Earlier this summer, I was invited to taste the first ever bottling of Scillonian wine from England’s most southerly vineyards. The first vintage of Robert Francis’s Holy Vale wines grown and made on the Isles of Scilly was to be bottled by the Austrian sweet wine meister Willi Opitz. If the connection seems a little tenuous, Robert Francis had been buying Opitz’ wines for his hotel wine list at The Star Castle for 20 years and Willi had hosted a few wine dinners there. When he discovered that Robert had made wine, he offered to help with the bottling.
Three or four years ago, Willi told Robert he had some oak barrels at 300 euros a barrel from Transylvania and said he thought Robert needed a dozen. Since it was a good price, Robert bought and shipped them to be ready for the first Pinot Noir and Chardonnay crop anticipated in 2013. Unfortunately the thrushes, starlings and sparrows had different ideas and he ended up with just 40 litres. Robert still wanted the barrels but Willi said he’d have to wait a month for them. When Robert asked why, Willi told him it was because he had used the barrels for his own wine. He shipped them anyway but having lost the advantage of the first use of new oak, used them for pumping over.
In my first endeavours to get to the Scillies, I was thwarted by storms, so I missed that first bottling. Then, when I tried again, rail strikes prevented me from getting there. So it was third time lucky when the Islander finally took off from Land’s End and deposited its eight passengers on St Mary’s in the Scilly Isles. The good news was that after a rotten summer, it was a fabulously sunny weekend, and so, tasting and drinking the Holy Vale wines apart, I was able to enjoy the facilities of the Francis family’s Star Castle Hotel and do lots of walking and sightseeing on St.Mary’s and the pretty little neighbouring island of St.Agnes which is joined by a sandbar to Gugh.
It was a few years ago that Robert decided he wanted to plant vines on the Scillies. He had been bitten by the wine bug back in the days when he was a waiter in the family hotel in his home town of Mullion in Cornwall after meeting John Livingston-Learmonth, author of the Wine of the Rhône, and his wife, Fiona. That meeting kicked off a lifelong friendship and a fascination with wine, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and California wines in particular. As his sons grew older and he realized that they would take over the business, Robert decided to plant a vineyard. ‘I didn’t want to move from Scilly’, he says, ‘and thought it could be great for the business, like having your own market garden, only the garden would be the vineyards and the market the hotel list’
He got Bob Lindo of Camel Valley over who advised against planting Chardonnay or Pinot Noir and to plant Germanic varieties because of the marginal climate. ‘But since I could happily drown in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and I’m not such a great fan of Germanic varieties’, says Robert,’ I decided to plant and be damned. Besides, I’m pigheaded’. So it was that he got his first commercial crop last year, a respectable total of 2,490 litres of Pinot Noir, with some Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. Why not do sparkling wine like everyone else seems to be doing? ‘I thought about it but it’s still wines that I mostly enjoy and understand. The investment cost of making sparkling wine would be high and having to mature it would knock me out for a year or more. Anyway, there’s not a lot of good English still wine compared to sparkling’.
As a fan of the Star Castle Hotel, Michael Broadbent MW was invited by Robert to open the vineyard and winery last year. This summer, Camilla visited the vineyard on 21st July and as patron of the UKVA was presented by the Francis grandchildren, Sophie, Thomas and William, with a special box containing the five wines bottled this year along with a special sixth bottle, of Schilfwein. Only 12 half-litre bottles of this Austrian-style sweet wine were made, the product of grapes from the 100-year-old vine adorning the ceiling of the conservatory and dried in the traditional way on reed mats in polytunnels at Silver Carn on St. Mary's.
How good is Robert’s Holy Vale wine? I found the first efforts really encouraging. The Pinot Noir Rosé is a summer pudding refreshing apéritif, the Chardonnay a crisp, tart Chablis-style, the Reserve Pinot Noir (brought along in polytunnels) a delicate Burgundian style in Savigny mode, and the Pinot Gris is a revelation of spicy apple and pear refreshment, a match made in heaven for the fresh fish off the trawler Sowenna and, the crowning glory, the plump and juicy lobster that Robert prides himself in catching.
For the full travel article in the i newspaper, check out
The Wine Gang
6 October 2015