Grape expectations: on the English wine trail
It’s been bubbling away quietly for the last couple of decades but with sales rising, international awards coming in and two of the Champagne region’s biggest producers now opting to grow vines here, English wine is finally having its moment. From wine tastings to vineyard stays, here are some of the best ways to experience it for yourself.
English wine through history
There’s been a tradition of wine-making in England for centuries, and by the time of the Norman Conquest many monasteries across the country were making their own wine.
Several factors led to the decline of viniculture in England – not least Henry’s VIII’s 16th-century Dissolution of the Monasteries – and despite valiant efforts to revive it from the 1950s onwards, it wasn’t until the 1990s that English wine began to make a name for itself.
Today there are over 500 vineyards across England, alongside several in Wales. The majority are found in the southeast, where the chalky subsoil is similar to that found in the Champagne region of France – perfect for growing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. Red wine favours warmer climates, so white dominates, with sparkling wine England’s most popular product. Its reputation is so improved that two major Champagne houses, Tattinger and Pommery, plan to start producing wine here over the next couple of years.
There are over 70 vineyards and wineries in Sussex. At Rathfinny Wine Estate (rathfinnyestate.com), husband and wife team Mark and Sarah Driver will produce their first sparkling wines in 2018. If their still white – with its delicate notes of green apple – is anything to go by, the quality will match that of rival vineyards in France and Italy.
A visit here is worth it just for the views across the 250-hectare Sussex estate, set to be the UK’s largest vineyard, offering glimpses of the English Channel – on a sunny day you can almost pretend you’re in the scented hills of Provence. From April to October you can also choose between lunch and tea-time tours.
The estate’s cellar door – named the Gun Room and supposedly housed in the former gun store of the Duke of Wellington – is located in the historic nearby village of Alfriston, where picture-postcard shops and cafes hug the quaint high street. Here you can visit the timber-framed, thatch-roofed clergy house (nationaltrust.org.uk/alfriston-clergy-house) and stop off at the Star Inn, which was a religious hostel on the 14th-century pilgrimage route. It’s been an inn since the 16th century and still offers rooms today.
From just outside the Gun Room, the Rathfinny Trail wends its way through the Cradle Valley, via chalk grassland, woodland and the vineyard itself. Alternatively, you can visit the estate’s Flint Barns (rathfinnyestate.com/flint-barns) for Sunday lunch or bed and breakfast.
Over at Ridgeview (ridgeview.co.uk), a more modestly-sized operation in the village of Ditchling, near Brighton, the accolades keep coming. As the official provider for Downing Street receptions, its wines have passed the lips of such luminaries as Barack Obama and have won numerous awards.
But it is perhaps its state-of-the-art tasting room, which overlooks the South Downs, that makes a visit to Ridgeview most special. Come for tastings, join one of its tours – some of which include food and wine pairings – or try rare archive wines on one of its winemaker-led tours to see what marks Sussex wines out for quality.
The Garden of England
While Sussex focuses on producing high-quality sparkling wine, in Kent the net is thrown a little wider.
Chapel Down is renowned for its award-winning sparking wine – it’s so popular it has just started exporting to the US – and also makes beer and cider. If you like what you see on a visit to the vineyard you can lease your own vine or even become a shareholder.
Chapel Down also offers a package with nearby Sissinghurst Castle Farmhouse bed and breakfast (sissinghurstcastlefarmhouse.com), a charming Victorian house that's a short stroll away from Sissinghurst Castle itself. Its elegant gardens (nationaltrust.org.uk/sissinghurst-castle-garden) were created by poet Vita Sackville-West and her diplomat husband Harold Nicolson.
The polished experience at Chapel Down is a far cry from that at Harbourne (harbournevineyard.co.uk), just a mile away, where all the wines are handmade (owner Laurence Williams even bottles the wine himself) and minimal intervention is employed to create its dry white, red and rosé wines.
There are no tours at Harbourne, but you can still partake in a little wine tasting, for free, on selected bottles.
The Surrey Hills
The prize for England’s largest single wine estate goes to Denbies (denbies.co.uk), situated amid the beautiful North Downs in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with vines planted across over 100 hectares.
As well as the normal tours, a very indulgent cheese- and wine-making experience is on offer. If you want to ease the guilt of the latter, a steep walk up to the summit of Box Hill (nationaltrust.org.uk/box-hill) is just the ticket.
Denbies also offers a chance to learn the basics of grape-picking during harvest in October. There is a fee, which gets you a guided tour of parts of the winery that are usually off limits, plus lunch.
Meanwhile, at Albury (alburyvineyard.com), an organic vineyard on the southern slopes of the North Downs, volunteers are invited to help with harvest (also October). While here you should visit neighbouring Silent Pool, an eerily still lake where folklore has it a young maiden drowned while fleeing the clutches of King John.
A little outside the main vineyard regions, Three Choirs in Gloucestershire's Forest of Dean began life as a small fruit farm in the 1970s and has evolved into one of the largest commercial vineyards in England. It makes great use of its gorgeous surroundings by offering overnight stays, with eight rooms with views over the vine-clad valleys and three lodges set within the vines themselves.
Proving that it’s not just southern soil that is ripe for growing, Ryedale Vineyards (ryedalevineyards.co.uk) in Yorkshire is the most northerly commercial vineyard in the UK, producing white wine from Ortega grapes and rosé and red wine from Rondo grapes.
The winery’s two sites, at Farfield Farm and Paradise Farm, are rich in wildlife, including barn owls, skylarks and hares, and volunteers are always welcome at harvest. While here, visit Castle Howard, the splendid stately home that has played a starring role in TV’s Brideshead Revisited and Victoria, or venture into York itself, and discover why it was recently voted Britain’s prettiest city.