The Tuffon Hall Transformation
Turning Children into Wine
Very early on in our interview Angus Crowther tells the story of his grandmother, Bunty. “She was a tremendous matriarch, the local Conservative chairman, and when I was about 15 she said to me ’the men in this family are rather weak and they have a bad history, they are rather pathetic, and they gamble too much, and they drink too much. If I were you I’d choose one of those.” He chose the drink, but more the production than the consumption. It’s been a long and winding road but with an ultimate destination in mind.
Blessed with a razor-sharp brain Angus got to the very top of the Marketing Consultancy industry via Hong Kong and Madrid and finally London, but the farm in Essex was always in the back of his mind. “I’ve always been planning, knowing I would be coming back at some stage. And that was the long-term plan.”
Angus inherited a 1200 acre farm at Tuffon Hall just outside Castle Hedingham, mainly growing malt barley for beer, but he wanted to change direction. “I did a course 10 years ago with my Dad, vine growing, before he got ill. We did that together for a month which was an amazing experience, at Plumpton College.” His father Michael, who sadly now suffers from dementia, was a man ahead of his time. He left the farm in 1967 for Inverness where he founded Moray Firth Maltings with three others, and started selling malt, not just to the main distilleries in Scotland but also to Japan, Brazil and Nigeria. When his business Pod and Charlotte Beatrice was bought by Scottish & Newcastle in 1985 he was able to buy the farm next door to his mother. “So we’ve had alcohol in the family for a long time.”
Angus started by doing the yield analysis on a south facing slope just at the front of the house, and the soil was “gravelly, crappy, sandy stuff, so we said ‘right let’s put vines on it’ and yes it was a risk.” “We did it from scratch in 2011, we planted Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay (1500 each), and 2000 Bacchus, a still wine, similar to Sauvignon Blanc. We have chalk, underneath sandy clay which is poor soil for growing wheat, but it’s brilliant for the grapes, because they like to be stressed a bit, and that south facing slope has turned out to be perfect for growing vines and growing grapes, much better than growing wheat.”
Angus is the salesman, and his wife Pod is the organisational genius. ‘Pod used to work for Ogilvy and Mather running the American Express account globally. So she is an amazing organiser, a doer, good with money. I will go in and do the sales and upset everyone and she will come in and calm it all down. She is truly fantastic. It works as a partnership and it’s important that the three girls also see their mummy fully involved and being part of the partnership.”
“Angus has the visions and makes things happen, and I support him and get things done” confirms Pod. The Crowther’s daughters are a major part of the enterprise. Amelie, aged eight, is the name of Tuffon Hall’s Bacchus. Seven-year old Beatrice is the Rosé, and Charlotte, who’s four is the sparkling pink. Baby Hamish is earmarked for something soon.
It took three years to start turning the grapes into wine, and the finances were helped by a bumper harvest in 2012 when grain prices went up to 200 pounds. So the cost of planting was covered and their tax bill was limited because of the reinvestment. And the empire keeps growing – in 2016 they planted another 3000 Pinot Noir, and 3000 more are going in this year. “Pinot Noir, is a delicate feisty thing, like a number two, or number three daughter” says Angus “It’s flexible, you can produce sparkling white, classic cuvée, and a sparkling pink, when you add a bit more skin, and you can make still Rosé.” (The excess skin is also used to produce ‘Tuffon Hall Grape Gin’).
They have also started converting the colossal 16th century barn a few steps away from the house, which will open in June as a cellar door for ‘Eats, drink, tastings, and a supper club’. “We are going to do a quarterly supper club” says Pod, “we will use local produce, for example our game from our pheasant shoot in the autumn and winter months. We will get on board as many local butchers as possible, and just have it for a select group. We do prefer a smaller group of 20 to 24 rather than 50 so that we can chat to each person. We’re going to launch a membership programme for all the people who have supported us in the last three years. The shop will be open as well and we will host weddings and other events and we will host weddings and other events. We will be open for weddings and things. People can get married in the vineyard and have a reception in the barn.” And they will have very good ammunition to throw at the guests. The Tuffon Hall Pinot Noir Rosé has won the East Anglian Rose Bowl trophy for the last three years. And the Bacchus won national gold in 2018 (IEWA). “Our sparkling has actually run out – I’ve just had to go and get reinforcements from the 2016. So the wine really has gone much better than I thought. We wrote a vision statement with our objectives five years ago and we’ve smashed it.” Angus admits, tongue slightly in cheek, that it hasn’t been easy “It’s constantly selling wine. I dropped off five or six big orders on the way up to shooting in Newcastle (the dog couldn’t even fit in the Land Rover). They like the fact that the owner/grower is doing the delivery. And that means a lot more to them – they then sell it and they see the whole story behind it.” “2018 was the first year that it has translated into earning a living. We are ahead of schedule, hence why we are planting more.”
