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Martin's Lane Vineyard

Winery Profile

Martin's Lane Vineyard

“In the 40 years I’ve been doing this, this is the best Pinot Noir I’ve seen.”
“In the 40 years I’ve been doing this, this is the best Pinot Noir I’ve seen.”

The ‘Great Man’ theory of history argues that the progress of human affairs has been shaped largely by the personal qualities and actions of significant individual leaders. This way of seeing things was much en vogue in the 19th century, but today has fallen out of fashion. Instead, historians tend to view things in the light of social and geographical forces. Leaders are largely carried along by, rather than in control of, these forces.

It may be that Essex’s Crouch Valley was always destined to become one of England’s pre-eminent regions for growing still wine grapes, regardless of the individuals involved. After all, its suitability for viticulture – particularly its low rainfall and high number of seasonal sunshine hours – would always have led to vineyards being planted eventually.

Yet it is hard to tell the story of the Crouch Valley without mentioning the impact of one individual – Roy Martin. Roy was the inspiration behind and co-founder of Martin’s Lane Vineyard, and while I was lucky enough to meet Roy just once before he unexpectedly passed away in 2023, he certainly made an impact on me.

Martin’s Lane wasn’t the first commercial vineyard to be planted in the Crouch Valley – New Hall beat Roy to it by about 40 years. But it was the first to be planted predominantly with noble French varieties like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, and the first to be planted with premium quality firmly in mind.

Roy’s younger brother Graham, an original partner in the vineyard, took over its running after Roy’s passing, and tells me that Roy first came to him in 2008 with an idea to plant vines. Roy took Graham up to a field behind his house, telling him, “there are other people looking to develop the field, and I’ve been thinking for a long time it would make a great site for a vineyard.”

By this point, Roy had been living in this house for about 40 years, and knew all the local farmers, and their growing conditions. “We hadn’t had an April frost for 13 years,” Graham explains. “Coupled with the clay which metes out the moisture evenly, it’s all added to the Crouch being a brilliant growing area. Roy knew this from the farmers, but we didn’t know for sure that this would transfer to the grapes.”

Indeed, when Roy brought in wine consultants to look at the plot, they told him the site was completely unsuitable for viticulture. “Experts said that the clay soil was wrong for vines.” Graham explains. Ironic when today the valley’s London Clay soil is feted as some of England’s best terroir.

Despite this, Roy was able to recruit six partners – Graham Martin of course, also the next-door neighbour, the neighbour beyond him, and some other people in the nearby village of Stow Maries. He also managed to talk leading viticulturalist Duncan McNeill into looking after the vines, and top winemaker John Worontschak to make wines.

The Ripest Grapes

At first, the plan was to grow grapes solely for sparkling wine. Yet within a few years of the vineyard starting to produce, Roy was regularly being told that his grapes were amongst the ripest then being grown. It didn’t take long before Roy asked McNeill to manage his grapes with the specific vision of making high quality still wines – a move that would require significantly greater ripeness than many thought was possible.

I’ll Make You a Deal

“I’ll make you a deal,” Duncan told Roy. “If we can achieve ripeness levels of 90 Oeschle, I’ll recommend you make a still wine.”

As Roy told it, Duncan didn’t seriously think they’d achieve this unlikely level of ripeness. Yet 90 Oeschle was indeed achieved – and has been achieved every year without fail since 2016. In the golden vintage of 2018, Martin’s Lane Chardonnay grapes hit 98 Oeschle – equivalent to 13.8% natural alcohol. The approach was duly switched from growing grapes for sparkling wine to focusing on high quality still wine grapes.

Yet with a philosophy of building up the vineyard organically, depending only on the money put in by the partners, progress was slow. “We did eventually manage to make a sparkling,” Graham tells me. “But it took us 10 years!”

Roy’s final vintage in charge of Martin’s Lane was 2022 – a year similar to the golden vintage of 2018 in terms of ripeness, though smaller in volume. John Worontschak called Roy just after the harvest, telling him, “in the 40 years I’ve been doing this, this is the best Pinot Noir I’ve seen.” As a legacy to Roy, Graham has labelled the 2022 Pinot as the ‘Founder’s Vintage’ – a special bottling from a special year that will be well worth tucking away in the cellar.

Martin's Lane wine case

Warmth and Inspiration

Graham Martin with Simon Huntington

Despite Roy’s passing, Martin’s Lane vineyard under the stewardship of Graham and Caroline Martin has retained its sense of warmth and inspiration, and has kept its family feel. The visibility of the vineyard has been stepped up a notch – Roy was famously sceptical of social media, whereas Caroline has been much more active – and you can now book to visit and taste the wines.

“We don’t offer formal wine tastings,” Graham tells me. “We just take people up to the vineyard and open some bottles. There’s nothing up there, just a gazebo and a fabulous view!”

Looking at that view, the Crouch Valley today is becoming dominated by vineyards. International vineyard owner Jackson Family Estate has bought significant acreage in the area. More and more local farmers have decided that it’s more cost effective to plant vines rather than traditional crops. Follow the Lower Burnham Road and you’ll see vineyard after vineyard after vineyard.

All this may well have happened without Roy’s inspiration to plant vines in the field behind his house 20 years ago. Yet without this great person defying the experts, it seems unlikely that the Crouch Valley could have achieved such a stellar reputation while remaining so grounded and low key.

If nothing else, that’s a great legacy.

Martin’s Lane Pinot Noir 2020

English Pinot Noir – particularly from the Crouch Valley, is one of the country’s most ageworthy styles of red wine – yet it is hard to find many examples with bottle age.

Martin’s Lane 2020 Pinot Noir is one of the few top quality examples from 2020 still available (as of April 2024). It is full-flavoured, ripe and wonderfully silky. Don’t miss it.

Marasby Co founder Simon Huntington with a bottle of Martins Lane 2020 English Pinot Noir