the wires, and in the summer they are sprayed every two weeks to protect against mildew. The spraying is done by machine, but viticulture is labour-intensive and Furleigh has three full-time employees who have to be very versatile: they might be pruning the vines one day and bottling the next.
To give the grapes the benefit of any autumn sun, the harvest does not take place until mid-October. A gang of 25 pickers descend and bring in nearly all the grapes over a three-week period, cutting every bunch by hand. The fruit has to be pressed straightaway to prevent oxidisation; the last batch of the day might be pressed first thing next morning, but no later. Sadly, the picture of Ian, Rebecca and their helpers stomping around in bare feet and a large wooden tub would be out of date long since – today the work is done in two gleaming tubular presses. Inside, a balloon inflates and presses the grapes against the sides of the tube. The juice runs down into a trough and from there into large stainless steel storage tanks. It has to be done slowly, each pressing taking about three hours.
One of the many aspects of Ian’s winemaking skill is deciding how much of each pressing to use. Often it is only the first fifty per cent. If good enough, the remainder goes to make still wine and if not, it is thrown away. The chosen liquid remains in its tank to allow time for the sediment to sink, then is pumped into another tank where yeast is added to start the fermentation process.
The next stage is the arrival of a mobile bottling unit from Épernay, in the champagne-producing area of France. Although it seems bizarre, this is actually logical: the French harvest is finished before the English one, and a visiting unit avoids the need to buy expensive equipment to complete this part of the process. It is also highly efficient, being in action within half an hour of arrival and producing 4000 bottles an hour. At this stage the bottles are sealed with a crown cap, as on a beer bottle. More yeast is added to the wine as it is bottled and now it goes into store for up to 18 months. For the first few weeks the yeast is actively promoting fermentation, and then, although inactive, it is still imparting flavour to the wine.
The first step in preparing the wine for the market is to put it on a pallet which revolves very slowly so that after a week, all the bottles are upside down and the dead yeast has settled on the inside of the crown cap. The neck of the bottle is then dipped into glycol, which freezes the wine to create a plug of ice, in which the dead yeast is caught. The cap is taken off by machine, the plug of ice is removed and the bottle is topped up; this is the stage at which the dryness of the wine may be varied by the addition of sugar. The bottle then moves to another machine, which seals it with the traditional wired cork.

Rebecca Hansford and Ian Edwards about to enjoy the fruits of their labours

The Hansfords have been pleasantly surprised by the popularity of their wine locally. Most of the still wine is sold in a 25-mile radius, to restaurants and some retail outlets. The same applies to the sparkling wine, although the much larger quantity produced means that some of it goes through a wholesaler. Its popularity has been matched by the approval of serious wine-lovers: at this year’s International Wine Challenge, one of the largest and most prestigious competitions, the Furleigh Estate Classic Cuvée not only was awarded a gold medal but won the trophy as best English sparkling wine, as judged by ten of the world’s finest wine-tasters. It is a most promising start for a West Dorset business which is founded on a powerful combination of specialist knowledge, down-to-earth business sense, hard work and enthusiasm.

• Furleigh Estate is open for tours and tastings on Friday and Saturday. Email info@furleighestate.co.uk or phone 01308 488991.

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