Situated in Worcestershire and established in 1971, Astley Vineyard held the title of being the most northerly vineyard in the world at the time of planting. Astley comprises some of the oldest vines in the country and some more unusual grape varieties. The estate has been lovingly passed through several different families over the years, but Astley’s founders, Michael Bache and his family, are to be thanked for their foresight and dedication to the infant English wine industry. They planted four vineyards initially: one next to the house, two experimental plots in the valley and one where the main vineyard still resides today. The Bache’s belief in the possibility of growing vines in Worcestershire, coupled with their knowledge of the land and the beneficial attributes of certain grape varieties, led them to plant Madeleine Angevine and Siegerrebe long before their potential in England was fully recognised. Astley are also famed for their Kerner vines, of which some still stand and produce after nearly 50 years.
Before the Bache family planted Astley Vineyard in the early 1970s, the land was planted as a cherry orchard. It was unfortunately, (or fortunately for us wine drinkers) removed with the application of the 1947 Agricultural Act’s grubbing up grant. The fact the area had always been used for agricultural purposes meant the soil had received minimal intervention and was ideal for grape growing. It’s safe to say Astley Vineyard has an extensive heritage and can now enjoy the benefits of incredibly mature vines.
In 1993, Jonty Daniels and his partner, Janet Baldwin, purchased Astley Vineyard. With a background in agriculture, Jonty nurtured the five acre vineyard for 24 years and built its reputation for high quality white wines. Jonty and Janet also planted Astley’s incredible woodland, which we’ll talk about more later. Upon his retirement in 2017, Jonty sought to sell Astley to someone who would pour more love into it and appreciate its journey, potential and unique character. That ‘someone’ was in fact a family of five: the Haywoods.
Wishing to escape careers in London and spend more time together as a family, the Haywoods decided Astley Vineyard was the perfect opportunity to do both. Tim and Bev Haywood head up the family and oversee all aspects of the business. Tim is recently retired from a global construction and facilities business where he held the position of Finance Director and Head of Sustainability. As such, he focuses on increasing Astley’s sustainability and ensuring all environmental considerations are supporting the vines and the surrounding landscape. Tim is the current Chairman of Sustainability West Midlands. Bev is a keen gardener, (which helps when managing an agricultural business!) is very involved within the local community and as celebrated on their website, is “the lynch pin that holds everything together”.
Tim and Bev’s children, Chris and Daisy are fully involved with running Astley Vineyard, along with Chris’ wife, Matleena. The Haywood family seem to have every avenue of expertise covered with Chris taking on the role of Sales and Marketing after a career spent working in a luxury wine shop, Daisy being a Landscape Architect and Artist and Matleena fulfilling the position of Accounts and Business Manager. You couldn’t ask for a better pool of talents!
With just five acres of land under vine, Astley is amongst the smallest vineyards in the UK, producing around 9,000 bottles of wine a year. The temptation would be to scale up, to buy more land or to purchase extra grapes from a third party, but the Haywoods are remaining true to Astley’s integral philosophy of ‘quality over quantity’. It’s lovely to hear a story of creating the best product possible without any pressure from investors pushing for higher yields or increased volume.
In order to produce the highest quality possible in Worcestershire, (which admittedly probably isn’t the first county you think of when talking about English wine) the vineyard site had to be in a special location. Half a mile away from the gorgeous River Severn, the landscape helps to moderate the vineyard’s micro-climate. The vines are planted on east-facing slopes next to a deep valley. The valley draws cold air away from the vineyard which reduces the risk of lingering frost and stagnant air. It’s a well-known fact that soil has a major impact on vines’ growth. Astley is located on Triassic red sandstone and loam which provides excellent drainage and has naturally high acidity.
There are now seven grape varieties planted at Astley: Madeleine Angevine, Siegerrebe, Kerner and Bacchus alongside small amounts of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The winemaking was previously contracted out to Three Choirs Vineyard in Gloucestershire, but the Haywoods aim to bring this in-house with Chris becoming their own winemaker. At the moment, Simon Day from nearby Sixteen Ridges winery is the Haywoods’ consultant winemaker.
