FLAVOURS OF CORNWALL: HOLY VALE WINE

PUBLISHED: 12:57 26 October 2015 | UPDATED: 12:59 30 August 2017

Castle aerial shot - cropped

Castle aerial shot - cropped

© Jerzy Bin

The Isles of Scilly are perfect for creating one of our favourite tipples. Wendy Johnson meets the man behind its latest export: Holy Vale Wines

The Isles of Scilly are on the sub-tropical tip of Britain and perfect for creating one of our favourite tipples. Wendy Johnson meets the man behind its latest export: Holy Vale Wines

Lifeboatman, lobsterman, hotelier. A look at Robert Francis’s CV instantly reveals that he’s a man with a passion for the sea and for good, locally-sourced food and drink. Now he can add wine producer to the impressive list of jobs that he juggles in his busy life on St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly.

Holy Vale Vineyard is the most southerly in Britain and sits at the heart of St Mary’s, within the island’s tranquil nature reserve. It has been Cornishman Robert’s labour of love for several years, ever since he planted 7,000 vines here in 2009. But winemaking is not a pursuit for anyone short of time or patience, and only after six years of tender nurturing, pruning and praying for sunshine, has Robert finally been able to sit back this summer and put up his feet with a chilled glass of his own Pinot Gris.

We bottled our first vintage in May, which was a huge milestone,’ says Robert. It’s already made its way onto the menu at our hotel - The Star Castle – and is absolutely flying out. We’ve had some great feedback.’

Summer diners at the Star Castle can boast that they were among the first to try the island wine, but they can’t claim to have sampled the very first bottle. That honour goes to the Duchess of Cornwall, who toured the vineyard in July during a Royal visit with her husband Prince Charles and was presented with the first bottle of each of Robert’s four varieties – Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir rosé.

We served her one of our renowned lobster lunches with the wine and were delighted when she said it was delicious,’ says Robert.

The Duchess isn’t the only distinguished patron. Michael Broadbent, a respected wine expert and critic, described Holy Vale as one of the most beautiful vineyard sites in the world’, while former Prime Minister John Major pre-ordered the first case of Holy Vale wines during his stay at the Star Castle last year.

You don’t have to be a big name to enjoy a tour, tasting or tapas lunch at the winery, though. Visitors are welcome between March and the end of October. I’m lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes tour led by Robert himself, and his passion for the place radiates as he shows me shelf upon shelf of his favourite wines from around the world and the giant tanks where his own wine has been fermenting. His enthusiasm is key, as it has to transcend the challenges that being an island producer brings.

We have the additional expense of transporting to and from the island,’ Robert tells me. It costs £1 for every empty bottle we bring here and another £1.50 for every full bottle sent away. And that’s just the shipping cost, it doesn’t include the price of the bottles themselves.’

Weather can be problematic too. Despite being known for its mild Gulf Stream climate, Scilly can still be prone to some typically British weather and this year’s lacklustre summer has not aided ripening. Grapes like warm and sunny weather, but we’ve had quite a bit of rain, fog and wind this summer. The autumn harvest could be testing,’ he admits.Robert’s Pinot Noir grapes have been planted on the sunniest south-facing slopes of Holy Vale to give them the best chance of catching those ripening rays. Pinot Noir is the most difficult grape to grow, but what can I say? I’ve always embraced a challenge,’ he laughs. I love Pinot Noir and have longed to create a decent bottle of it. I’ve never wanted to live anywhere but Scilly, ever since I fell in love with the islands on a holiday forty years ago, so planting my own vineyard here has been a dream.’

If the weather has scuppered things this year, Robert tells me he has a Plan B. So many English wines are sparkling because you don’t need ripe grapes to make it. If the ripening really doesn’t happen then that’s something I may be forced to try.’

One thing is certain, if Holy Vale Vineyard does produce a Scilly fizz then no-one, not even royalty, is more deserving of the first bottle than Robert himself. He can pop the cork, raise a glass and toast a dream realised.

This article first appeared in Cornwall Life October 2015 issue

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