English winery survives fire scare as ‘unprecedented season’ continues

Marlow-based winery Harrow and Hope had a scare last week with flames reaching the vineyard’s hedgerow, but while winemaker Henry Laithwaite remains upbeat, he believes it’s too early to make predictions that this is the ‘best ever’ vintage.

Image: @HarrowandHope

Speaking to the drinks business this morning, owner and winemaker at Harrow and Hope, Henry Laithwaite, the son of industry stalwart Tony Laithwaite, recalled the moment he realised that his vineyard, and the surrounding houses, could be at risk.

According to Laithwaite, the fire began last week on the other side of a dual carriageway (A404) near the estate. It is thought that a combine harvester struck a flint, producing sparks which took hold in the hot, dry weather that the UK is currently experiencing.

“As it was windy sparks blew and ignited a conifer tree,” Laithwaite told db. “Sparks also flew across the road, setting light to some straw that had been harvested and dried, ready for bailing”.

On 2 July, due to the stifling conditions, the flames quickly took hold and came as close as five metres from the Harrow and Hope vineyard, destroying part of the hedgerow around the site.

“It was dependent on the way the wind was blowing,” said Laithwaite. “At the time I was more worried about the houses below. If it had been blowing the other way, our vines would have been singed”.

Thankfully 23 fire engines and firemen saved the day and were duly compensated with cases of Buckinghamshire fizz.

Asked whether there is a possibility of smoke taint, Laithwaite said that he had done some research via the AWRI (The Australian Wine Research Institute) and can see that there’s a low to medium risk for some of the vines. He said it will be something that “they will keep an eye on” but is hopeful that there won’t be any damage caused.

Unprecedented year

Speaking more generally, Laithwaite said that this year has been “quite an incredible season”.

“It is unprecedented and we’re way ahead of where we should be. If it carries on at this rate we’ll be picking in mid-September! We really couldn’t ask for more.”

However, he stressed the need for caution about making predictions for the best vintage on record.

“There’s still around 1-2 months to go and we could have rain throughout August. I’m not going to start making predictions just yet,” he said.

Harrow and Hope has 6.5 hectares under vine, planted with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Practising sustainable viticulture, the winery uses no herbicides and few other treatments with Laithwaite adding that this year “we could have got away with using nothing, although that’s not always possible”.

When asked about his plans for the future, he expressed a desire to acquire a bit more land for the estate, but added that it was difficult to come by in the area.

“We’ve only been selling our wines for just over two years. We’re very small and our priority up until now has been to get the most potential out of our vines. We only have 6.5 hectares and yet we make four different wines!

“We use a fair bit of oak in our wines and recently have been experimenting with leaving wines in barrel for longer, and are also trialling a non-filtered blanc de noirs.

“We’ve been building up our reserve wines quite substantially and produce on average 35,000 to 40,000 bottles a year”.

Laithwaite said that the reserve wines have been particularly important in years such as 2016 where the estate lost 65% of its crop due to frost. Since then it has invested in bougies and other frost deterrents in order gain added protection.

As well as its website, Harrow and Hope wines are also available from Laithwaite’s and selected on-trade outlets, for example, The Coral Room. It is currently exporting wines to Finland and Sweden and will soon start shipping to the Netherlands.

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