Gout de Camion
The short story of the unlikeliest vineyard the world
By Henry Jeffreys
August 21 2023
If you’re asked to imagine a great vineyard, you might think of the stony terraces of the Douro valley, the chalk hills of Côte des Blancs in Champagne or perhaps the black volcanic soil of Santorini. What you almost certainly aren’t thinking of is a pile of rubble in an industrial estate near Reading. And yet for a few years such unpromising terroir produced not just one of England’s finest wines but one of the best sparkling wines in the world. This is the story of Theale, the most unlikely vineyard in the word.
Theale is a small town in Berkshire where Laithwaites, Britain’s largest mail order wine business, has its head office. The company founded by Tony Laithwaite has long been supporters of English wine right back to a 1974 Adgestone from the Isle of Wight. In 1997, the company moved to a new office where there was an enormous pile of old bricks and other detritus leftover from the building work. According to Anne Linder, a longtime employee of the company, Tony Laithwaite noticed that the rubble slope faced south and had the hair-brained scheme of turning it into a vineyard.
One can imagine some eyes rolling at HQ at the time, but as owner and director, Laithwaite always got what he wanted. Tonnes of topsoil were spread on top of the rubble ready for the vines and Linder remembers planting 800 Chardonnay vines by hand in the pouring rain with the late Mike Roberts who had founded Ridgeview in Sussex, a pioneering sparkling wine producer, in 1995 and already made a wine called South Ridge for Laithwaites.
Nothing was mechanized: the firm ran an adopt-a-vine scheme where staff members would tend the vine as and when needed though according to Roberts’ son Simon, now head winemaker, it didn’t quite work out like that with Ridgeview having to send people all the way from Burgess Hill to Reading to make sure the vines were properly looked after. The first harvest was in 2003 when a team of special needs children helped out with the grape picking. It can’t have taken long. The grapes then went to Ridgeview in Sussex to be turned into sparkling wine, and released in 2007.
“I was surprised by how well it turned out” said Linder in a bit of vintage understatement. That very first wine was voted the seventh best sparkling wine in the world at the Effervescents du Monde competition in France, where the 2007 came second in a 2013 blind tasting of sparkling wines and Champagnes organized by English wine guru Stephen Skelton, the so-called Judgment of Parsons Green. The winner was a Wyfold 2009, which came from Barbara Laithwaite’s, Tony’s wife, own vineyard and was also made by Ridgeview.
I distinctly remember tasting that 2007 Theale at a press event in 2013. Previously I’d found English sparkling wine a little austere but this one was full, tasting of overripe apples. I described it, no doubt trying to channel Oz Clarke, as like ‘walking in a cider orchard in autumn’.
Clearly Laithwaite had an eye for a good plot. Theale vineyard had everything needed to make a high-quality wine: lots of sunshine and most importantly good drainage. Linder said: “Vines are tenacious and can grow anywhere, they can grow in the rockiest outcrop of the Pyrenees where it is just schist or flint with no soil to speak of.”
Sadly, you can no longer buy wines from Theale. The last vintage was 2015 and then Laithwaite’s moved its premises and now one of England’s greatest vineyards is buried under an Amazon distribution centre though the vines themselves were rescued and are still bearing fruit in Dorset.
Happily Barbara Laithwaite’s vineyard at Wyfold near Henley-on-Thomas is still thriving. The wines are no longer made at Ridgeview but at Harrow & Hope by a certain Henry Laithwaite.
His plot near Marlow produces some of the best sparkling wine in the country but being inland does suffer from frost. This was not something that was ever a problem at Theale.
Anne Linder thinks the idling engines of nearby lorries contributed to the particularly warm local micro-climate. Ah, that characteristic Theale gout de camion! Perhaps not your classical idea of a great vineyard but it worked.
Vines in a Cold Climate: the people behind the English wine revolution by Henry Jeffreys is published by Allen & Unwin £16.99