The wine it took an army and 2000 years to create.
In the 1950s, an unusual wild grapevine was noticed growing against a stone wall in the village of Wrotham [pronounced “Root-um”] in Kent, southeastern England. Its age was estimated at 200 years and its origin was shrouded in mystery.
The grapevine leaves were distinctly gray-green and each had an unusual appearance. Close inspection revealed tiny white hairs growing on the upper surfaces of all the leaves, especially the youngest leaves. From a distance the new leaves looked as if they had a coating of white dust or flour over them! Locals gave the vine a nickname “the dusty miller” as it reminded them of mill workers after a long day milling flour.
Although the vine’s leaf color and appearance were unlike the Pinot Noir vines of France or Germany, the fruit clusters were similar to the Pinot Noir grapes of those famous regions. The vine most resembled Pinot Meunier of the Champagne region in France, which itself is a natural mutation of Pinot Noir. However, Wrotham Pinot differed from Pinot Meunier in that the Wrotham vine had somehow developed a considerable immunity to the powdery mildew disease that affects all other Vitis vinifera vines now cultivated around the world.
English viticulture scholars eventually came to the conclusion the Wrotham vine was a natural seedling of Pinot Noir vines that the early Romans brought to England 2000 years ago!
The village of Wrotham has a long history of Roman influence. The Wrotham Historical Society has records and artifacts that show the area was populated for many centuries by Romans and their descendants. Even in recent times, residents digging in gardens or in construction projects have discovered occasional Roman coins dating from the third century AD.
English winemakers took cuttings from this wild Wrotham vine to propagate a small vineyard as a test for commercial winemaking in England. Because today’s cooler English climate is reminiscent of the Champagne district of France, local winemakers experimented with the Wrotham fruit to make sparkling “Blanc de Noir” wines.
These exceptional sparkling wines did not go unnoticed. California winemaker Dr. Richard Grant Peterson liked the sparkling wine so much he imported Wrotham cuttings to California in 1980. After a quarantine of many years as required by law, he patiently and meticulously began propagating new vines from this bud wood to develop two full acres of Wrotham Pinot vines in Napa Valley — and another acre in Santa Lucia Highlands Vineyard in Monterey County.
These vines were analyzed at the University of California, Davis, which reported that Wrotham Pinot DNA is identical to that of Pinot Noir.
The English scholars were right! Wrotham Pinot vines are antiques; the final offspring of many natural generations from the original Roman Pinot Noir vines grown in England many, many years ago. It seems likely the variety’s development of natural resistance to vine diseases was a factor in the Wrotham vines’ ability to survive two millennia of English weather.
It was a fortunate discovery that none of our Wrotham grapevines in the Napa Valley has ever needed to be dusted with sulfur to protect against Powdery mildew — as happens routinely with all the other commercial vines in California and most of the world. Since no chemical fungicides or insecticides are used on these vines, the vineyard would qualify as organic. I haven’t chosen to apply for that designation as yet, although it’s nice to know that the designation is possible if I ever want to get entangled with bureaucrats.