Thwarted by two false starts, the first for storms, the second for rail strikes, it was finally chocks away as the plane lifted off like a Mountain Banshee from Land’s End airport. Within 15 minutes, it deposited its eight passengers on St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly. A quarter of an hour later, I was standing in England’s most southerly vineyard, glass of Holy Vale pinot noir rosé in hand.
Robert Francis, vine grower, winemaker, lobster fisherman and owner of the Star Castle Hotel, was taking a small, attentive group of wine tasters through his Scillonian wines. If “Scillonian” sounds as Greek to you as it did to me, St Mary’s, with its azure coastline, neighbouring islands and active fishing harbour, does have something of the Cyclades about it.
Scillonian is, in fact, the name for all things Scilly, explained Robert as he welcomed us to the pretty vineyard and winery, which was officially opened by legendary Christie’s auctioneer and wine writer Michael Broadbent MW last year. That glass of refreshing rosé came from some of the 7,000 vines he planted in a variety of spots on the tiny island in the spring of 2009.
“I had to beg, steal and borrow enough parcels [of land] with suitable south-facing slopes, good drainage and in sheltered spots,” he said, explaining that his vineyards were planted with roughly two-thirds pinot noir grapes, a third chardonnay and a small fraction pinot gris.
“I was advised to plant German varieties, but since I could happily drown in pinot noir and chardonnay, I decided to plant and be damned. Besides, I’m pigheaded.”
Holy Vale is one of several parcels of vineyard planted by Robert, who walks us round a sea of green: green vines, green bunches, the lawn-like grass on which the vines stand to attention. It’s bordered by high hedges and trees that shelter the vines from the excesses of the island’s blustery weather.
Two years ago, Robert thought he had his reward in the Scillies’ first ever wine crop but thrushes, starlings and sparrows had different ideas and he ended up with just 40 litres. Last year was his first full harvest, which was bottled this May.
In a good year like 2014, the Scillies’ maritime climate and intense luminosity combine to provide a powerful force for ripening. I realised this to my cost after a crossing filled with entertaining shipwreck yarns from Tim the boatman to the tiny neighbouring island of St Agnes. Returning to St Mary’s, I looked in the mirror and saw a vine-ripened tomato staring back.
On St Agnes, I stopped at The Turk’s Head pub, whose cosy interior is trumped on a sunny day by a split-level terrace overlooking Gugh, to which it is joined by a sand bar. With its dramatic views of the ocean, St Agnes is a delight for walkers, its rocky, wildflower and heather-clad terrain splashed with colour. A fine summer last year resulted in a respectable total of 2,490 litres of wine. While Robert is justifiably proud of the results, this summer’s changeable weather has so far produced grapes only the size of petits pois.
Having built a hotel on the island of St Martin’s during the Thatcher era (he lost it when his bank went bust), he started managing the Star Castle in 2002 and bought it the following year. Six years later, he decided to plant a vineyard. “I imagined having my own market garden, only the garden would be the vineyard and the market the hotel wine list,” he says.
In the summer of 2011, as a Duchy of Cornwall tenant, Robert was invited to Highgrove, and as soon as Prince Charles got wind that Robert had planted a vineyard on Duchy land, he insisted on having the first bottle. When he and Camilla went to St Mary’s this summer, Camilla – patron of the UK Vineyards Association – stopped by for a tasting.
The Star Castle couldn’t fit the wine tourism bill better. Robert has first pick of the fresh John Dory, cod, hake, squid, brill, Dover sole and turbot brought in by trawler. His own lobster catch and island-reared Salakee duck are on the menu at the Castle and Conservatory restaurants, along with an eclectic wine list featuring, among others, Holy Vale wines.
The Castle Dining Room is snug and warm. In contrast, the vine-clad Conservatory is light, airy and more informal. The food in both is ocean-fresh and impeccably cooked, presented and served, especially the fish, lobster and duck.
Standing on the Garrison Hill above Hugh Town, the Star Castle, fortified with hexagonal walls (hence the “star”), was built in 1593 to defend the Scilly Isles during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign; it opened as a hotel in 1933. Its rooms are elegantly refurbished and the spacious garden rooms look out on to a panorama of islands.
Back at the Holy Vale vineyard, the biggest surprise was the pinot gris, with its fresh pear fruitiness.I could see that going down a treat with lobster. On cue, a sweet-fleshed lobster appeared at lunch in the next day, accompanied by the 2014 Holy Vale pinot gris. It was a more mouthwatering food and wine match than I could ever have imagined before embarking on a trip to the place between Land’s End and the deep blue sea.
Skybus flies to St Mary’s from Newquay, Exeter and Land’s End and the Scillonian ferry departs daily from Penzance, all bookable with Isles of Scilly Travel (01736 334220; islesofscilly-travel.co.uk).
Great Western Railways operates regular daily departures from London to Penzance (gwr.com).
The Star Castle Hotel (01720 422317; star-castle.co.uk) has double rooms from £204 half board. Wine tastings at the Star Castle’s Holy Vale Vineyard cost £17.50 per person, including five wines and complementing tapas. Lobster lunch with a glass of Holy Vale wine costs £24.50.
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