So, when Nigel Howard founded Lyme Bay in 1993 as a West Country cider maker, it seemed unlikely that the company would end up as one of the UK’s highest quality producers of English Wine.
Yet Lyme Bay is the only UK winery currently accredited by the British Retail Consortium, able to supply thousands of bottles of well-priced English rosé to Aldi, while also producing critically acclaimed, Burgundian-style, single vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
By itself, this breadth of production would be impressive. Even more so given Lyme Bay continues to make cider, as well as fruit wines, award-winning meads, and various spirits and liqueurs.
So who and what is Lyme Bay? And how did a Devon cider house that doesn’t own even an acre of its own vineyard land become one of the UK’s leading still wine producers?
We jumped in the car and headed down the A303 to find out.
After doing whatever she could to escape the region where she grew up, she felt compelled to return by then-Head Winemaker James Lambert’s vision of building Lyme Bay into one of the country’s pre-eminent quality wine producers.
Like Sarah, James had made wine overseas – in his case South Africa and France – and believed that certain parts of the UK had the potential to make top quality still wines too. James joined Lyme Bay owner Nigel Howard in 2006 and, following a change of ownership, is now Managing Director. Sarah runs much of the fulltime winery duties, putting her up there with Langham’s Tommy Grimshaw as one of England’s best young winemakers.
Both Sarah and James bring an international perspective to Lyme Bay and, with Nigel Howard’s original cider production model of buying fruit from expert growers, they’ve turned the traditional grower-winemaker model on its head.
Instead, Lyme Bay’s philosophy is to buy the best fruit, from vineyards located in the best parts of the UK, to make the best quality wine possible. Locating their winery in East Devon doesn’t mean that Lyme Bay’s fruit has to come from Devon too. Essex is just four or five hours’ drive away, and in Lyme Bay’s judgement, Crouch Valley is where the best Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for still wines is currently being grown.
The winery has long-term contracts with a who’s-who of Essex’s best growers. There are 9 of them, taking in many of Crouch Valley’s most acclaimed sites. Fruit from Martin’s Lane and Crow’s Lane was used to make single vineyard Pinots and Chardonnays in 2020, which tasted blind, could easily be mistaken as Burgundies. One of the UK’s best viticulturalists, Duncan McNeill, is on speed dial and he works closely with Lyme Bay throughout the growing season to ensure fruit arrives at the winery in world-class condition.
Sarah Massey explains how this quality-first approach paid dividends in the cooler 2021 vintage. While many wineries had their (less ripe) fruit safely picked and in the cellar, Lyme Bay via Duncan McNeill asked its growers to leave fruit hanging on the vine.
“We held off picking our Chardonnay and Pinot Noir until November, which is almost unheard of. It was scary and there were lots of sleepless nights, but we ended up getting the same ripeness levels as 2020. I think the ’21 Pinot might even be better than the 2020.”
For reference, Lyme Bay’s 2020 won the Pinot Noir Trophy at the IWSC.
It turns out that Lyme Bay’s model is closer to that of urban wineries like London’s Black Book, or Cambridge’s Gutter & Stars. Neither of these owns its own vineyards, yet each has also made top-rated Chardonnay or Pinot Noir sourced from growers in Essex. Lyme Bay may be breaking free from expectations, yet they’re still working within a well-established and successful mold.
And why not?
There are incredible wines being made throughout the world by wineries which leave grape growing to the viticultural experts and concentrate on winemaking. Many of the most critically acclaimed winemakers of California would scoff at the idea of a four or five hour journey from vineyard to the winery as anything exceptional. That’s just round the corner in American terms.
Our tour of the winery is coming to an end, and I ask Sarah if she has a winemaking hero.
“There’s lots of people who inspire me,” Sarah replies. “In Australia I worked with Jo Nash, who was in charge of winemaking at McPherson Wines. She was so cool-headed! She had four kids and managed 12,000 tonnes of fruit each vintage without breaking a sweat.”
Lyme Bay picked about 350 tonnes of fruit in 2022, which will make about 20,000 bottles of Pinot Noir, as well as whites, rosés and sparkling wines. With plans to increase production of Pinot Noir to 60,000 bottles by 2024, as well as fruit wines, meads, spirits and cider, Sarah will need Jo Nash’s cool head to keep everything in balance.
After working at Lyme Bay for four years, she can’t imagine doing anything else – and we wouldn’t want her to.
Pour a glass of this pretty mid-pale pink rosé, and you can tell right away that it’s been made to sit at the more serious, ‘foodie’ end of the rosé spectrum, certainly in comparison to the winery’s entry-level Shoreline.
The 2021 is bursting with redcurrant and quince jelly fruit, yet it’s much weightier, silkier and more complex than a typical ‘chuck it in the ice bucket’ rosé, despite being from a cooler vintage. It’s made from 100% Crouch Valley-grown Pinot Noir, and whereas examples of Pinot Noir rosés I’ve tasted from other countries have been a little too opulent, with England’s naturally brisk acidity, it is beautifully balanced, succulent and moreish.
Lyme Bay’s Reserve Rosé could definitely sit on the list at a posh restaurant – and at £18.49 a bottle, could sit on your table for a special dinner too, without breaking the bank.
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