IF YOU gaze from the steps of this country house in Hampshire towards the horizon it just looks like another vineyard. True, a very attractive vista with the Chardonnay grapes in the foreground subtly changing hue as they merge into lines of Pinot Noir and then at the far end Pinot Meunier – the classic Champagne varieties.
But this is no ordinary vineyard. It is the actual sanctified ground at Hambledon where Sir Guy Salisbury Jones planted England’s first commercial vineyard back in 1951. The original plantings were of hardy Germanic vines such as Seyval though he later planted all three Champagne vines as well and experimented with sparkling though not on a commercial scale. The original label had cricket stumps on it – a homage to Hambledon as the place where the game of cricket started. A nearby(ish) pub, the Bat and Ball, is a shrine to its birthplace.
He little realised that thanks to his pioneering efforts Hambledon was to become the cradle of a second revolution – proving that wine could be made in England on a commercial scale. To be fair, Wales – so often underrated in viticultural terms – had planted Britain’s first commercial vineyard under the Scottish Earl of Bute more than 50 years previously at Castle Coch near Cardiff. Unlike Hambledon, it had not provided the inspiration for dozens of other vineyards to follow suit.
What was the wine like? It is easy to dismiss these early English efforts as being a bit amateurish but the 1971 listing of the very choosey Wine Society said that considering the vagaries of the English weather Hambledon’s wine was “astoundingly good”. That is a phrase that I have rarely if ever seen used to describe any wine. I wonder if this was the Hambledon wine served in May of the following year at a banquet in Paris. It was hosted by Queen Elizabeth for President Pompidou – as part of the thaw in Anglo-French relations that led to Britain’s entry into the European Common Market a year later. What President Pompidou thought of it is not on record.
Since those pioneering days the estate of Hambledon has been on a Cooks’ Tour of different owners. But now it is in the very capable and even visionary hands of Ian Kellet, an investment banker from the north of England, who has raised the quality of the crop – now all sparkling wine – to levels undreamed of by Sir Guy – as the photos on the wall of three consecutive gold medals at the International Wine Challenge testify.
Nor is he sitting still. He already has what is claimed to be the country’s first gravity-fed grape pressing system where the grapes are taken to the top of the winery to find their own way down without intervention through the presses before being sorted into four qualities only two of which are used for wine the rest being turned into brandy. His long-term plans include producing a million bottles of fizz and an underground cave which he is about to excavate through the chalk terrain that could have a capacity for 2 million bottles.
I have visited dozens of vineyards in England and Wales since I started writing about English and Welshwines some years ago and Hambledon has always been one that I was really looking forward to. I was not disappointed. Hambledon is now among England’s super vineyards which are giving the champagne houses such a run for their money. And the wines which we sampled? Totally delicious.
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