After 40 years in the TV industry, Simon and Karen Priestman bought a boutique vineyard – and promptly created an award-winning wine
After four decades behind the cameras on some of the UK’s biggest TV drama and film productions – including Paddington, Dr Who, Call the Midwife, Poldark and Grand Designs – Simon Priestman and his wife Karen decided it was time for a change in lifestyle.
‘The kids left home and we were looking for a project,’ says Simon. ‘We loved growing things, so decided it had to be related to that. It was initially going to be a lavender farm, then we changed our minds and it became a vineyard. We looked at lots, including a vineyard in Italy,. Then one day, this place just happened to come up online. We said: “we’ll go down and have a look at it, but it’d be mad to get involved.” So we did … and look what happened!’
‘We walked around the corner as you go down into the vineyard and just … wow. The view opened up and we said: “Well, this is lovely!” – and that was it,’ says Karen. ’There’s so much potential in this place for other things as well. So yes, that was it. We were hooked!’
As professional camera crew, how much experience or knowledge did the couple have in vineyards and vines?
Simon is remarkably cheerful as he acknowledges this.
‘I applied to Plumpton College in June 2018 to see if I could do their week-long vineyard course. They were fully booked and didn’t have anything available – because of course you’re meant to book these things two years in advance. We were still working full time shooting at that point, and so by the time we made it through the inevitable delays, the lawyers had done their thing and all the paperwork was complete, we literally wrapped on a film in Liverpool and drove straight down.
‘We got here at some ghastly time in the morning, exhausted, to find the entire vineyard completely overgrown. The whole thing was just … oh my god, what have we done?’
‘We knew the vineyard was planted in 2004 with three varieties of grape – Phoenix, Seyval Blanc and Regent,’ says Karen. ‘They’re all cold climate grape varieties, so they’ll thrive in the UK, and they’re disease-resistant, so we were confident we had a good base. But it’s not your usual three varieties – English sparkling is traditionally made from the classics, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Combine that with our lack of knowledge and we could have met a bit of resistance in the industry before we even started!’
‘We parachuted into this,’ Simon continues. ‘It’s been a very steep learning curve, but a fantastic one. We don’t actually make the wine here – that’s a stage further, we’ve not taken that on yet. Daniel Ham is our winemaker – he was Langham’s head winemaker when we met and has now left to set up on a bio-dynamic vineyard near Salisbury.’
Little Waddon was certified as Organic, but due to a recent hike in the cost of the certification process, it is no longer officially classed as organic bio-dynamic. However they stay true to those principles, and continue to produce their wine in a regenerative, environmentally-friendly manner in the low intervention style.
‘We’re pesticide free,’ says Simon. ‘We don’t put any harmful chemicals on our land or on our vines. We don’t use commercial yeast for making the wine – it’s wild yeast ferments and no chemical or mechanical filtering, food colourants or added tannins and we don’t use sulphur at the start of the winemaking process or at bottling. We’re proud that it’s simply grape to glass.
‘In five years we’ve built a portfolio of seven wines. When we first spoke, Daniel asked what style of wine we would like, and Karen immediately said “definitely a sparkling wine!”. He asked if we realised that it’s a three-year process to make a Traditional Method sparkling wine (we didn’t) … So Karen said “Can’t you make us a Prosecco, or similar? That’s quite quick isn’t it? Just for the first couple of years while we wait for our English Sparkling wine?” He sort of gave us a look, and said “well, for a start Prosecco is DOC, so you can’t make it in this country. Also, you have to have pressurised tanks, which you know I don’t have!”
‘But then he said, “you know, there is this method that I know about – but I’ve never made before. It’s an ancestral method that goes back to the ninth century, called Col Fondo.”
‘I thought he said cold fondo, so I excitedly told Karen: “we can make cold fondo!” and went back to Dan with a “Yes, we’ll have the cold fondo, please!”
‘There was another sigh, and Dan said patiently ‘Noo-o-o, it’s from the Italian, Con il Fondo – it translates as with the lees, or with the bottom.” You make the base wine by letting that go through fermentation and then malo-lactic fermentation, then let it cold clear over winter.
In February of the following year you add 10 grams of organic sugar per litre and stir it up with the lees in the tank. Then you bottle it and simply beer cap it.
Around about May, as it starts to warm up, it re-ferments a second time in the bottle. It’s two and a half bar pressure, as opposed to the five bar pressure of a Traditional Sparkling wine method. It does contain the lees, hence ‘with the bottom’ but it makes an extraordinary semi-sparkling wine.
‘The 2018 vintage was put forward for a competition and we won a bronze medal!’
‘Interestingly enough,’ adds Karen, ‘that year, we were only the second vineyard in the country to make it. But since we started, we’ve set a trend – everyone now is making Col Fondo! We went on to make a Col Fondo Rosa (rosé). Then last year we also made a Col Fondo Rosso (red) sparkling – very on trend, it looks completely crazy because the mousse is red.
‘The Blanca, the white, is still our most popular, but the Red Col Fondo is great fun. It’s a great barbecue drink, perfect for surprising your friends!
‘We also do a Still White and a Still Red. And of course we now have our Traditional Method Sparkling too!
‘We do like to experiment and try different things – hence the Red Col Fondo.
‘We’re known for our Col Fondos, but if we do say so ourselves, our Traditional Method Sparkling is a little beauty.’
The Tasting Room
‘We sell our wine at some local shows and events’ say’s Simon. ‘But people really love our Tour & Tasting experiences.
‘I take everyone for a stroll around the vines and tell the story, then we arrive back at the Tasting Room. We sit on the terrace if the sun is being kind enough to allow us to enjoy the spectacular view, and Karen does an amazing plate of food while we all taste the wines.’
Little Waddon Vineyard produces small batches of low intervention crafted wine. Most people buy direct from the Vineyard via the online shop. Some of their Ruby Moon red goes to the Groucho club in Soho, and some Col Fondo can be found at ‘Terroir Tapas’ and also ‘Parlourmentary Deli’ in Bournemouth.
It’s a busy sort of choice for “retirement”, but Simon and Karen show no signs of slowing down any time soon. They also have The Hide, a shepherd’s hut, with a cabin and wood-fired hot-tub, in a quiet corner of the vineyard, which earns its keep as a luxury Airbnb rental. With its lush interior, stunning views to the coast and of course that wood-fired outdoor hot tub, it’s no surprise that it’s already booked up for most of the year.
With the ever-present pressure of rising energy costs, they are also moving the vineyard towards 100 per cent renewable energy already powering most of their needs.
See the Little Waddon Vineyard website for Tour & Taste event details, to purchase wine direct or to find more details of The Hide.