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Issue 53 - Oh vine of Scotland

Scotland Magazine Issue 53
October 2010

 

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Oh vine of Scotland

Gavin D. Smith goes in search of a mythical beastie.

Mention Scotland and drink and everyone immediately thinks of whisky. Beyond that, beer may come to mind, as the country has a great brewing heritage, and in recent years many new micro-breweries have sprung into life.

But Scotland and wine?

Essentially, the problem is that nobody thinks of Scotland as a grape-producing nation, and for most people, wine equals grapes. This need not be the case, of course, with fruit or ‘country’ wines having grown in popularity during the last few years.

Scotland currently boasts two country wine producers, in the shape of Perthshire’s Cairn O’Mhor and the Orkney Wine Company, while Moniack Castle Wineries in Inverness-shire offers a range of country wines and liqueurs, formerly made on site by the Fraser family, but now sourced from elsewhere in the UK.

Cairn O’Mhor Fruit Winery is owned and operated by husband and wife team Ron and Judith Gillies, and is located at East Inchmichael, between Dundee and Perth, in the fertile Carse of Gowrie. “The winery is based on our family farm,” says Ron Gillies.

“I was born and brought up here, working on the farm before setting off to travel the world, doing lots of jobs in the process. Eventually I came back to the farm.

“My brother gave me a book of wine recipes one day, and the first I tried to make was from oranges, lemons and grapefruit. It was delicious, and the whole thing went on from there. That was back in 1979, and we’ve been doing it commercially since 1987. This is a good location as we can source lots of soft fruit, plus wild berries and leaves locally.” Having started with a demi-john in the farmhouse kitchen, the Gillies settled on a core range when they decided to turn their hobby into a commercial venture. It comprised elderberry, bramble, strawberry and raspberry, plus dry and sweet oak leaf wines, and that line up remains at the heart of the Cairn O’Mhor operation today.

“The name Cairn O’Mhor comes from Australia,” explains Ron Gillies. “I was working for a while with a geophysics company in the Great Sandy Desert, and one day I was using a theodolite to survey a hill.

While I was waiting to get a lift back to base I built a cairn of stones on the hill, and named it Cairn O’Mhor.” Cairn O’Mhor currently sells some 200,000 bottles a year, and Gillies declares that “Elderberry used to be our best-seller, but that’s been overtaken now by raspberry.

Every year we experiment with new wines and we produce seasonal bottlings too, such as Berry Up, which is a combination of strawberries and raspberries.” Cairn O’Mhor also now makes limited quantities of very soughtafter cider, and a recent addition to the range is a bramble and oak leaf wine – marketed as the ideal accompaniment to haggis! Winery tours are available and there is a popular on-site shop and cafe.

Meanwhile, to the north of the Scottish mainland, the Orkney Islands are home to the Orkney Wine Company, which began, like Cairn O’Mhor, as a hobby venture. According to a spokesperson, “It all started as a hobby for Emile van Schayk after he was given a recipe by Sarah Lenaghan, a retired shepherdess in Stranraer.” Two years after starting to experiment with country wines, the van Schayk family moved to Orkney, where a succession of victories in local homebrew and wine competitions led to the decision to develop a commercial wine-making operation.

“All our wines and liqueurs are made in the traditional way using fruit, flowers and even carrots, which are fermented whole, resulting in high levels of antioxidants and maximum flavour,” explains the Orkney Wine spokesperson. “Only the finest natural ingredients are used, with as much as possible grown in Orkney.” The Orkney Wine Company currently makes some 20,000 bottles per year, but plans to quadruple output once the business moves into a new production facility.

So much for country wines, but Perthshirebased chef and hotelier Pete Gottgens believes that it may be possible to grow grapes for wine-making in Scotland, and is actively pursuing this option. Gottgens was born in South Africa and worked as Nelson Mandela’s personal chef before moving to Scotland and purchasing the Ardeonaig Hotel, situated on the banks of Loch Tay.

“Our hotel is a food and wine destination, declares Gottgens, “and we run lots of food and wine events. We have an annual festival, with wine-makers from South Africa and chefs from all over the world.” Accordingly, Gottgens planted 48 vines, comprising four different varieties, in 2004.

The idea was to see which flourished and which did not. Solaris was the most successful, and, if all goes well, Gottgens aims to produce a crisp Riesling wine. He notes that “Last summer we took some of the grapes and pressed them and found they had a sugar content of 9.5 per cent – which means we could have made wine from them. So this year we grubbed up the old vines and planted 248 Solaris vines.

“If next year is a good year for the vines I will consider putting in another 200, and eventually have an area of up to two acres.

I just want to follow my nose and take it as it comes.” Leading Scottish wine writer, broadcaster and founder of the www.winepages.com website Tom Cannavan is sceptical about the chances of producing Scottish grape wine, noting that “To ripen grapes successfully out of doors requires quite precise conditions: late spring frosts after the vines are shooting will do severe damage, hail in summer or autumn can be devastating, and even if these are avoided, the vine needs to accumulate a certain number of ‘degree days’ of heat over the growing season and a certain number of sunshine hours.” Cannavan adds that “Rainfall much above 900mm per annum is problematic for vines. Many parts of Scotland endure more than 2,000mm and even 3,000mm of rainfall annually, and our accumulated heat and sunshine hours are simply insufficient. All of this points to commercial winemaking in Scotland being impossible for now, and I think unlikely in the future.” Pete Gottgens of Ardeonaig says that “I know it’s a long shot – we’re not going to be the new wine-producing region of the world! But someone has got to be a pioneer. So far, the vines look healthy, and in 2013 we should be in a position to see whether we can make wine.

We will press the grapes and see what we get. If it turns out only to be fit for vinegar, I’m a chef, I can use either!” In the meantime, if you want an authentic taste of Scottish drink that doesn’t rely on barley or hops, try a bottle of Cairn O’Mhor’s Oak and Elder or Orkney’s Blaeberry Hairst.

Good wine doesn’t have to come from Tuscany or Bourdeaux!