The Crowthers are at the forefront of a big change that’s taking place on the East Anglian landscape. “A lot has changed in the last year or so. Other vineyards are popping up and producing good wine now. I think people are willing to try English wine way more than they were before. I think the perception has changed, especially with this whole Brexit debacle, people are wanting to support small local farmers. Everyone is wanting us to do well locally.” “You know, a chap literally just arrived, having moved down from Yorkshire a month ago. His daughter lives in Sible Hedingham, and he came to our Jazz in the Vines last year. ‘Can I buy 24 Bacchus for Christmas presents?’ he asked ‘I’ve heard it’s great.’ Word of mouth is our biggest thing.” “Also an advertising agency just placed an order for 660 bottles of sparkling, and they’ve just asked for another 18 cases. These are huge orders. They normally order from Nyetimber, one of the biggest, oldest sparkling wine producers in Sussex, which is where the biggest vineyards are.” “Essex,” Angus asserts, “is the best county to grow grapes” And recent research by the University of East Anglia backs him up. They have identified 35,000 hectares of prime grapevine growing land across the southeast of England, and many of the top areas were found to be in Suffolk and Essex.
Helped by wine producers, the researchers used new geographical analysis techniques to assess and grade every 50m square plot of land in England and Wales for suitability for growing grapes. Lead author Dr Alistair Nesbitt said: “Interestingly, some of the best areas that we found are where relatively few vineyards currently exist such as in Essex and Suffolk – parts of the country that are drier, warmer and more stable year-to-year than some more established vineyard locations.”
The well known Master of Wine Anthony Foster has compared Angus’s produce to some of the great wines of France, placing his Bacchus alongside Sauvignon as a noble variety and his Beatrice Rosé alongside the top Provençal Rosés. “What we are looking into is a Bacchus triangle” confirms Angus. “We are trying to get an appellation as a region in East Anglia. We’re going to work with local vineyards like Bardfield and Toppesfield with tours going round between us, making a map, but it’s just working out the logistics of that.” “What we are keen for is some sort of benchmark, so those who have won gold medals for their Bacchus, there’s the danger of everyone who produces a Bacchus wants to be part of it, but actually it needs to be good quality.”
“All that wine can be sampled at the annual family event, ‘Jazz in the Vines’ in August” confirms Pod. “We want to strike the right balance of couples being able to come and have a nice supper without having to spend a fortune. As a mother I’m very aware that if you want to go out wine tasting, the cost of a taxi, a baby-sitter, and then the wine can really mount up. So we have tried to do a summer event where children come for free and the adults pay £10. We serve local seafood …. AND you get a glass free on arrival. You bring your own deck chair and listen to a local singer from Sible Hedingham with her pianist and saxophonist. The kids run around, there is free face-paint, and free soft drinks and they let mummy and daddy have fun. You go home at six o’clock and take the case of six with you.”
Please note these key dates at Tuffon Hall:
1st June, 12-3pm Public Cellar Door opening
24 August, 2-6pm Jazz in the Vines
2018 - Read about Hedingham Castle, a new National Centre for Gainsborough in Sudbury, award-winning new Gins from Adnams, aspects of our Industrial Heritage, the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, the Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley Project, and take a look at the proposed new Constitution for CSCA..
2016 - Interesting articles on medieval graffiti, farming in the Stour Valley, exploring our AONB, early settlers from the Stour Valley to America, the archaeology of a local farm, a wonderful catalogue of British birds, celebrating a Suffolk joinery business, the weather from a South African winery.