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  • Susan Low

Holy Vale: birds, bunnies, botrytis – and great wine

There is no one on the planet who’s happier to see the end of lockdown than I am, and I recently dusted off my suitcase to head to the airport (god, how I’ve missed airports…). I’d been aching to go to the Isles of Scilly for ages and I finally made it. And, yes, this tiny archipelago off the western tip of Cornwall is every bit as beautiful as everyone says. Go.

My first stop was Holy Vale vineyard, on the main island of St Mary’s, to meet owner-winemaker Robert (Bob) Francis (pictured above), who also owns the island’s Star Castle hotel. I’ve been to a lot of vineyards in my life, but this is one of the quirkiest and loveliest I’ve seen.

The land used to be a flower farm (like much of the land on these islands), and the Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir vines are framed by massive Monterey pines that look suspiciously like the ones you see on the West Coast of the US. It’s lush, it’s green, and the seven tiny acres resonate with birdsong. This vineyard is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for Bob – but he’s the first to burst the ‘perfect vineyard idyll’ bubble.

“I’ve had so many hurdles,” he says, shaking his head, as I sip his 2019 Silver Carn Cuvée, a Chardonnay-Pinot Gris blend that tastes of ripe cantaloupe with a squeeze of lime and a shake of sea salt. “There are ten times as many songbirds on these islands than on the mainland. And what do they like…?”

In fact, the birds like ripe grapes so much that they pretty much devoured his crop in 2013 and 2014. He’s since had to resort to covering the vines with netting.

“Then we get powdery mildew and botrytis from the sea fog,” Bob continues. There are rabbits, frost, high winds… “Thank god I’ve done this as a hobby and not as a way of making a living,” he quips.

Yet Bob has accomplished something incredible. He’s planted the UK’s most southerly vineyard (and one of the most beautiful, something that legendary wine critic Michael Broadbent commented on). He’s employed the expertise of one of the world’s top winemakers, Will Opitz, a personal friend.

And, with only a week-long winemaking crash course at Plumpton College in East Sussex, Bob has made some excellent wine – and that’s in spite of the birds, bunnies, and botrytis.

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