Thornby Moor Allerdale and Daws Hill Sparkling Auxerrois

Travelling north from England to Scotland on the M6 Motorway means passing the majestic landscapes of the Lake District, with its mountains and fells far to the west. Having left the signs to Keswick and the northern lakes far behind, travellers thoughts soon focus on the rapidly approaching border with Scotland, but still looking to the west is the coastal flatlands of the Solway Plain. Although not as well known as the lakes and mountains to the south, this border region has a rich and varied history as well as having diverse cultural and natural importance. At the centre of this landscape lies the Crofton Hall Estate, dating back to the time of King John in the early 13th century and located in the outbuildings of the hall is the home of Thornby Moor Dairy.

Carolyn Fairbairn was one of the early pioneers of the revival of cheesemaking in Britain, having been brought up as part of a Suffolk farming family with her parents and grandparents. Married and relocated to Cumberland as it was still called in 1979, she started making cheese using her own goat’s milk in the kitchen of her home, Thornby Moor House. This first cheese was a hard goat’s cheese and was named Allerdale, after the ancient name for the local area. Eventually relocating from her own home to the dairy she built at Crofton Hall, she was joined by her daughter, Leonie and started making a considerably expanded range of cheeses. As well as the original Allerdale and their first cow’s milk cheese, Cumberland Farmhouse, launched in 1982, they now make a number of goat’s and cow’s milk cheeses as well as a mixed milk cheese actually called Crofton.   These days they don’t milk their own animals but the goat’s milk comes from a local herd only one mile away and the cow’s milk only half a mile further on, ensuring that the local character is retained in the cheeses, and giving them a true Cumbrian identity. 

As well as making their range of cheeses, they also built their own smokehouse, using Cumbrian oak chips to produce their two smoked cheeses, versions of Allerdale and Cumberland Farmhouse. They also run cheesemaking days for people who want to get their hands in the vat and see behind the scenes of a true artisan cheesemaker. 

Allerdale was the first cheese made by Carolyn and is still a top seller. It is made using unpasteurised raw goats milk and traditional rennet. The cheese is made as a 2kg cylinder with a natural rind wrapped in cloth, which is matured for 4 or 5 months. The finished cheese has a creamy white centre with a firm texture and a sweet herby aroma. The flavours are fresh and grassy and almost like sweet hay with a hint of wine and almonds on the finish. A cheese with this flavour profile lends itself to a number of wine styles, but in this case a fresh, crisp, grassy wine has been chosen, with a similar heritage to that of Thornby Moor Dairy.

Three hundred miles to the south is another artisan producer that was also started by one generation and is now run by the daughter. Holly Morgan at Daws Hill Vineyard in Buckinghamshire shares a lot of common values and beliefs with Carolyn and Leonie Fairbairn. Respect for the land, minimal intervention and traditional methods are all at the core of both producers businesses.

Like the Solway Coast far to the north, the Chiltern Hills are also an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty located half way between London and Oxford. Despite the location so close to a major motorway and on a very busy commuter route, this area of the Chilterns is very rural, with gently rolling hills and small farms in every valley. The area is well known for its large population of red kites slowly drifting on warm air thermals while hunting for prey in the fields below.

It was here in one of these valleys in the village of Radnage that Nigel Morgan made the decision to plant his vineyard in 2004. He and his partner had lived and worked in France before returning to her family farm, Daws Hill, with a love of wine and upon discovering that the land was ideal for growing grapes, they embarked on the new venture. Making the decision to focus on sparkling wines, they planted the three classic varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, they also planted the less common variety, Auxerrois Blanc, more usually found in Alsace. The relatively small vineyard of 3 acres has about 5000 vines and a boutique scale winery fitted out in a former barn and stables. 

In 2016, Nigel’s daughter Holly returned from travelling and took over the business. Her father had helped Henry Laithwaite plant his vines when he started nearby Harrow and Hope vineyard and in return, Henry was more than happy to guide Holly as she learned the ropes at Daws Hill, such is the supportive nature of English winemaking.

She is now the viticulturist and winemaker, carrying out every activity by hand, with only a few volunteers to help out at key times of the year such as pruning and harvest. As a truly artisan winemaker, hand picking, small batch fermentation, hand bottling and labelling are followed by long maturation in bottle, allowing each wine to fully develop its flavours and textures.  Not content to just make wine, in itself a full time occupation, Holly also makes traditional cider from locally picked apples. There is also a full programme of other activities at the vineyard including food and drink pairing events, foraging expeditions, rural craft workshops and gourmet chef dinners.

One of very few British vineyards to grow Auxerrois Blanc, this wine is produced using the traditional method to make a single varietal sparkling wine. It is left on the lees for two years, developing less yeasty characteristics than for other wines made by Daws Hill. Disgorgement is carried out by hand with zero dosage, meaning that no additional sugar is added as part of the final stage of winemaking, making this a very dry wine. The finished wine has a clean, crisp freshness with citrus aromas and a range of flavours all reflecting its dryness. Lemon peel, grapefruit, rhubarb and sherbet are amongst the mouthwatering tastes in this wine. 

The fresh tangy acidity of the goat’s cheese needs a wine with the acidity, dryness and fresh flavours of this Auxerrois Blanc and the bubbles make a great textural pairing for the creamy mouthfeel of the cheese. Add to the flavour and texture pairing the fact that they are both made by two women, both of who are the second generation from the original founders and this is a truly all round pairing combination.

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