England offers a sparkling surprise to visitors
The London Olympics are around the corner and some of you reading this may just be in situ to enjoy them. If you are looking for activities other than sport whilst in England and happen to be a wine lover too, then don’t feel you have to hop over the English channel to satisfy your wine travel lust. You can stay right there in England and be in for a treat, even on an easy day trip from London.
The Romans planted vineyards in England and Wales, and more were established by the Church, but they disappeared in a colder period after the Middle Ages, when the grapes simply didn’t ripen, and wine became easier to obtain from abroad. After the Second World War, some wine enthusiasts planted vineyards and by the mid 1960s a small wine industry was establishing itself. By the 1990s there were several professionally-run wineries, most open to tourists, and making a decent range of dry and medium light white wines, along with a few sparkling wines too.
The big change for the English wine industry has been a greater move to making high quality sparkling wines often from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and using Champagne methods. In the past few years, several wineries, led by pioneers Nyetimber and Ridgeview, have proved through independent competitive tastings that they can make delicious, world class sparkling wine. Even the British politicians and Royal Family serve them – most recently, Ridgeview was served at HM Queen Elizabeth II’s 60th jubilee celebratory lunch.
One crucial thing for readers to note. Don’t ever buy anything labelled “British wine”. Unfortunately this is an anomaly, a product made from imported grape concentrate, nothing to do with ‘proper’ wine made from the grapes grown in England or Wales (yes, Wales has a few vineyards too).
The biggest concentration of vineyards is in the south-east of England in the counties of Kent, Sussex, Surrey, and Hampshire on the chalky hills of the North and South Downs. This is the closest soil and climate to that found in Champagne that you will find anywhere. Here are two day trips you could do by train:
Denbies in Dorking, Surrey is the nearest commercial vineyard to London and currently England’s largest single vineyard, located below Box Hill, venue for the Olympic cycling road races. It’s only 10 minutes walk from the train station (less than an hour from London) and the winery most geared up to large-scale tourism, with a range of tours. If the weather is good I recommend taking the vineyard tour on a ‘train’ pulled by a truck and then choose one of the winery tours and tastings. There’s a good restaurant up in a tower with a lovely view, or you can eat at the more casual cafeteria. Whereas Denbies makes a big range of still wines, including the acclaimed medium dry Surrey Gold, it is the sparkling wines that shine.
If you take the train from London to Haywards Heath in Sussex, a little north of Brighton, you will be within easy reach by taxi or bicycle from several wineries that are well worth a visit. For a smaller vineyard with a café, try Bolney Wine Estate, one of the few with more of a red wine focus, growing not only Pinot Noir but unusual grapes called Rondo and Dornfelder. They too produce some good white sparkling wines, but my favourite is their Cuvée Noir, a fizzy red from 100% Dornfelder. Not far away is the dedicated sparkling wine producer Ridgeview run by the Roberts family, headed by Mike Roberts OBE. If a visit and tasting here doesn’t convince you England can make top-class sparkling wines, nowhere will.
Ridgeview Wines. Photo courtesy of Ridgeview
The pretty county of Kent, the so-called Garden of England, known in the past for its cherry orchards and hop fields, both now largely disappeared, is easier to explore by car. Head to the lovely small town of Tenterden and then on to the largest producer of English wine, Chapel Down Winery on the site of one of England’s first successful commercial vineyards. Chapel Down has an excellent gift shop, restaurant, self-guided walking tours of the vineyards, and winery tours too. Once again it is sparkling wine that excels, but I enjoy the dry white wine from the Bacchus grape, a variety that tastes a little like Sauvignon Blanc and does very well in England. Not far away, you could also visit the smaller winery Biddenden, known for a very fragrant white from the Ortega variety.
Vineyards are not confined to this south-east corner of England, they stretch over to East Anglia, up to the Midlands and west right into Cornwall. Another multi-award winning winery that welcomes visitors in a beautiful part of England is Camel Valley Vineyards, making an excellent range of sparkling wines and another delicious Bacchus white.
If your time in England is too short to leave London, it is now much easier to find English wines than ever before. Any good wine shop should stock one or two, and larger branches of the Waitrose chain of supermarkets have a good range. There is one tiny and excellent specialist English wine shop named The Wine Pantry, right next to Borough Market, a foodies’ dream, located just south of London Bridge. You will find a big range of wines, with at least 20 that can be sampled right there, and keen staff to offer advice. And finally, if you are visiting the Olympic stadium, leave early one day to check out an unusual restaurant and bar, right next to the stadium named Formans, on the site of the salmon smokehouse H. Forman & Son. They only stock English wines – oh yes, and a Champagne (the traitors!) named …. Billecart-Salmon.
The Wine Pantry, London
For more ideas of visits to all types of British drinks producers, check out DrinkBritain.com run by a friend of mine, journalist, Susanna Forbes.
Our Wine Travel editor, Wink Lorch, is a freelance wine writer based in Europe. She also owns the Wine Travel Guides website offering on-line travel guides to wine regions in France, Spain and Italy. All guides are free to view, or you pay a small price to download the PDF guides. Wandering Educators visitors can use the discount code D1WAND09 to purchase Gold membership (access to all PDF guides for 12 months) at a reduced price of £25 (approx. $43). Click here for details.
Feature photo: Denbies Vineyard, Dorking, Surry, UK © WinkLorch
All photos courtesy and copyright Wink Lorch, except where noted.