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Tour of Mid Wales – Wine, Beer and Soft Drinks from Wales.
Table of Contents
In Part One of this tour, we’re looking at some of the area’s best in wine, beer and soft drinks. In Part Two we will meet some great producers of chocolate, preserves and desserts.
Food & Drink Wales are again running a campaign to promote Welsh food and drink. So with St David’s Day on 1st March approaching fast, what better reason to head off to Mid Wales to sample some of the region’s exceptional produce and to meet the people whose inspiration and perspiration create it.
Bordering with England to the east, as a region Mid Wales stretches from Snowdonia in the north to the Brecon Beacons and Pembrokeshire in the south. It’s an ancient place where sheep are many and people are few, mainly living in villages and small towns. The area around the quaint old market town of Montgomery is a peaceful land of rolling, green fields, dotted here and there with sheep – and perhaps surprisingly – one or two vineyards. But we shouldn’t really be surprised…
While England has been producing wines of real quality for some years, with over a score of vineyards from Anglesey in the north to Glamorgan and Monmouthshire hills in the south, so too has Wales.
Which, after a drive into the hills up narrow lanes and down rough tracks, brings us to Montgomery Vineyard.
Established back in 2012 by the Lennard family, it sits 900 feet up (it’s reportedly the highest viable vineyard in the country) in a natural south-facing amphitheatre with its own microclimate. The vineyard is small, 3,800 vines in only three acres, but manages to fit in five cool climate grape varieties, fairly typical of UK viticulture.
Under Lenny and Denise, the heads of the family, whose energy and enthusiasm know no bounds, the vines are hand-planted and the grapes hand-picked. Every step of the process is not only carried out with great care and attention to detail but also in harmony and sympathy with the environment – if birds take some of the grapes, that’s OK with Lenny. It’s organic viticulture – but with a small ‘’o’’. This is very much a family business with son Woody leading on the production process with Halfpenny Green winery as well as taking on a marketing role.
All seven wines produced are exceptional. The whites are single variety Solaris or a Bacchus/Solaris blend, the reds Rondo and Pinot Noir and the rosés, both still and sparkling, are a blend of an early ripening Pinot Noir and Seyval Blanc; the sparkling white is Seyval Blanc. With ABV of 11% or 11.5%, they’re all light and very drinkable.
The Rondo’s light fruitiness would make it good as a chilled summer drink. It has been compared to a Beaujolais or light French red and has been described by The Guardian’s Fiona Beckett as ‘wild, wonderful and Welsh.’ The Solaris has an attractive aroma with delicate, floral notes with Terry Kirby for The Independent calling it ‘’a homegrown version of Sauvignon Blanc but with its own distinct identity’’.
On each bottle, there’s tasting notes for the real oenophile and food pairing suggestions for wine-loving mortals. The fact, however, that Montgomery Vineyard’s wine pretty much swept the board at the Welsh Wine Awards 2019, winning four of the five categories and with the 2017 Sparkling Rose awarded the Overall Winners trophy, speaks for itself. As does the fact that you’ll find them served at Michelin-starred restaurants, at many Welsh Assembly and Government social events (and even the Kowloon Cricket Club…). Montgomery Vineyard will also be included in wine writer Oz Clarke’s new book. A small vineyard means, of course, that the number of bottles produced is relatively limited – Montgomery Vineyard only produces around 11,000 a year. The wines are available to buy in some local shops in the Montgomery area but, thankfully for those of us further afield, through a number of the best online wine merchants. In London’s Bloomsbury area, Albion Wine Merchants carries some of the Montgomery Vineyard range.
Monty’s Brewery Mid Wales
If all this talk of wine is making you thirsty, then maybe you need a beer. A short drive back to Montgomery brings you to Monty’s Brewery owned and run by Pam and Russ Honeyman.
The number of breweries in Wales has grown to over a hundred in recent years but Monty’s remains firmly established as Mid Wales’ foremost brewery with a wide range of award-winning beers for all tastes. The secrets of its success? Apart from a love of good beer, it’s imagination, creativity and constant innovation. And Pam’s skill as one of only a handful of brewsters (female brewers) in the country.
Back in the UK after a stint in Texas, Pam and Russ moved to Mid Wales and, by way of Russ’s involvement in drinks distribution, they eventually decided to get into brewing. Actually – they decided to get Pam into brewing.
Off in Sunderland on a brewing course, a shaft of sunshine finally broke through the leaden skies and gave Pam the name of her first brew. When a beer critic tried it and told Pam to give up her day job, they knew they were on to something. Sunshine was first produced in 2009 and soon started to get accolades as a great beer, selling out wherever it was sold and winning at a CAMRA beer festival in the North East.
Brewing became Pam’s passion and over the years she has created a range of beers which have been award-winning year after year right up to the present. 2019 saw Pam’s first brew Sunshine as Finalist in CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain.
Sunshine continues to be Monty’s biggest selling beer and it’s easy to see (or taste) why. It’s a hoppy, floral, golden ale, not too strong (ABV 4.2%) and just very drinkable. Dark Secret is one of Monty’s gluten-free beers. It’s a dark, rich, full-bodied oatmeal stout (ABV 5.6%) packed with chocolate and coffee flavours. Brewed with malted oats and barley, the gluten is then removed.
