“My dad’s a sheep farmer, and that’s what he did. But it’s really, really tough,” explains James Kinsey-Jones, on a wind-rushed hillside in the village of New Radnor, mid-Wales. “I wasn’t sure if I could come back and do exactly the same thing, but I wondered if we could grow grapes here, instead.” He’s standing next to his wife, Susan. It’s a little overcast today, threatening to rain. Below us, you can barely see a building or a car: just the rumbling green-grey of farm and hill, slashed through with the bright green leaves of grapevines and the blue netting that protects them. Near-fluorescent stripes that prove wine grapes can indeed be grown at altitude, on a sheep farm in Wales.
Susan and James are Whinyard Rocks, “two people trying to make wine on a hillside in Wales”, as they describe themselves. The name is hewn from the land as much as it is their story: taken from the dramatic outcrop on Bache Hill, which overlooks the farm. It was here that James took Susan when the pair were first dating.
The vines we’re standing among, sweet tangling things, bejewelled with pale green and dark red fruit, were planted in 2017. After five educational years, they’ve finally been able to taste and bottle their first wines: a blush-orange Pet Nat and a sparkling Col Fondo. Both are on sale through their website this month. They are, like all the wines the grapes grown here will be, low-intervention: no artificial pesticides or fertilisers, no artificial sulphates. “Nothing is added, it’s just the juice, really,” says James. Whinyard Rocks’ wine is natural and local; grown here, made and bottled down the road - in relative terms - beneath the Black Mountains in Herefordshire.
They’ve spent the morning before we meet harvesting with a couple of friends. Crates of freshly picked red Rondo and Ortega – a white grape that James admits to “planting by accident” – are stacked neatly in the back of a trailer. Grape farming on this level might be low-intervention in terms of non-natural additives, but it’s intensive in people power. The process is knotted into the seasons. As different varieties ripen at different times, the harvest runs from September, when the white Solaris are ready, until the last weekend in October. “The weekend after, it’s usually frosty, so you really are working at the last moment,” says Susan.
“The most important part of the year is pruning,” explains James, as the sun tries to break through the fast-moving clouds. From December through to spring a brutal process of cutting and training will strip the vines bare and short in the hope of the harvests to come. James traces the vine with a weather-worn finger, explaining how a bud produces a cane which produces the next year’s growth. “It’s a winter thing. But summer will be reflected in each of these buds. You’re kind of thinking two years ahead with your pruning.”
In the 90 minutes we spend with the grapes, no cars pass along the road beneath us. James is the fourth generation to farm on this land; although the men in his family previously reared sheep here. This is slow, quiet work, done with a vision of long-term gain. “We’ve planted something that will theoretically be around for 50 years,” Susan explains. It’s a shift, in all ways, from the life the pair had in London, where they met.
Whinyard Rocks is a joint venture for the couple, one that is baked into the notion of family: James’s from the ground they are growing on, and their own, as they balance the farm around their two young children. Susan has impeccably renovated Highbrook Cottage, one of the family’s holiday homes a stone’s throw from the vineyard, which is open all-year round for cosy, secluded escapes. They do it all together. “For a lot of people, the idea of working for ourselves and working together would be an absolute nightmare,” Susan says, “but we didn’t really question it. We just went into it knowing that was how it would be.”
It was with family that Susan and James tasted their first bottles of wine, too. Last Christmas, they cracked open the first bottle of Whinyard Rocks Pet Nat with James’s family and, as a last-minute surprise, Susan’s sister and brother-in-law. “Having it over the table at Christmas, it went down really quickly,” she says, with a laugh. “Whenever we’ve had something that’s ready to share, we’ve always done it with friends and family,” adds James.
Local Christmas tradition around here, James explains, is to go to the pub before lunch. The couple have been joined by other friends moving to the area over the past few years. It’s become something a whole new generation has joined in with, before sitting down to a table where local wine is the centrepiece.
Interview by Alice Vincent.
Photographs by Marco Kesseler.
For more information on the vineyard, to purchase wine or to book a stay at Highbrook Cottage, see Whinyard Rocks.