Naturally, we love selling local products in our pubs. It has always been our strong belief however, that the mere fact of being local is absolutely secondary to the product having to be outstanding. We're very lucky to have a number of these products on our shelves and behind our bars across our Gusto family.
Just weeks ago we discovered a relatively new producer right on our doorstep, here in Suffolk. Just outside of Bury St Edmunds in fact, at Thurston Place. Not only do the wines of Thurston Place fit the brief of being truly outstanding products, but the husband and wife team of Michael and Irene Rhodes fit our unofficial but always considered requirement of being throughly lovely people.
By way of explaining their loveliness to those not fortunate enough to know first hand, I can briefly summarise it by recalling our first introduction to each other when I turn up rudely early for our tasting and tour appointment at their beautiful home-cum-wine making facility. When I called Michael to let him know that I was 45 minutes away from arriving, I had grossly overestimated the time it would take me to finish up in the office and commute to Thurston. "I'm sure it won't matter", I foolishly presumed, as Michael had been shoulder deep in his fermentation vessels with a pressure washer when I called. "I'm sure he'll still be knocking around the winery, likely still armed with his pressure washer." I thought...
I felt awful arriving to Irene & Michael sitting down in the kitchen to their Saturday brunch, expecting not to see me for a good half hour yet. Being the most delightful hosts, they offered me to join them as they poured a perfectly cooled glass of their own Thurston Place Rondo (which, by the way, is how I hope to brunch when I grow up). Whilst I was entirely intruding upon their mid-morning break, Michael and Irene made me feel perfectly welcome whilst taking me through the history of the estate and their own backgrounds and introductions into the English wine industry and it's small, dedicated community.
The husband and wife team both have medical backgrounds (which isn't uncommon amongst winemakers - the process is as scientific as it is artistic) so it's fair to say that they have a leg up when it comes to the necessary understanding it takes to make palatable, fermented grape juice. Though Michael would be the first to say that it takes more than reading a book and following the instructions to make good wine. Ask him about the first attempt with a 35KG bin of Rondo grapes generously gifted to him by an estate in Norfolk some years back as a true first attempt. "Undrinkable" was his review - not ours!
A few courses at Plumpton (the UK's finest agricultural & oenology centred college) and especially trips to New Zealand and Australia really focused the couples' winemaking knowledge. What started out as a hobby quite soon became a passion that they were able to dedicate time and finances to. As a result, the wines became better with each vintage that passed and ultimately, saleable. Over the last five years, Thurston Place have been making wine for seven vineyards around East Anglia, winning several medals and awards. They make and bottle wine under their own label with fruit purchased from vineyard sites in Norfolk.
Thurston Place are in the process of growing their own fruit, having planted their 2 acre vineyard at the estate in the spring of 2019. Two old horse paddocks on a south facing slope provided an ideal site for the 1,000 Pinot Noir Précoce (an early ripening clone of Pinot Noir), 1000 Bacchus and 200 Rondo vines. I have a sneaking suspicion that they have also agreed to plant some Solaris too. The vineyard is well situated. Facing south it has excellent exposure to the sun, maximising the heat and light that the vines will benefit from which is important in UK viticulture. The site has also been fenced, protecting it from rabbit and deer feeding on the vines. The fence is the first of a number defence mechanisms used to combat the pest pressure on the vines! In addition, Thurston Place are the proud owners of two particularly lovely dogs, a Golden Retriever and a Cairn Terrier, both with an appetite for rabbits. Though most impressively, Irene's second (and relatively recent) passion is Falconry. Having completed the necessary course, Irene bought Ruby, the estate's Harris Hawk, who features proudly on the label of their bottle. Meeting Ruby was certainly the second surprise I received when visiting Thurston Place, after experiencing the Rhodes' hospitality. Like Michael, I was wary of Ruby and her murderous talons at first. Especially after Irene warned me that she was cautious of men! I was quickly assured however that she was as tame and calm on Irene's arm as she was absolutely beautiful. Quite a creature with enough power and strength to fight of the rooks that would otherwise attempt to inhabit the vines.
Assuming that the vines continue to establish well and that the numerous pest control methods are a success, Thurston Place expect to see their first commercially viable crop in 2021. We're as excited as they are!
Michael has alluded to the idea of a tour of the estate and a tasting in their newly finished orangery for our customers. We'll certainly hold him to that promise, as soon as we're allowed to organise such extravagant, in person events. If you would be interested, please do send us an email.
As a result of our visit to Thurston Place, we sell three of their wines:
Their Bacchus is rich and textured with lovely stone fruit aromatics - not overly grassy and "nettly" as we've come to expect from a lot of English Bacchus. On the palate it was fresh and mineral - the perfect aperitif.
This is a clone of Pinot Noir, known as Pinot Noir Précoce, or Fruhburgunder. Almost exclusively grown in Germany. Essentially - it's an early ripening style of Pinot Noir, meaning that in England's slightly cooler climate, the grapes for this wine were able to fully ripen and produce a juicy, soft and supple red wine - not a given for English red, yet! The winemaking is really well considered - the grapes were completely de-stemmed to remove any 'green', bitter flavours from the wine.
Best served slightly cool - this is a fresh, jammy style of wine that we can't get enough of.
Inky and purple, the wine is full of black fruit aromas with a hint of black pepper - reminiscent of cool climate Syrah. Like their Pinot, on that palate it is soft and juicy, but with nice weight. A perfect pairing for bacon and tomatoes (as Michael & Irene were enjoyed before I rudely interrupted...).