It’s also the base for Monty’s Dark Secret Gin, created by accident when the brewing for the stout went wrong. Instead of discarding the mix, Monty’s teamed up with Welsh distillery Gwyr to create a unique gin. The coffee and chocolate aromas and flavours of the stout are balanced with orange, lemon, fennel, juniper, coriander and a selection of other carefully picked botanicals to produce a remarkable chocolate orange flavoured gin – imagine a Jaffa cake gin and you’ll be close. Some say it’s best served with a straight tonic and slice of orange but it’s also delicious drunk straight. Another beer which should get a special mention is Hilltop – a great pint with subtly sweet undertones brewed with a little help from nearby producers Hilltop Honey – and highlights the collaborations with other producers which are a feature locally. Radnor Preserves uses Monty’s Masquerade beer plus a good kick of ginger to create a wonderfully rich chutney and one or two spare casks go to a local farmer who gives it his Wagyu cattle – they have two or three pints a day and the beef reportedly tastes fantastic.
If you’re in the area, do drop in at The Cottage, the brewery’s own pub-cum-visitor centre, which sits on the edge of Montgomery town. It’s well worth a visit anytime – it has a small, development brewery – but it is also one of the venues for various local events such as the Montgomery Beer and Folk Music Festival on Saturday 25th April 2020, where great beers will be an integral part of the fun.
You can, of course, buy and enjoy Monty’s beers at The Cottage as well as in various outlets locally. It’s available in Wales’ Co-op stores (as well as Finland’s largest supermarket chain!). For those of us who live elsewhere, on-line merchant Best of British Beer is their official partner. Lucky Londoners can get Monty’s gluten-free beers at the Porterhouse in Covent Garden.
Radnor Hills Mineral Water Company.
If all this talk of wine and now beer is making you even thirstier, then maybe you need a refreshing glass of mineral water.
While Montgomery Vineyard and Monty’s Brewery are small, family-owned enterprises, still in their relative infancy, multiple award-winning Radnor Hills Mineral Water Company is a large, family-owned enterprise, with 180 plus employees and turnover in the tens of millions.
The source of Radnor Hills’ water lies in the old county of Radnorshire in Mid Wales where it filters down naturally through layers of rock to achieve its exceptional taste and purity. The company started off back in the 1980s when the father of William Watkins, the present owner, drilled a borehole into the rock so his cows, sheep and chickens could have a guaranteed supply of drinking water. Although nothing was too good for their livestock, it soon became apparent that the water was of excellent quality, tasted great and could be put to better use. At the time bottled waters were becoming more popular, so it seemed a good idea to try out their water on the market.
Their first major clients were airports and airlines but real take-off was when McDonald’s came calling. Deciding to ditch the foil-topped cups and to start bottling in 1995, William began to put in some flavours into the range and instead of just water, Radnor Hills became a drinks company.
Nowadays, Radnor Hills produces a very wide range of drinks to suit all tastes and needs, starting with the basic still and sparkling Radnor Hills Spring Water. It’s refreshing, well balanced and rich in trace minerals and often taking just seven minutes from the ground straight into bottles it remains exceptionally pure.
Photo credit: Radnor Hills Mineral Water Company Limited
As well as a variety of flavours, the modern consumer also wants their drink to promote well-being. With healthy hydration in mind, the company created Radnor Splash, a completely sugar-free flavoured water. Radnor + Energy drinks are similar but with a small shot of natural caffeine plus some added vitamins and are ideal for a gym-goer or someone wanting a boost while out and about. Children are well catered for with a range of healthy, school compliant, fruit juice and spring water drinks.
The need to reduce sugar is naturally at the forefront of every drinks company’s mind these but that has to be balanced with the need to produce something good and satisfying. And sometimes you just can’t do without sugar. Radnor Hills’ Heartsease Farm brand of flavoursome premium pressés are lightly sparkling drinks which provide that balance while keeping sugar levels low.
Photo credit: Radnor Hills Mineral Water Company Limited
The Heartsease Farm range includes classic flavours like Traditional Lemonade and Elderflower and Fiery Ginger Beer – all great to drink but they also make fantastic ingredients for delicious sounding cocktails like the Heart Meadow Elderflower Mojito and tasty bakes such as a Chocolate & Ginger Beer Tart.
As well as variety and well-being, the modern consumer also wants their drinks to come in sustainable and environmentally friendly containers. Radnor Hills use bottles and packaging from recycled and recyclable plastic as well as fully recyclable cans and Tetra Pak. Their extensive efforts in this field were recognised in their winning the Sustainable/Ethical Manufacturer Award in 2019.
Radnor Hills’ continues to have a passion for making the simplest of things taste great and after months of development, it has recently launched its latest creation, Radnor Infusions. Springwater has been given a gentle sparkle and infused with sugar- and sweetener-free natural flavours and extracts. It’s calorie and preservative-free and there are two to start with, Lemon and Mint plus Cherry and Raspberry. The Lemon and Mint is quite something – it’s very refreshing but it’s so clear you wonder where the taste comes from! Radnor Hills drinks are available from a wide range of outlets across the UK and Ireland and Europe. As well as drinks sold under their own brand, the company also provides ‘’own label’’ beverages for other companies. So the chances are that you’ve been drinking Radnor Hills’ products without knowing it!
Drink in Mid Wales – Summary and Fact Box
Some say ‘’When life gives you lemons, make lemonade’’. Montgomery Vineyard, Monty’s Brewery and Radnor Hills have taken the Welsh weather with its ample rain and made great wine, great beer and great soft drinks!
For more information about Montgomery Vineyard, check their website
Monty’s Brewery has a visitor centre, open throughout the year. Check their site for current opening hours
The Monty’s Brewery Visitor Centre,
Powys, SY15 6QT
For more about Radnor Hills and to buy their products online, check their website
For more about where we stayed and what we ate, check our feature on where to eat and drink in Montgomery Wales
Nick was a guest of Food and Drink Wales.