High time to visit an English Vineyard

May 26, 2011

Whether you are British or a visitor, if ever there was a time to visit an English or Welsh vineyard, it should be now. English Wine Week runs from Saturday May 28 – Sunday June 5 2011, with a host of events and activities, but if you can’t make that there’s a long summer ahead and these vineyards aren’t going to disappear fast, for right now they are on a real roll.

Ridgeview Sparkling Wines

Ridgeview Estate on the South Downs ©Mick Rock, Cephas

Any wine lover based in the UK should have noticed with a smile the positive press coverage for English wine recently, arriving in a great surge of support. It’s come partly linked to a ‘consume local’ attitude, partly due to Royal Wedding fever, but most particularly because the top English sparkling wines are winning in all the major wine competitions, and are regularly featuring at State events.

But, have you ever visited an English vineyard? If not, then take the plunge, it requires a lot less preparation than going out of the country, and as I imagine most of my readers are English speaking, don’t forget that you can be certain here that the wine producers do speak English!

Journalist Susanna Forbes, owner of the Drink Britain website, who has visited many English vineyards over the past couple of years, explained to me that a little planning is useful, as many offer tours only by reservations, though most have winery shops open daily. She points out that with so many changes and developments going on in the industry it’s a very exciting time to visit, to see the vineyards and wineries at first hand, and to taste with the wine producers themselves, or even with their friends who often help out with visitors.

Learning about English Wines
The most comprehensive on-line resource for learning about English wines is the ‘official’ English Wine Producers website, which lists contact details of more than 150 vineyards (not all open for visitors) with more detailed profiles for a dozen or so ‘member’ wineries. The site also gives details and statistics about the history and development of the industry as well as listing places to buy the wines. Vineyards in the little country of Wales tend to be included under the ‘English’ banner for convenience, even if labels clearly state Wales. The confusing term ‘British wine’ is for ‘wine’ made from imported grape concentrate – not to be recommended!

Camel Valley

Buy a vine ©Brett Jones

The statistics show that by 2009 there were 1,324 hectares of vineyards (with considerable plantings since) up from just 196ha in 1976 and 876ha in 1989. For you Brits and Americans, that’s more than 3,000 acres in ‘old money’, as a comparison, a little less than Otago in New Zealand or about 10% of Alsace plantings. The most planted grape varieties today are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir reflecting the dramatic success story of sparkling wines in England, but this is a relatively new phenomenon; Bacchus, Seyval and Reichensteiner are the mainstay for the fresh dry and medium-dry white wines, and there are smaller plantings of a range of other varieties for both whites and the few reds that are made.

Planning visits to the vineyards
The Drink Britain website includes news stories about English wines and British drinks in general. Its unique feature is the detailed and extremely well laid-out visiting information on a good number of English and Welsh vineyards open for visits. Susanna’s intention is to expand the site little by little with help from the wineries in providing information, but keeping a strict journalistic distance in how she presents both the wineries and wines. In the meantime, it’s already an excellent source of information, very clearly presented. Drink Britain also covers visits to producers of other drinks including beers, ciders, whiskies, and even soft drinks.

Sharpham in Devon

Arrive at Sharpham in Devon by boat ©Sharpham

From the range of vineyards Susanna profiles in Drink Britain, I’ve chosen six of the best to visit for a lovely day out:
Two giant attractions: Denbies in Surrey, close to London, provides perhaps the ultimate English wine tourist attraction visit, and has much to offer for a day out with increasingly good wines too including some fresh rosés from Pinot, Dornfelder or Rondo. Chapel Down winery in Kent is a long established, successful winery that has set a standard for many years. In a completely gorgeous part of south-east England, it has a well-stocked shop and award-winning restaurant – a very consistent quality of wines too, especially their dry, grassy Bacchus.

Two award winners: Camel Valley continues from strength to strength since I wrote about it two years ago after my visit to Cornwall. The dedicated sparkling wine producer Ridgeview Estate on the South Downs in Sussex gains many plaudits and rightfully too; you can visit their shop or join their weekly tour on Saturdays if you want to tour and learn about how they make their world-class bubblies. Both wineries are also happy to cater to groups if arranged in advance.

