Among the Vines - Harrow and Hope

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On a gloriously sunny day back in June, I was lucky enough to visit Kaye and Henry Laithwaite at their 6.5-hectare vineyard in the idyllic Chiltern Hills. As we ambled amidst the vines, they shared the story of how Harrow and Hope came to be. Marlow was glistening in the distance, Alfonse (Alfie) the dog was padding along behind us, the vines were in flower and there was a general sense of optimism in the air. While listening to the chequered path that led Kaye and Henry to this point, it was impossible not to be inspired.

Having met and fallen in love at University, Kaye and Henry married in 2008; and set off to Castillon, near Bordeaux, to start their first vineyard. Henry worked in the vineyard and Kaye found a job a local épicerie. It was an exciting time and they loved the area, but ultimately wanted to raise a family in England. As Kaye so eloquently put it, she “grew tired of selling fags to smelly French men”. So, in 2010, they packed up their life in France, including Alfonse the dog, rescued from the streets of Bergerac. They headed for the Chiltern Hills, with dreams of a new vineyard in the ‘Thames Terroir’.

They found a family home in Marlow, and as luck would have it, a potential site came available on the outskirts of town.  The classic Chiltern chalk and flint-laden earth made it ideal for producing sparkling wine. The land was south facing, not too high and sloped on all sides, which would help with drainage. It was perfect and they jumped at the opportunity. Harrow and Hope was born.

 
 
 

When I imagine what life might be like as a sparkling winemaker, all the clichés spring to mind. Endless tastings and long-lazy lunches overlooking the vineyard; but it’s evident the reality is rather more like hard work. Harrow and Hope is a true labour of love.  The flint-laden land, which offers the perfect soil for vines, is frustratingly difficult to cultivate. Two Harrows have been broken in the process (hence the name). There are also the elements to contend with. On particularly chilly nights, Henry can be found lighting 1000 candles to keep the frost at bay and protect his precious vines. There’s the age-old adage that “if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life”. It’s pretty obvious that Henry and Kaye love what they do, but they work incredibly hard.

Eight years, two children, some hard graft and here they are. Their business is thriving. In 2016 they were able to start selling their sparkling wine, receiving rave reviews. Their Brut Rosé 2013 went straight on to win Gold at The Great Taste Awards.

As the son of renowned wine merchant, Tony Laithwaite, Henry grew up in vineyards. A love of wine was in the genes and he was destined to be a winemaker. It’s clear he lives and breathes winemaking. He tells me that he’s requested a viticulture map of Burgundy for Christmas, something to study and pour over in his limited spare time. Kaye gave up her job at the NHS to help Henry with the business and is now an expert winemaker in her own right. They favour traditional methods and are determined to farm the vines as naturally as possible, without herbicides.

 
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When I first met them back in June, little did we know that England was on the verge of one of the hottest and longest heatwaves since records began. Since then, English winemakers have optimistically predicted that 2018 is set to be an incredibly memorable vintage. Despite supreme conditions, their vineyard came perilously close to complete devastation in July when a nearby fire took hold. It charred their hedgerows and came within five metres of the vines. Thankfully the wind changed direction and Henry and Kaye’s precious vines were saved. Flirting with disaster did little to deter them though. As I write this, they’ve just come to the end of a successful 2018 harvest and have loaded over 8000 grapes into their press by hand. No mean feat.

I can’t help but look at Kaye and Henry as true pioneers. What they’ve built with Harrow and Hope is exceptional and I’m excited to see where the future takes them. They’re proving that with hard work and a little hope, the UK can produce sparkling wine to rival the best in the world.