The Festival of Vine Planting at Lympstone Manor

By Marc Millon

I recall my first visit to Courtlands (as Lympstone Manor was then) sometime during the summer of 2015. Michael wanted to show me the dilapidated Georgian mansion on the edge of Lympstone that he was so excited about. The place was something of a wreck, to be honest, the grounds, with their mangy palm trees that seemed from another age, overgrown and untidy. But Michael saw the potential to create something very special here, the transformation and renovation of this historic if neglected house into a world-class hotel that would embody his vision of contemporary and luxurious country house hospitality. He also immediately envisaged the potential to plant a vineyard on the parkland sloping down towards the Exe estuary which the property commandingly overlooks.

“Imagine,” he said, gesturing down the slope towards the river, and inviting me to picture a field full of grape-laden vines, “We will be the first country house hotel in the UK with its own vineyard, producing our own premium English sparkling wine. How amazing will that be!”

Many people have dreams; few are able to fully realise them. After 18 months of hard work, massive expense, and sometimes worry on a project that Michael managed and oversaw himself, Lympstone Manor opened in April 2017. The Georgian manor had been completely and utterly transformed and rebuilt, maintaining its historic character while at the same time being wholly contemporary in design, style and luxury. The parkland, however, remained mainly untouched. Nonetheless, from the first day of opening, Michael boldly reasserted his dream by stating Lympstone Manor to be a “Hotel, Restaurant and Vineyard”.

Now, just a year later, the final element of that dream has been made real. Soil analysis and temperature charts gave Michael the confidence to believe that Lympstone Manor basks in an exceptional microclimate with a terroir suitable for the cultivation of the classic grapes of Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. Over the winter, the parkland underwent extensive soil preparation. It had probably lain unploughed and virtually untouched for more than a hundred years at least, and so it required deep sub-soiling, ploughing, harrowing, and the enriching of the soil with organic compost and lime. Now, by early May, it was ready to for planting: over the course of the hot weekend of May 6th, some 16,500 vines were put into the prepared ground using a state-of-the-art GPS-guided planting machine.

But about 1000 vines still remained to be planted. These were set aside for Michael’s Festival of Vine Planting, a weekend of celebration. It started with a visit to Lyme Bay Winery. After considerable deliberation, Michael and his team had decided to work with the award-winning winery located near Axminster for the production of the eventual wines that will result from grapes grown on the Lympstone Manor Vineyard. Lyme Bay’s winemaker Liam Idzikowski showed guests around the modern, state-of-the-art winemaking facility, discussed his approach to wines, and gave a masterclass tasting to demonstrate the Lyme Bay style and quality.

That evening, guests taking part in the Festival of Vine Planting enjoyed a private dinner in the Mamhead dining room, hosted by Liam along with Lympstone Manor’s dynamic Vineyard Manager, James Matyear. Michael created a special menu to demonstrate how well the wines of Lyme Bay are able to partner his sophisticated and elegant Michelin-star cuisine. Liam introduced each wine and spoke with real passion and knowledge not just about them but also about the careful matching of the correct wine to each dish. And the matches were superb! Michael’s signature Brixham crab raviolo was accompanied by Shoreline, a crisp and aromatic white with a refreshing green apple bite of acidity that highlighted the deep salinity of the crab. Lemon sole in a white wine foam was more delicate yet with a buttery richness, and this went well with one of the most exciting wines of the evening, a barrel-fermented Chardonnay from the outstanding 2016 vintage that had an extraordinary depth of flavour, with ripe fruit, nicely integrated oak, and an underlying backbone of acidity that kept the wine vigorous and exhilarating. Pan-fried red mullet with ratatouille and a gazpacho sauce required a fuller wine, and indeed the Pinot Noir Rosé 2017 was a beautiful match: though pale in colour, it is full and forthright with gorgeous redcurrant fruit. Cornish duckling in an orange sauce proved to be a more challenging dish to match. Lyme Bay’s Pinot Noir 2016 was just about up to the task, surprisingly deep in colour, fruit driven, and low in tannin. To finish, a sharp and not too sweet raspberry mousse was partnered by Rosé Brut sparkling, zesty, with fruit, some body and yeast character.

“There is no reason why we can’t make world-class wines from fruit grown in England,” Liam asserted confidently at the end of the evening, and we all agreed heartily. “The future for English wine is very bright!” Based on the wines tasted through this evening, I would say that the future of Lympstone Manor Vineyard is very exciting indeed.

The next morning, James Matyear met us in the vineyard. He explained to us that he had come to Lympstone Manor almost by serendipity — he and his wife Jo had moved to the area, following his stint of employment as Assistant Vineyard Manager at Hattingley Vineyard near Winchester. When he knocked on the door of Lympstone Manor unannounced and by chance to see if there might be a position available, it was just at the time that Michael and Steve Edwards were thinking about appointing a vineyard manager. At Hattingley, James had gained vital experience cultivating the notoriously difficult trio of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier varietals, the same grapes that Michael was determined to plant, so his arrival could not have come at a better moment.

Over the winter months, James oversaw the considerable ground works that were essential for the preparation of the soil in readiness for planting. Standing in the vineyard amidst the many vines already planted, he explained to us the numerous and considerable tasks that had been undertaken, and the decisions they had all had to make regarding so many things: soil preparation, density of planting, clones of grape varieties and rootstock, orientation of the vineyard, which part of the vineyard to plant each varietal, what percentage of each varietal to plant, trellising, training and much more. Planning and planting a vineyard, clearly, is no easy task!

After a quick break for coffee or tea, it was time for us all to get to work. It was our task to help with the manual planting of some of the remaining vines. Digging the holes with a spade, clearing out the red Devon earth with our hands, breaking up the clumps with our fingers, placing the delicate, small individual vines in the holes, replacing the soil, tamping it down, putting in a metal vine stake, and finally covering with a green plastic rabbit guard: it was hard work but a real privilege to be part of a very special moment.

Afterwards, we all repaired to a corner of the grounds by the Exe foreshore that had been prepared by Ricky, the head gardener, with the assistance of James and the ground team. There were benches made out of logs cut down from the trees on the estate, a fire pit, a barbecue area, and a gazebo set up as a portable bar. Here we enjoyed a very special Lympstone Manor vineyard feast, the first of many, we hope, and we all raised a toast to Michael and to the success of his vineyard project.

Of course, Michael knows more than any that the creation of a productive vineyard is not a fast dream to fully realise. It will take at least three years before the first crop of grapes will be harvested (weather permitting), and a further two years before a sparkling wine will be ready to be released. Quality wine cannot be made in a hurry, and Lympstone Manor is all about quality in everything it does. So he is patient and happy to wait, safe in the knowledge that however long it takes, his dream of sitting out on the terrace of Lympstone Manor sipping his own Lympstone Manor Cuvée while watching the sun set over the broad Exe estuary is now tantalisingly closer than ever.

Many people have dreams; Michael is one of the very few who has the vision, determination and patience to make them come true. Furthermore, in realising his own dreams, Michael at the same time has created somewhere very special where others’ dreams can come true, too. How many special, unforgettable moments, how many dreams, I wonder, are already being realised over exquisite meals and wines in Berry Head, Mamhead, or Powderham dining rooms; or in the beautiful and individual luxurious guestrooms named after the birds of the Exe estuary? How many dreams in the future will be toasted over a magical sip or two of a very special wine born and created out of a unique sense of place: Lympstone Manor Cuvée?

Lympstone Manor, the home of Michael Caines, is truly a place where dreams have no end.