High time to visit an English Vineyard

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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