In the northern Welsh village of Rhyd-Ddu, just west of the mighty Mount Snowdon, there’s an awkward left turn. It’s made so by a few things: the acute angle and the fact this is Britain where people already drive on the left; the distraction of the Cwellyn Arms pub; and a small, brown sign.
Even with all the shades of brown around this part of Wales — the fallow fields, the autumnal trees — this sign stands out, not because of its color, but because it’s carrying a bunch of grapes. Were I in the Napa Valley, say, or perhaps the Loire Valley, it would be unremarkable, but while this quiet corner of North Wales is famous for its own valleys and long traditions, to an outsider like me, wine seems like it belongs to a different universe.
Welcome to a new world
Wales, especially North Wales, is not a wine region. It is barely a beer region. It is, however, a stronghold of the Welsh language, which is proudly taught in schools and spoken in the community. Several times over the course of a few days of road tripping in the area, people I speak to have to pause mid-sentence to find the English word they’re looking for. Their accents sound almost as Scandinavian as they do the commonly heard sing-song accent of south Wales.
Place names, including Rhyd-Ddu, can be difficult to pronounce for non-Welsh speakers and so I decide to avoid the risk of embarrassing myself in front of my fellow Celts, instead describing places in proximity to words I know I can say properly. “It’s that little village west of Snowdon,” I might say, or “What’s the name of that place just south from Anglesey?” Even with kind and generous locals linguistically holding my hand, much of the real pronunciation remains beyond my grasp.
Thankfully the place on the sign has a fairly simple name: Pant Du, which means Black Valley and is pronounced just as you might imagine. Following the sign west towards the Irish Sea, I eventually leave beautiful Snowdonia National Park and, after seven miles, reach the remarkably slick vineyard and café bearing that name, a modern-looking building in the midst of some very traditional farmland. That Wales has vineyards at all may seem remarkable, but being this far north in a country hardly synonymous with sunshine seems downright implausible.
First planted by Richard and Iola Huws in 2007, Pant Du is the boldest wine project in a tiny but growing scene in this part of the country. Taking a seat with Richard in the café section of his property I can’t help noticing above us two British Academy of Television Arts (BAFTA) statues look impassively across the room, imperiously positioned above the sandwich counter.
“I bought the land in 2003 and honestly didn’t know what to do with it,” says the former cinematographer. He did, however, know that he’d loved a trip to New Zealand, especially its wine and its scenery, and the relationship between the two. He saw similarities between that landscape and the one here. Notions of terroir and soil acidity were still some ways distant, but he decided to put down his award-winning camera and give it a try.
Viticulture takes root
Until quite recently, the U.K. wasn’t exactly prime vineyard land, though a few brave souls had planted grapes here and there since the 1950s. But after the 2003 heat wave, which suggested warmer summers were on their way, viticulture expanded. Today, there are more than 500 vineyards, and about 165 wineries across England and Wales, some of which produce sparkling wines to rival Champagne.
Wales, it has to be said, remains a challenging place to grow grapes. Not only is it cool, humid, and cloudy, but it’s subject to unpredictable storms blowing in from the Atlantic. That’s why many of the grapes grown locally are unusual: Rondo, Regent, and Triomphe d’Alsace in the reds, and Bacchus, Solaris, and Seyval Blanc in the whites, all of which are hybrids, or crossings of different grape species, to make them more resistant to diseases and challenging climate conditions.
But the warming weather is seeing the threshold for viable grapes move further north, like mercury on a hot thermometer, meaning North Wales may well grow as a legitimate new wine region. The process is further along further in the south of the nation, but now new land is proving fertile and two more vineyards have already been planted along the coast.
Richard Huws found the learning curve dizzyingly steep, but the more he looked into it, the more the business seemed viable — the south-facing fields looked like they might have potential. The tests of the land suggested they’d be able to host vines, too and, by 2007, there was a business. Today there are nine acres of vines and 18 of apple orchards, planted as an insurance policy in case the grapes failed.
“If I did the project again, I’d have gone with lots of different samples and then just watched them for seven years to see how they all reacted to the environment,” says Huws while the café buzzes with visitors behind him. “But I was so excited that I just went in with Pinot Noir and Rondo.” Rondo is really the best one, he says of the grape developed in Europe to grow in places where it’s normally difficult to ripen Vitis vinifera grapes. “It’d grow totally wild if we let it.”
Welsh tourism is growing
The region occasionally feels cut off from the wider world, or at least distinct from traditional ideas of Britishness, but a place like Pant Du is well prepared for tourists, with a visitor center, café, bar, and deli, all appealing to American tourists on heritage trips, and the Welsh diaspora coming home from Australia and Patagonia, as well as a long train of domestic British tourists.
People come for many reasons, but the majority of tourism up here is almost literally sculpted by Mount Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales, which seems to act as a colossal roundabout for the nation. I base myself east of the mountain, in the medieval village of Ruthin — home of a bar called The Wine Vaults; no Welsh wines stocked — which I’d thought looked quite central on the map, but thanks to the area’s total lack of straight roads, turns out to be at least an hour from anywhere.
It takes longer than that to get to the Red Wharf Bay Vineyard on the wild island of Anglesey. Of the three established vineyards in North Wales — Gwinllan Conwy has also been in operation since 2012 — Kevin Mawdesley’s project is by far the smallest. A quite literal cottage industry, he has planted just half a field out the back of his rural home. He mostly sells bottles directly, when people come to visit and have a small tour that includes some “Welsh tapas,” a selection of produce from Anglesey.
“I really just wanted to do something that I enjoyed,” says former IT worker Mawdesley. “I planted 75 vines, totally mismanaged them for five years, made six bottles of wine, and then realized I was messing around, really. I knew it was possible to do better, but when I got made redundant, I really wanted to plant a vineyard in Spain. With hindsight, I’m glad that didn’t come off because by now I’d just own a patch of weeds on the continent.”
The view from his property in Wales could hardly be less Spanish. Ahead of us, fields of sheep surround Mawdesley’s land which tumbles down towards the windswept Red Wharf Bay, the old black marble quarry at Castell Mawr providing an alien piece of set design on the horizon. The whole place has justifiably been designated an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Once in a while, an itinerant sheep will find its way onto his land, though most are deterred by his boisterous golden Labrador, Mali. The owner doesn’t seem under much pressure from them — or anything else really. From 400 vines, he produces just 500 to 600 bottles a year, which he also sells at food festivals.
Mawdesley concedes that a “little more sunshine” would be useful to reach his land’s potential but is also quick to acknowledge that climate change has made his job easier.
“It’s mostly because of global warming, but also because there’s a better selection of grapes available,” explains the owner. “Just 20 years ago it wouldn’t have been possible — there wasn’t enough sunshine and there weren’t these new hybrid types of vines — but things are different now.”