Since taking on the vineyard in July 2017, the Haywood family hit the ground running and have made extensive improvements already. When they purchased the estate, there was already planning permission for a new visitor centre, shop and warehouse. With a few tweaks, the Haywoods managed to change the warehouse description to a small winery…
A grant from the EU’s LEADER Project to promote rural tourism, (along with some private funding) enabled the construction of the winery within seven months. As well as considering their environment regarding viticultural decisions, the Haywood family have been supportive of the community by employing local firms. Worcester-based architects, Glazzards, were enlisted to create the bold design for the renovations to the main house and annex.
Gaining responsibility for an established vineyard is one thing, inheriting an existing wine brand and reputation is another. Keen to make their mark, the Haywoods employed the expertise of local Worcester-based design company, WeAreBeard, to rebrand the entire wine range. The designs draw inspiration from Victorian bronze etchings and depict some of the wildlife found in the vineyard and surrounding area – notably Astley’s resident semi-tame pheasant, Tarquin, and a beautiful kingfisher.
Talking of animals…
To reach Astley Vineyard you have the arduous task of meandering your way through a serene wooded valley. The vineyard is surrounded by open fields and ancient woodlands which host an abundance of wildlife. Aside from learning new skills necessary for vineyard life, (driving tractors, mending trellising, staring at spreadsheets…) the Haywoods have become experts at identifying their furry and feathered neighbours. The family have gazed in wonder upon stoats, tawny owls and muntjac deer. They’ve watched buzzards and skylarks soaring upon the currents above the vines and have made friends with the increasingly tame, (and demanding!) pheasants.
The beautiful woodland area is part of the Astley estate and is divided into two distinct areas: Janet’s Wood, which is a 30 year old mixed deciduous wood named after Jonty’s wife as she did most of the planting and The Dingle, a less accessible, wilder area. To add to the picturesque scene, there’s a stream running through both woods.
You may be wondering why it’s important to mention the woodland when we’re supposed to be focusing on the vineyard, but the two are inextricably linked and co-dependent. The woodland provides shelter, housing and food for numerous animals and plants which increases the biodiversity of the landscape – beneficial for all plant life, including vines. The fact that there are deer around could also be a potential problem as they are known to nibble vines and destroy trellising, but with an expanse of woodland on their doorstep, they’re kept happy and don’t feel the need to venture near the vineyard. I hope I haven’t just jinxed that…
The Haywoods have joined the Small Woods Association and are committed to ensuring the woodland is revived and maintained properly. Astley’s land has the potential to be a local wildlife corridor, especially as a bat commuter route to the River Severn. It’s wonderful to learn so much about the whole area and see the family immersing themselves fully in the community and wider campaigns. It’s important to highlight the beneficial nature of having a vineyard in a village, of increasing everyone’s awareness about biodiversity and educating visitors about their surroundings.
An idea I found particularly ingenious is that the Haywoods had a lot of twiggy branches, (called brash) which they’d stripped from the trees they’d coppiced. Not wanting to waste the wood, they turned it into chippings and laid a path through the woods so that visitors can appreciate the woodlands as well as the vines when they book on a tour. The vineyard’s environmental credentials also include minimising the use of sprays and cultivating the vine prunings back into the soil rather than burning them, (this can only be done if there isn’t any disease in the prunings – so it shows Astley is a healthy vineyard!).
Astley’s visitor centre and shop are well worth making a detour for. You’ll be able to chat away to the family, (who are ever-so-friendly!) and learn exactly what makes Astley Vineyard so special. You’ll also be able to try their range of wines – many of which have won awards. It is so refreshing to see a vineyard focusing on the grape varieties which are best suited to their individual plot of land and creating wines which shine to the best of their ability. Astley’s Kerner, (especially their sparkling version) is a must-try. The future looks increasingly exciting as there have been hints of wishing to experiment with skin-contact white wines and orange wines…
The Haywood family have already succeeded in breathing new life into Astley Vineyard and I’m positive we’ll be hearing many fascinating stories, ventures and releases from them in the years to come. Watch this space!