Being psychedelic

At Lyme Bay Winery

Words by Hollie Newton
Photography by Emli Bendixen
Guest Edited by Cara Dawson

    It is -4°C this morning. Hoarfrost covers the lanes and fields, and The Beast from the East is snapping at my heels. Not famous vineyard visiting conditions, I’ll grant you, but then nothing about this Devon winemaker is ordinary. “The pheasant didn’t get you, did he?” Liam Idzikowski greets me in the car park with a broad smile and a wary eye out for his nemesis, a furious territorial pheasant standing guard over the cider tanks. We step out of the cold and into the warmth of the winery. The air is dense with elderflower.

“THIS IS the frontier of winemaking. If you want to make wine, England is the place to be right now.”

    Though Lyme Bay Winery is renowned for its English sparkling wines, the 400,000 litres of fermentation tanks make a psychedelic selection of booze. Elderflower wine, nettle wine, birch, damson, sloe, honey, gooseberry - all gathered from the local landscape. Is there a touch of madness? Yes. Has the cowslip wine been discontinued? Yes. “Not such a demand for that one” laughs Liam. But this is what I love about these guys – they try everything. Big awards have done little to curb their sense of fun and creativity. And the awards have been mighty. Under the expert guidance of head winemaker Liam, not only have their English sparkling wines gone from strength to strength, they have started to produce some truly outstanding still wines. Single origin Bacchus, such as Sandbar and Bacchus Block with their distinctive Devon coastline illustrations, have made a particular impression on the wine world, and this year sees the release of their first red, a limited release 2016 Pinot Noir. For all the mad scientist invention, this is where the thrust of Lyme Bay’s efforts are now directed. Proper world-class wine.

    How much do you know about wine? I would place myself firmly in the “a bit” category. I can tell a Chardonnay from a Chablis, but Miles from Sideways would openly scoff at me. Liam has never scoffed at anyone in his life. He has that irresistible combination of profound knowledge, the effervescent enthusiasm of a Labrador puppy, and an Irish accent. I ask where on earth the non-expert should start when choosing a bottle. “Well first you’ll want to look at it,” says Liam, holding a golden glass of Shoreline to the light, “that’ll tell you if it’s red or white.” For the love of… “Then have a closer look at the colour. In a red, how light or dark it is will give you a guess about how long it’s been aged. Older wines will be more garnered or rust coloured.

     In a white wine, a deeper caramel colour will indicate some age to it. It’ll be rounded.” Liam’s best advice is to “buy and drink a lot of wine.” Guidance I can get on board with. “Then just make a note of any you particularly like, the grape variety, the region it comes from. If you can stretch to a £8, £9 or £10 bottle, you’ll be getting a lot more for your money.” He recommends WSET’s 2-day beginners courses as an excellent Christmas present for anyone wanting to hone their knowledge. “You’ll never stop learning about wine. I’m still learning now.”

“In a red, how light or dark it is will give you a guess about how long it’s been aged. Older wines will be more garnered or rust coloured”

     We look at wine diamonds on the side of a massive great cask, removed at freezing temperatures for two weeks. It tickles Liam that both Emli and I dabble in brewing/ exploding our concoctions. “You’ve got 6bar of pressure in sparkling wine or cider – same as a double decker bus tyre. Mind your eyebrows.” We visit the lab and meet Jimmy – cheeky, covered in tattoos and tasting wine at 10 am on a Wednesday morning. Why do they never tell you about these careers in school? We learn about tests for core stability, protein stability, SO2 levels and bioinspiration, microbial stability, oxidation, alcohol levels. Emli continues to harass Jimmy. “You’ve made the mistake of wearing lovely bright colours in an interestingly lit room Jimmy,” I quip. “That’s why I dress like a criminal,” pipes Liam. My impression? They laugh, they enjoy themselves, and they know their shit. Lyme Bay has ploughed investment into the right places, leaving the team room to flourish. It is creative here.

“He probably has his
arm up a cow”

     Is this indicative of English viniculture? “This is the frontier of winemaking, for sure. New Zealand’s had its day. Australia’s been and gone. Chile, Argentina… There aren’t many places that are up and coming like England. You go to Europe, you go to California, and everything is already set in place. For us, there’s a lot more experimentation. It’s a fun place to work. If you want to make wine, England is the place to be right now.” This is heartening to hear. There hasn’t been much good news making it out of the farming and food community of late. I almost dread asking, but has Brexit had any negative effects? Not that Liam has noticed.

    They had no shortage of pickers last year, large teams making their way down from Herefordshire after the strawberry crop. It is a hard, repetitive, skilled job - every grape is picked by hand - but in Lyme Bay everyone bundles in together, agency worker and head winemaker alike. A few hours sleep, a quick shower, and then back out to the vines. “I think California’s been having more problems than us with their Mexican workers.” Trumpitus? “No, it’s the marijuana farms. They pay better and the work’s easier.“ Now that’s something you could grow here. “Between the vines, yeah, companion planting,” laughs Liam, “sure-fire money maker.”

     I ask if they have any famous clients. “Well… erm… err…” Liam doesn’t have a clue. The press office later tells me that Mark Hix, River Cottage, Grace Dent and Michael Caines are all fans. They don’t even register on Liam’s horizon. Here is a team working, not for fame and glory, but the sheer love of crafting something extraordinary. “Olly Smith did say that we were superstars in the making. I’ll take that.”

     Is the English wine community a hotbed of seething and bitter competition? “There’s no need. We’re such a young industry – if you’re only 1 or 2 wineries, you’re not going to be taken seriously.” In fact, Lyme Bay Winery goes one step further, actively supporting the young producers coming up behind them. Liam calls Rob Corbett up the road “he probably has his arm up a cow,” to see if we can visit his vineyard.

    Castlewood is a relatively new addition to the English wine family. Taking the reins of his family’s farm, Rob planted a few thousand vines 10 years ago. They now make delicate sparkling wines in converted dairy barns on site; small-scale independent wine production at its best. In return for the use of Lyme Bay’s industrial press and disgorging equipment, Rob takes all of their pumice (the spent grape husks) and ploughs them into his land.

    Rob is a joy to hang out with. There is something of the young Compo to him as he bundles us into his knackered old Defender, daft Jack Russell and spaniel leaping onto our laps. I have visited vineyards all over the world, but never in winter. Here the vines are bare, gnarled and architectural, covered in lichen “the sign of an excellent south-facing aspect.” Heavy snow is forecast. Will Rob be worried for his vines? “Not unless the temperature goes below -25°C. The vines are dormant at the moment.” A spring freeze is a real killer. “If your frost alarm goes off in the middle of the night in April, that’s the time to worry.” Some vineyards will light boogies amongst the vines – small fires to raise the temperature that vital few degrees. With no team and only himself to rely on, Rob uses a heating attachment on his tractor’s exhaust. “I just drive up and down between the vines, back and forth, until 5 in the morning. Praying.” The hard work is paying off. Castlewood makes a limited edition sparkling wine for Hix Oyster and Fish House up the road. Gill Meller will be cooking at the Castlewood festival here in the summer. Word is spreading.

    Alas, it is time for me and Emli to make our escape before the blizzard lands. We leave Rob pruning his vines, headphones on. “What are you listening to Rob?” “The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck.” Of course, he is.