Why James wants to bring in relaxed approach to wine business
Eleanor Gaskarth meets a wine-maker who wants to make his industry a far more inclusive one.
Mention the summer of 2012 to most Westcountry wine producers and you are almost guaranteed a sigh or mournful shake of the head. Record rainfall and low temperatures led to some vineyards experiencing their worst year ever.
It could not be a more different story this time around, with prolonged hot temperatures and blissful hours of sunshine producing perfect conditions for a bumper crop.
Nobody is happier about this than James Thomas, wine-maker at Knightor Winery in Trethurgy, just around the corner from the Eden Project. The 33-year-old from the Isles of Scilly honed his skills in Australia and is hell-bent on bringing the relaxed, engaged culture and lack of snobbery surrounding wine Down Under to the Duchy. But he cannot do this if the grapes don't grow.
"Last year was very difficult – the quality was OK but yields were down by 50-60 per cent here and some vineyards couldn't pick at all," he said. "This year we've had a really good start to the season. We were a long way behind but things have picked up because of the great weather. It means yields are looking good.
"The hot spell in July brought things on quite quickly – the flowering happened rapidly and successfully and that is what determines the yield, so we're looking at a really good crop."
The working boutique winery is set on a four-acre smallholding with a courtyard of granite barns dating back in parts as far as 1632. With just a small educational vineyard on site, Knightor's 17,000 vines are situated in Seaton and Portscatho and there are plans to plant in the Fowey Valley.
Knightor is still a young business, but so far its limited production wines have gone down very well indeed – the First Vintage Rose 2010 and Trevannion 2011 (a blend of Siergerrebe, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris) both selling out and the Pinot Gris 2011 and Madeleine Angevine 2011 in high demand from the cellar door and by restaurants and suppliers.
Their first sparkling wine, Knightor NV, was unveiled just in time for the heatwave and has joined the increasingly popular ranks of English bubbles.
As last summer demonstrated, success is not a given.
"When it comes to wine-making it is harder here," said James. "We're on the edge of where it is possible. The grapes are less forgiving, you have to be much more careful. In Australia the fruits are very robust but the challenges are different – for example 45 degree heat and 30-40 knot winds.
"The key is to not be afraid to push the boundaries. I don't shy away from the idea of elegance and delicacy in wines and with our Cornish grapes, because they are slower developing, they can be subtler but have a certain vibrancy and purity. These aren't brash, in your face, show-pony wines that you tire of before you finish the bottle – they're a totally different, more refined breed."
His passion and credentials notwithstanding, James does not have the appearance of the archetypal wine-maker. As we shake hands I reflect he would fit in just as well on the beach as behind the bottling machine, so it is no surprise to hear how he ended up here. "I was into sailing and surfing and actually wanted to sail for a living," he said.
"I went on a surfing holiday in Australia and met the lady who would become my wife. So I stayed there and needed a job and, because I had experience from my parent's vineyard in Scilly, that was the natural choice. They liked my enthusiasm and I really took to it, but I remember being 24 years old and thinking I was too old for it, that it was already beyond me.
"Luckily one of the owners I was working for gave me a boot up the backside and shook that idea out."
James studied at university for two years before moving to the Bannockburn Vineyard near Melbourne. "It was a very important place for me," he said, "a boutique vineyard with an uncompromising approach to wine-making. It was good to be somewhere where wine was not just a beverage but something that goes deeper and does more than that."
Describing the opportunity at Knightor as "a dream job, perfect fit but massive challenge", James has brought back not just a mass of knowledge and technical skill, but a desire to make wine – and the idea of tasting wine – a far more inclusive activity. He said: "For Australians, wine is an integral part of their culture and anyone – builders, surfers, whoever – will go along and have a taste before buying something they like.
"Here I think there's an elite who are very educated about wine and then a lot of people who just don't feel confident about engaging with it. It doesn't have to be like that and it certainly isn't at Knightor. Cornwall's food and drink scene is thriving and the quality of the produce speaks for itself. It's very exciting and there couldn't be a better place to start wiping out the snobbery."
Visit knightor.com or call 01726 851101.
Top tasting tips
Before you start: Use a proper shaped wine glass with some “head space” to allow for the accumulation of aromas.
Observe: You can tell a lot about the age and condition of wine by its appearance. With whites, pale and green-tinged wines are young, whereas yellow through to gold signifies age and possibly oak ageing. With reds, the depth of colour can hint at the weight of the wine, while young wines start off with a purple hue and then turn brickish red with age.
Swirl: It helps to release volatile aromas.
Smell: Take in the aforementioned aromas. You do not have to fit your entire nose into the glass, but get it moving and then sniff, searching for fragrances like fruits and flowers.
Taste: Reward yourself with a nice big sip. Do not be afraid to slurp it around – it might not be the most attractive sound, but getting air into a mouthful releases aroma compounds and ensures you are getting the most out
of the wine.
Spit: It seems a shame sometimes, but for the designated driver (or those trying to pace themselves) this is a necessity.