As an 80s kid, one of my favourite TV shows was The A-Team. What did I love most about it? It wasn’t Mr T’s gold bling, or George Peppard’s insouciant charm. It was the formulaic way that, two thirds of the way through every episode, the team would always find itself trapped and low on ammo. Yet wherever they were, they’d discover common household items that could be mixed, fixed, and welded together to create an unbeatable arsenal with which to break out, beat up the bad guys, and escape.
The A-Team didn’t have massive resources and couldn’t call for back-up, yet they always got results. And it is this that comes to mind when I visit ‘urban’ micro-winery Freedom of the Press. I’ve put ‘urban’ in inverted commas because, despite having the classic urban winery business model of working with grape growers to supply fruit, Freedom of the Press’ winery is in the middle of the Oxfordshire countryside.
The winery is entirely self-funded by owner Gavin Carver, a former university lecturer in drama and theatre studies. There are no massive resources and, besides former winery assistant, now winemaker in her own right Tamasine Herriott, Gavin has no back-up. His temperature-controlled barrel room was self-constructed from materials found at the local B&Q. Yet Freedom of the Press’ wines are some of England’s most distinctive and delicious.
They get results.
“I had always been passionate about wine,” Gavin explains. “I had imported a little bit of Burgundy as a sideline business when I was an academic. After I finished lecturing, I made documentary films. I couldn’t honestly tell you why I switched to making wine, other than that it seemed like a good idea at the time!
“The obvious thing was to buy 5 acres of land and put some vines on it – but I couldn’t afford to buy the land in the south-east. I looked at a spot in Devon, but Stephen Skelton (leading UK viticultural expert) advised me to avoid going too far west if I wanted to focus on still wines.
“Then, the more I thought about it, I realised that what I was really interested in wasn’t the grape growing, but the winemaking. I started my career as a theatre technician, so I’d always been interested in kit and technicals.”
Once the focus switched to winemaking, the plan had been to set up in Oxford. “Then Covid happened,” Gavin continues. “I was hoping to lease a barn next to a well-known pub where lots of north Oxford foodies go on the weekend. Foot-fall for tastings would have been brilliant, but it was owned by one of the colleges and, when Covid happened, all the meetings were cancelled.
“In the meantime, a new unit outside Oxford came up. It was so much better as a winemaking space – but there’s no foot-fall! It’s beautiful, but in the middle of nowhere – so Freedom of the Press became more dependent on winemaking than tastings.”
That meant that wine quality became even more paramount – and if you want to make great wine, you must start with great fruit. Freedom of the Press’ fruit comes from two leading growers in Essex: Crouch Valley’s Martin’s Lane and newer grower Bromley Brook. “I just got lucky timing-wise in terms of getting an allocation,” Gavin explains. “A major producer cancelled their purchase due to Covid and I was able to pick up their allocation. They’re completely gutted now, as it’s some of the best fruit in the country!”
The winery is able to receive a maximum of 3 tons of fruit at a time (equivalent to just 1800 bottles), so everything in the winery is designed to handle small quantities, treating the fruit really gently. “That’s partly because my press is a complete wuss and doesn’t want to press hard” Gavin says. “It means that our juice yield is very low, but quality is very high.”
In another coup for a start-up micro winery, Gavin works with leading consultant winemaker John Worontschak of Litmus Wines. “Since I started in lockdown, John couldn’t visit his usual international clients, so he was stuck visiting me. So that worked out quite well!”
Gavin also had a bit of luck with indispensable cellar-mate Tamasine Herriott: “When I started, John told me ‘you can’t do all this by yourself – get someone in from Plumpton.’ That was Tamasine! She did her placement here – she was brilliant, and I really needed her, so the following year I offered her 1000 litres of winemaking capacity in return for her help. It’s a really good relationship. It enables two small operations which are really different in terms of the wines they make to both co-exist and survive.”
“I really wanted to use stoneware fermentation vessels,” Gavin explains. “Not primarily to make skin contact wines – I really like the texture they give to all wines. So, when we started, I bought four stoneware eggs, which arrived in 2020 just before harvest. They were going to be central to my strategy – particularly for Pinot Gris.
“The vendor in France told me to fill them with water for the first few weeks, which I did – and all four leaked! It wasn’t just a problem of losing wine – leaks meant that there would be an interface with air, leading to bacteria and spoilage.
“I called up the vendor, who agreed to refund me for them and asked for them to be shipped back – but it was the middle of harvest, and I didn’t have the headspace to get it organised. Then I started thinking about bentonite. It’s a type of earth used principally for two things: as a fining agent in winemaking – and for fixing dams. Now I have four perfectly sealed and serviceable egg fermenters.”
So, what about the wines? Freedom of the Press’ egg-fermented Pinot Gris has become incredibly popular – particularly in restaurants. It’s a decent price point, has lovely texture, and it’s really versatile as a food match. “People say that my Pinot Gris is most similar to Oregon Pinot Gris,” says Gavin. “Although I don’t think we should say our wines are like anything – they are what they are.”
The Chardonnay is an interesting one. Gavin’s first vintage was 2020 – an easy and top quality first year, made from Martin’s Lane Vineyard fruit. You could imagine it being big and rich straight from the bottle. In fact, the 2021, which was made from the same fruit source in the same way, is more immediately open, and very aromatic straight off the bat. The 2020 needs more coaxing. You could call it the more complex, sophisticated wine, but it needs more time.
But my personal favourite from Freedom of the Press, and the wine that really brought the winery to my attention, is the Paradox Pinot Noir – a white wine made from a black grape. I have a theory that ‘blanc de noirs’ wines might end up as the UK’s USP. In warmer climates, these wines can be almost too opulent and flabby. With the UK’s naturally brisk acidity, the fruit can be beautifully balanced.
I love it when a plan comes together.
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