Two really authentic places: An interesting visit to Biddenden in Kent could be combined with Chapel Down for a complete contrast. Also long established in this lovely countryside, Biddenden is known for aromatic whites especially from the rare Ortega grape. Cider and apple juice are made too. And, if you are travelling to the west country, you could add in a visit to Sharpham near Totnes on the famous Dart river in Devon. You’ll find a café there and a cheese-maker next door. Try the Madeleine Angevine whites and unusual Beenleigh red.

Especially foreigners should note that distances in this small country can be larger than you imagine, our vineyards are quite spread out: schedule only one or two visits in a day. Book tours ahead and leave time for a walk. Many of the English vineyards offer sign-posted trails through their vineyards in lovely surroundings. If you are from outside the UK, you will receive the Best of British welcomes, and if you are a native you ought to discover a truly local experience, complete with the passion that should surround any good wine tourism experience.

Guide to English winesFurther resources
There are two totally independent books worth mentioning if you want to take your research further. Stephen Skelton MW, founder of the Tenterden Vineyard at Chapel Down has published the third edition of his detailed and comprehensive UK Vineyards guide 2010, which gives a fascinating account. And, from the Wine Behind the Label team, you will find the beautifully produced Guide to the Wines of England & Wales, with well-written introductory pages and useful glossaries, as well as fine profiles of the most important wineries.

And finally, if you have ever dreamed of starting a vineyard in England, your first port of call must be Plumpton College in Sussex, who has trained most of today’s English vineyard owners and winemakers. Their alumni can be find across the world too.

English Wine Producers who coordinate the English Wine Week events, are shortly to launch a brand new map of the vineyards of England in the Wales. It will be available from the end of June, free of charge by contacting them via their website.

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Camel Valley Vineyards in Cornwall, England

March 17, 2009

10041-camel-valley-vineyards-19-feb-091Workaholic that I am, it seemed only right that before allowing myself a weekend off in the countryside, in an area that I’d never visited in my life, I should perhaps tour a vineyard on the Friday afternoon. But, the thing is, the weekend off was in England, more specifically in Cornwall in the far south-west.

Vineyards that most intrepid wine tourists in England visit tend to be closer to London in the south-east. The counties of Surrey, Hampshire, Sussex and Kent have the bulk of vineyards, and there a few interesting ones also in the Thames Valley, due west of the city. Quite a few years ago, the larger English vineyards realised that beyond making a wine that really tasted good, the next most important thing was to provide a good visitor experience, both to raise the profile of their wine and sell at the cellar door – that’s what wine tourism is all about isn’t it? As mentioned in our post about the wine bar Terroirs, one day we’ll have an Around London wine travel guide and include some of these vineyards.

English wine has come a long way in the past 25 years and there is some seriously good wine available, most particularly sparkling wine. I’d tasted Camel Valley sparkling wine a couple of times and it has won a plethora of awards in wine competitions not only in the UK, but beyond too. The Camel Valley winery happens to be situated in just the area of Cornwall that I wanted to spend the weekend, nicely placed between the Eden Project and the coastal town of Padstow, where Rick Stein’s Seafood restaurant is based.

Cornwall is full of minuscule one-track lanes and Camel Valley, just a few miles from Bodmin Moor (famous for its wild landscape and remoteness), is reached along one such narrow lane. But, turning into their pretty entrance, nicely planted with spring bulbs, and seeing the tractor working in-between the rows of winter vines, we could have been coming into any small New World boutique winery. Visitor parking is clearly marked (including a designated shady area for cars with dogs that are not allowed to visit …) and a pretty path leads down to a small barn-like building that is the tasting room and shop.

