Oatley Vineyard: A Love From Vine to Bottle
Yesterday, on 7 April, I visited Jane and Iain Awty. The Awtys are a delightful couple and owners of the small family vineyard Oatley in Somerset, not too far from Bridgwater, in South West England.
To get there isn’t easy, we drove down via country lanes and dirt tracks due to road closures. But once you arrive on those Somerset hills, surrounded by rich wildlife, you will enjoy a fine day out.
When we pulled up to Oatley Lane it was late morning and the grey skies were yet to part, despite the lovely Easter we’ve been having. We were welcomed with a wine tasting set up, which was the first sign of Jane and Iain’s love for the new life they forged nearly thirty years ago.
They moved from West Hampstead back in 1985 when they were nearing forty and fancied a change of lifestyle. So they packed up and, after a year, relocated to Oatley in Somerset, Jane’s home county.
Although the dream wasn’t all that easy. Jane and Iain had considered going abroad to France, but at the time there was a planting ban, so the prospect of English wine seemed more fitting.
‘We had tried a good few and, back then, there were probably only one or two that were drinkable,’ Iain laughs. ‘So we thought, “Right, we can do this!”’.
They spent a year finding the right place to plant their vines and found it here in Oatley. Shortly after they planted the two grape varieties they’ve been producing wine from ever since: Kernling (from the Riesling grape) and Madeleine Angevine.
The vineyard, though small, is remarkable. The vines are widely spaced, creating this picturesque, rather wildlife-immersive vineyard of open vines surrounded by hedgerows and farms. In total, they produce around 500 cases (just over 6000 bottles) in a good yield, which is pretty impressive considering the vineyard’s size.
But the two have learnt. Not from courses at first, but from sheer hard work and classic ‘practice makes perfect’ determination over the last couple of decades.
‘There weren’t these fantastic courses around back then. We go to them now, but we began by just reading everything we could and talking to other vineyard owners,’ Jane says.
‘The only problem with that,’ Iain adds, ‘is that people can be defensive about their vines, and say that they did this or that and it created a great wine because no-one wanted to say they had a bad vintage. So we still self-taught a lot of what we know.’
‘It’s a lot better today,’ Jane says. ‘People, and the research into vine growing that is now available, are much more open. You can make your own interpretation.’
There’s something striking about the story that led Iain and Jane to where they are today. I’ve only been writing about wine now for near two years, but Oatley is unique in my eyes. The love for what they do is obvious from pruning to uncorking the bottle for a visiting taster.
Perhaps that’s because they make wine that they want to drink.
‘It would be pretty tragic if we spent all this time making a wine we didn’t like,’ Jane says.
And although the pair have enjoyed the bone dry, delicious whites themselves with friends all these years, they’ve had plenty of success outside of personal life too.
Oatley’s wines have received world-renowned awards most years, including from Decanter, the IWC, and the UKVA (UK Vineyards Association). Leonora’s (from the later-harvest Kernling grape) has been awarded the IWC Silver medal for both its 2009 and 2010 vintages.
Originally, when the pair started, Jane was working full time to support the project. Friends mucked in to help with the harvest, as they still do to this day, and a great deal of the labour on the vineyard has always been done by themselves. Every harvester, though, is treated to an impressive five course lunch for their hard work.
‘We realised pretty quickly that we weren’t going to be able to do the winemaking as well as run the vineyard and support the children,’ Jane says.
Instead, the winemaking side is handled by Steve Brooksbank. Brooksbank makes wines for a handful of vineyards in the South West, but none quite like Oatley’s. It took some time, Iain tells us, for Steve to come around to how bone-dry the Awtys liked their white wine to be.
‘We like to intervene as little as possible,’ Jane says. ‘But we do ask Steve to keep the sulphites low, as I’m quite sensitive to sulphites in the wines.’
Iain and Jane both say that the relationship between vineyard growers like themselves and winemakers like Steve is one of ‘creative tension’. As they say, the wines are for them, but Iain puts it best:
‘Well it’s like getting Michelangelo to come and paint your ceiling and, when he starts painting a certain bit pink, you stop him and say, “No, no, I want that green!” They’re your wines, but at the same time, Steve’s the winemaker and he knows what he’s doing.
‘But we do have a lot of input in the winemaking process. In fact the situation has worked out pretty well, because it means we can manage the vineyard all year but still have time to go on holiday or relax after harvest.’
The Vines & The Wines
When we take a walk around the vineyard, Iain and Jane explain the problems they’ve encountered over the years. At one point they had considered organic farming but, being chemists, they didn’t like the idea of using copper to fight mildew on the vines. Copper being used prominently in organic vine spraying against certain mildews.
Instead, the vines are grown in as biodiverse a way as possible. Grass distracts rabbits from grapes; simple pruning techniques have defended the Madeleine Angevine vines from a badger sett; while fruit-lush hedgerow has kept many black birds away. It’s quite a feat.
This remarkable balance of biodiverse viticulture and the coexistence with rich, local wildlife is in the bottle too. The bottles are as lightweight as Jane could find on the market to reduce the carbon footprint of the glass production but also during the transportation. It’s even in the labels, which are designed by Jane herself.
The two main wines produced are Jane’s – from Madeleine Angevine, which is ripe enough to pick in September – and Leonora’s – from Kernling. They have also experimented with a French oak version of both wines, producing even more-limited bottles of those.
Leonora Jane, Jane’s full name, is the tribute given to each of their wines. On one vintage, Iain broke his ankle and was confined to the sofa for six weeks, so Jane took on most of the remaining work load.
When the labelling came around, Jane was surprised to see Iain had named the wines after her.
Although Jane tells the story with a blush at the tribute, you can tell it is testament to the love they have both for each other and their vine growing life.
The low yield of a wet 2012 vintage also led to the first blend of both grapes, producing the dry white Elizabeth’s that year. The wine was named after their daughter. Unfortunately we didn’t get to taste that one as they have sold out – must have been good!
Next year, the pair will experiment again, mixing the two varieties together and seeing what some oak will do to that popular blend.
Jane has even been playing with the idea of planting some Pinot Noir too, producing some interesting rosé varieties that some English vineyards have become notorious for. However, Iain seems a little unconvinced, so we will have to watch this space!
One thing’s for sure: Oatley is about more than proving why English white wine is some of the best around. Oatley is the story of two people who are living a life-long dream and you can almost taste that success in the wines they make.
Look out for the wine tasting notes of Jane’s 2013, Jane’s Barrel Matured 2013, Leonora’s 2013, Leonora’s 2011, and Leonora’s Barrel Matured 2011, coming soon.
Follow Jane on Twitter.
Photography by Debbie Franks © 2015