Hello fellow epicureans, and wine aficionados!
We’re thrilled to introduce you to guest blogger and multi-talented Jim Farrell, a Level 3 WSET trained expert in Wines and Spirits, and a wordsmith crafting tasting notes for the prestigious IWSC. (International Wine & Spirit Competition)
But Jim is far more than just a connoisseur of the finer things in life; he’s a true Renaissance soul with a passion for gastronomy, wine, and history. Coming from a family of food enthusiasts, he’s equally at home in the kitchen. Jim’s culinary expertise allows him to seamlessly pair delectable dishes with the perfect wine or spirit, creating memorable dining experiences that awaken the senses.
In this unique fusion, Jim will take you on a guided tour through the annals of Dorset’s past, revealing the hidden stories, traditions, and flavours that have shaped the region.
By Jim Farrell
Forty years ago, any talk about wine would have probably focused on the glories of Bordeaux, the magic of Burgundy, the pastoral depth of Tuscany, maybe the parvenu of Marlborough or the swaggering glow of the Hunter Valley. Dorset would never have entered the discussion. In fact, you would have been certified insane to have even suggested it. Fabulous premium ales and vintage ciders? Absolutely. Dorset has produced some wonderous beverages throughout the ages. But alluring and delicious sparkling wines? The madness of it!
Time is not only a great leveller, but it is also a modifier of old orders, and Dorset has now gleefully entered the conversation possessing some of the finest award-winning vineyards and wine producers in the world.
But wine production in Dorset isn’t a new thing. What we are seeing now is a renaissance of sorts. Grapes have been grown and harvested in the West Country for thousands of years. The Romans would most certainly have cultivated vineyards within the borders of modern-day Dorset as they had in other southern regions. Roman era grape pips have recently been discovered in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. The Romans may have paved the way for English wine production, but it was the Medieval church, the monasteries in particular, who took it to the next level.
We don’t know for certain how many vineyards were situated in medieval Dorset. The Domesday book mentions forty-two vineyards within greater England. The majority of which were situated in the south-east. There are two mentioned in Dorset-one located in Wootton and another two acres of vines in Durweston.
New vineyards would certainly have sprouted up after 1086. Dorset was liberally speckled with both monasteries and castles between the 10th and 16th centuries, and these were generally the areas where vines were planted.
It has always made sense to produce wine in Dorset. The topography and geology, with its chalk downs, limestone ridges and clay valleys is exceptionally close to the celebrated French wine producing regions of Champagne, Loire Valley, and Bordeaux. Dorset in the Middle Ages was just waiting to be initiated into the golden art of vinification. Not only was the County blessed with perfect geology, but the climate was also delightfully temperate as well.
This was all thanks to the Medieval Warm Period that lasted from the 10th century to the mid-13th century. Medieval Dorset with its magnificent vine-friendly soils, warm summers and proximity to sun reflecting lakes, fast-moving rivulets, and the cooling ocean, would have generated a flourishing array of wine producing grapes as it does today.
All it took was the expertise of a decent winemaker to get the best from their lush yields, and the prominent winemakers of the day were the contemplatives of the local monasteries.
The predominant monastic order in Dorset during this period was the Benedictines. Those durable, earthy monks with a taste for holy seclusion and a flair for the abundant harvesting of grapes and other sun-ripened edibles. The other order of interest was the Cistercians who, at this point in time (over in France) were practicing viticultural alchemy within their Burgundian enclosures.
It has been said by the renowned wine writer, Oz Clarke ‘that without the monasteries wine culture might have died in the Dark Ages.’ The founder of the Benedictine order, St Benedict (2nd March 480-March 21st 548), wrote many rules for his monks to follow, one of which revolved around wine consumption. He prescribed a daily modest tipple for anyone living in a strict Christian community. He permitted the leaders of these communities to authorize larger amounts ‘If either the needs of the place, or labour, or the heat of summer require more.’
No doubt the monks at Sherborne Abbey, Cerne Abbey and Wimborne Minster would have happily followed this edict considering the climate around this time was warmer than usual, and water was looked upon suspiciously as a harbour for all kinds of diseases and ailments. Men, women, and children of the time all preferred beer and wine to mere water as the alcohol was thought to kill off bacteria. Individuals at this time may not have lived long but their short lives would definitely have had a bibulous glow about them.
Many of the monks were expert agriculturalists, and because of their seclusion, had the freedom to study, experiment and develop wine sciences. Been connected to the incredibly wealthy church they also possessed vast acres of land and so had the space to plant vineyards to help in their production of wine for sacramental purposes and of course personal imbibition. They also sold wine, along with the other produce they cultivated, to boost the income of the monastery. It makes sense that many of the monasteries scattered throughout Dorset, replicating the successful vineyard at the renowned Cistercian Abbey of Beculiei, near Southampton, would have also grown their own grapes.
We do know that Sherborne was producing wine in the 12th century when Roger de Caen, Bishop of Salisbury and Chancellor of England (died 11th December 1139) and the founder of the Old Castle, thought it prudent to plant a reasonably sized vineyard on the northern side of the lake. It’s a legacy that continues to this day. Great wine is still being produced in Sherborne, The Sherborne Castle Special Reserve, a zesty white wine with a scintillating blend of four grape varieties, is particularly crisp and floral.
So, what did medieval monastic wine taste and look like?
Obviously, winemaking techniques weren’t as developed as they are in the modern era. Their understanding of fermentation control, maturation, clarification, and stabilization was at best primitive.