Sam Lindo in his vineyard

Sam Lindo in his vineyard

Sam Lindo (UK Winemaker of the Year in 2007), son of the owners Bob and Annie Lindo, who first planted the vineyard 20 years ago, showed us around. The Lindos were sheep farmers and knew nothing about vine-growing or making wine when they started. The land is on a south-facing slope with the Camel River below, and it is well-drained, ideal for vines, but pretty hard to grow grass (“not so great for sheep”, said Sam). Alongside the river is the Camel Trail, a path for walkers and cyclists with direct access into the vineyard. As an aside, Cornwall is a great county for encouraging all things environmentally friendly – a substantial discount on the entry fee to the Eden Project, is offered to those who arrive on foot or by bike.

In their 16 acres of vineyards Camel Valley grows Pinot Noir along with three grapes particularly suited to the English climate – Seyval Blanc, Reichensteiner and Bacchus. Their success means that they also buy in grapes from across southern England. Having originally started with both white and red still wine production, today 50% of their production goes into making sparkling wine and this may well increase. All sparkling wine is made in the Traditional (Champagne) method and they have invested in automatic remuage equipment (giro-pallets). The production process is explained to visitors who join the daily tour of the vineyards and winery (April – September only at 2.30pm); better still is to aim to visit on a Wednesday at 5pm when they run what they term a ‘grand tour and tasting’ with a more in-depth visit followed by an explanatory tutored tasting. Sam comments that their tours are “very open – we don’t like to hide how things are done”.

10068-camel-valley-vineyards-19-feb-091The tasting room and shop is staffed by knowledgeable and friendly people who offer a free tasting to casual visitors. In summer, you can buy a glass, or a bottle to share on the lovely terrace with your picnic. I particularly enjoyed their fresh grapefuity Bacchus Dry 2007 – almost a Sauvignon Blanc-style, and their sparkling ‘Cornwall Brut’ 2006, which has become the mainstay of their range, was excellent, worthy of all the awards. It’s nothing like Champagne, being made from Seyval, Huxelrebe and Reichensteiner, but it has a creamy mousse with lovely fresh grassy, fruit and excellent length. Her Majesty the Queen serves it on certain occasions, by the way.

If you’re heading to the far south-west of England, in my view the Eden Project is an essential visit, but for all wine lovers, I’d say don’t fail to call in to Camel Valley too. And, by the way, they also have cottages to rent – visit their excellent website for full details of all they offer.

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Manchester: Wine City??

February 3, 2009

By Jane Anson

Bordeaux winemakers visit the Reserve wine shop

Bordeaux winemakers visit the Reserve wine shop

Having just spent a week in Manchester and Leeds with ten winemakers from Bordeaux, it occurred to me that we rarely talk about England as a wine destination for tourists. But maybe we should: it is after all the most dynamic wine market in the world, where wines from every conceivable country compete for shelf space. There can be few better countries to visit for horizontal or vertical tastings of just about any grape, from just about any producer.

And there are increasingly interesting things on offer for wine tourists. On a previous trip with winemakers, we visited Denbies, a winery in Surrey around an hour outside of London, that had a very impressive tourism installation, including an IMAX-style cinema experience comparing the terroir to Champagne, all set to the rousing strains of classical music (what was it exactly? In my head, it was Land of Hope and Glory, but you get the picture).

This time, in the north of England, it was a little harder to visit actual wineries. Of course James May and Oz Clarke, in their programme Oz and James Drink to Britain, recently visited one in Yorkshire called Leventhorpe, and I heard that there was a winery opening in Urmston, just outside of Manchester city centre. We had planned to visit this one, but apparently the man who runs it has gone AWOL and we were unable to contact him. If anyone knows anything about this, I would be thrilled to hear more.

But Manchester was full of great surprises for wine lovers. Besides excellent wine lists in hotels such as the Lowry, we visited two of the best independent wine shops that I know Hanging Ditch in the centre of town, right opposite Harvey Nicols and Reserve Wines in Didsbury that has just recently won the UK’s independent wine merchant of the year at the International Wine & Spirits Challenge. If you think England is all about binge drinking, or a love of either wine brands or Pinot Grigio of dubious origin, I suggest you go visit these two places. Both have passionate, knowledgeable owners who are keen to share their love of unusual bottling with their clients.

Whilst waiting until Wine Travel Guides covers England, visit the English Wine Producers website for full details of wineries to visit in both England and Wales.

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