As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Cornwall, Florence Fortnam follows her nose to Cornwall's best-loved vineyard, the Camel Valley Vineyard in Bodmin, for a tour and tasting session in the beautiful rolling Cornish countryside.
Before me stood a valley of vines, south-facing and sun-drenched, row after row of leafy grapes whose neat lines descended, arrow-straight, into the valley below. Behind me, the clinking of glasses from couples sitting out on a veranda soaking up the green view and supping wine processed just 20 metres up the hill. The scorching sun had turned the parched grass to straw but you could almost hear the grapes drinking in the unseasonal rays.
I could easily have been in the south of France. Every sight, sound and smell was willing me to believe I was on a European wine-tasting trip – only the screeching seagull overhead was giving the game away. I was, in fact, somewhere a little closer to home – in Cornwall; the Camel Valley, to be precise, and I had come to the county's best-loved vineyard to find out about Cornish wine on one of the vineyard’s daily tours of the vines and winery.
When Sam’s parents arrived here in 1982 they hadn’t planned any of this. “They were farmers but one day decided to plant a few vines to see what happened,” Sam smiled as he led our tour group down towards the impressive 44kms of vines in the valley. Armed with little more than some basic secondhand equipment, a sense of adventure and a lot of enthusiasm, Bob and Annie planted 8,000 vines, all by hand, planting a staggering 400 vines per day. Who could have predicted that, within thirty years, they’d have over 24,000 vines, six different varieties of grape and hundreds of awards under their belts.
You wouldn’t think that Cornwall’s climate was suited to viticulture, and as the sun beat down on that blisteringly hot day in late July it was difficult to remember what a normal British summer was like. Sam explained that it hadn’t been this hot since they first planted the crops. “We usually produce roughly 110,000 bottles a year; this year, however,” he said smiling, raising his hands up to the sun, “we hope it will be more like 200,000. It’s going to be a good year for us.”
Despite the southwest's relatively mild climate, the British weather – I mean the more typical stuff of rain and cloud – has a huge influence on the crop yield. “Our vines usually yield two tonnes of fruit per acre annually,” he explained. “By comparison, southern European vineyards yield about five and a half tonnes per acre.”
I don’t profess to be much of a connoisseur when it comes to wine, and I was pleased that there were plenty of others in the party who appeared to be just as baffled at the terminology that was flying out of Sam’s mouth as we progressed through the tour. But there's absolutely no snobbery here: Sam knows his stuff and wants to share it with you. It's all incredibly relaxed, helped in no small part to his enthusiasm for this patch of Cornwall and his laid-back approach.
At the top of the site is the winery where the wine is stored, bottled and labelled. As Sam pulled the sliding doors open – and with the 110,000 bottles-a-year figure spinning round my head – I half expected to see a vast production line in operation. To our surprise, the production line consisted of just one person, systematically capping and labelling the bottles as they tinkled their way along the conveyor belt. One of the group piped up to ask where the rest of the team was. "This is it – it's a small team, and I think that's part of our success" said Sam. Despite the awards and accolades, this is still definitely a family affair, and there are no plans to change that. "Mum still prunes her original vines herself – every last one of them!"
We had a quick whizz around the winery, into the huge vaults where barrels of wine were piled up to the ceiling, the sweet, musty smell of oak and fermenting wine taking me right back to a school exchange trip in Bordeaux. Sam talked us through the different stages of the process, from the harvest to the fermenting, explaining that it's the initial crush – that first 'pop' – that gives the wine its colour.
As we reemerged into the blinding sunshine, I wasn't the only one to note that there appeared to be one key part of the process that we hadn't yet experienced. Much to our delight, a glass of sparkling wine was waiting for us on the terrace – the perfect refreshment on a perfect summer's day.
For more ideas on where to stay and what to do in Cornwall, see our Green Traveller's Guide to Cornwall