The grapes, quite possibly tight little bunches resembling pinecones, hence the term Pineau, were harvested as soon as they tasted sweet and succulent and would have immediately been crushed by foot. The wine was either a pale red (claret)or a pink tinged white.
The white juice was strained directly from its skins and bucketed straight into a barrel or cask to ferment. To produce a red wine that resembled the blood of Christ a deep vat was needed where the juice and skins could ferment together until the desired red colour had been purged from off the skins.
Red winemaking was therefore a more elaborate operation. It could also be deadly. Fermenting grapes produce carbon dioxide and in a deep vat there is nowhere for it to disperse. Tragically, and surprisingly more often than not, a heavy blanket of gas would collect at the bottom of the vat and eventually suffocate the unsuspecting treader.
Most large estates belonging to nobles and the church had heavy winepresses that could forcibly extract an extra fifteen to twenty percent of juice from white grapes, or wine, after fermentation, from red grapes. But due to its extensive pressing this Vin de presse lost a lot of its vitality and fruitiness and was obviously not as popular as the vin de goutte that ran free from the vat.
I’d like to believe the monks were virtuous in their wine dealings and wouldn’t have had the audacity to sell rough or sour wine to the local parishioners. Unfortunately, bland, or sour wine wasn’t seen as a problem to some of the more unscrupulous wine merchants of the period. Their attempt to sell ruined wine by devious means was noted by Arnaldus de Villanova who, in the thirteenth century, wrote the first wine book Liber de Vinis; he said ‘…note that some wine dealers cheat. They make bitter and sour wine appear sweet by persuading the tasters to eat first liquorice or nuts or old salty cheese…’
Manipulating the taste buds isn’t a new thing. I mean who hasn’t pressganged a fun size bag of Cheesy Wotsits to help lift a tawdry wine from the extremities of kitchen sink oblivion? I know to my eternal shame I have. But, in general, as today, it was quality wines that were sought after.
The twelfth century philosopher, poet, theologian and Abbot of Cirencester Abbey in Gloucestershire, Alexander Neckham (8 September 1157-31 March 1217) proposed by some to be one of the first recorded wine critics said: ‘wine should be as clear as the tears of a penitent. A good wine should be as sweet tasting as an almond, as surreptitious as a squirrel, as high-spirited as a roebuck, as strong as a Cistercian monastery, as glittering as a spark of fire, as subtle as the logic of the schools of Paris, as delicate as fine silk, and as cold as crystal.’
The wines from our monasteries would most probably have been light and ripe for quick drinking. Long maturation in the untreated cask would have deprived the wine of its fruitiness, and once the cask had been opened and exposed to the air the wine would predictably have deteriorated in flavour. It may have been a case of drink it fresh and drink it fast. Almost like a modern-day Beaujolais Nouveau.
The process of racking wine off its lees was unheard of at the time, so most of the wine contained a fair amount of dead yeasts, making some vintages quite murky in appearance-although there would have been a little sparkle in the wines that still contained the preservative fizz of carbon dioxide. So, it’s quite feasible to suggest Dorset may have also produced some rather flavoursome light sparkling wines during the Middle Ages. Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?
Wine production from the local monasteries should have thrived, as it did in Burgundy, but alas, climatic shifts, social change, and human egotism all conspired against it.
The majority of English citizens preferred easily brewed beer to labour intensive wine. You could brew beer pretty much anywhere. In a pantry, a cow shed, a chicken coop, it was, if you pardon the pun, always on tap. Another ‘nail in the casket’ of local wine production was the mass importation of quality wine from English controlled Bordeaux. A grand operation that began in 1302. It was also around this time, 1250 in fact, that the Medieval Warm Period, known as The Medieval Climatic Optimum finally came to an end in the North Atlantic region. For three hundred years the climate in England had been perfect for grape cultivation. But then The Grindelwald Fluctuation, a period of intense cooling, a mini-ice age if you will, that occurred globally from the 13th century to the mid-19th century, crept over Britain hitting these isles particularly hard.
If anyone could have kept wine production going in Southern England it would have been the Benedictine and Cistercian monks, whose tonsured brothers over in France had seen incredible advancements and great breakthroughs in the art of vinification.
But there was something else, quite literally tumultuous in the air, that ended up being more damaging to the grapes than an early frost. In the mid-16th century, the reformation had occurred, and Henry VIII had ordered all the monasteries broken up and demolished. The vineyards were appropriated by the local nobility who, being too occupied with their aristocratic skullduggery and balderdash, didn’t have the time and most importantly the knowledge to keep the local wine flowing.
In 1509 there were 139 vineyards in England, 11 of which were owned by the crown, 67 by noblemen, 52 by the church. By the 1580s that number had dwindled quite considerably. And by the 19th century there were only 8 recorded vineyards left in England.
In the 1570’s William Camden, Antiquarian and headmaster of Westminster school, travelled throughout the country to research and complete his epic survey, Britannia. He took particular interest in local wine production, which mournfully, ‘had declined not owing to the climate or the exhaustion of the soil, but to the sloth of the inhabitants.’
We may not be able to taste local Theologicum anymore-the best wine a monastery had to offer, but our new breed of resident winemakers thankfully have not been slothful or iniquitous in their chosen art.
Dorset has been blessed with a winemaking renaissance that will continue to flourish; its fledgling grip on the great wine competitions of the world strengthening year by year, its gloriously maintained yields enduring in the glasses and on the tongues of wine lovers everywhere.
And that truly is a godsend to be venerated and toasted.