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DENBIES in Dorking was the first English vineyard I ever visited. You can’t miss it if you are driving down the A3 from London because, unlike most UK vineyards which are hidden along country lanes, Denbies covers the whole hillside, all 265 acres of it. When it was built it was the biggest single estate vineyard in the country – and, 30 years later, it still is though newbie Rathfinny in Sussex will soon be biting at its heels. To build on such a big scale so long ago when the English wine revival was still in its nappies was quite something. And it wasn’t a millionnaire acting out his dreams but the result of an authoritative suggestion by a professor of geology, Richard C Selley that the Champagne-like terrain of the North Downs was ideal for grape growing. Professor Selley’s subsequent book (“The Winelands of Britain”) on the history and geology of UK vineyards is a must-read for anyone interested in the subject.
But if I am honest, although I was a huge admirer of it as a business – with its very large conservatory café, a good (more recent) restaurant, a cinema and lots of boutique stalls – I wasn’t madly impressed with the actual wines though they were always pleasant enough to drink.
Then something happened. Denbies Chalk Ridge Rosé 2010 was the only still rosé out of 367 bottles entered from 21 countries to win a gold medal at the International Wine Challenge. In other words, it was rated the best in the world from those submitted. The next time I was passing I popped in for a purchase but it had sold out within days of the announcement.
Since then it has won lots of silver medals and also a gold for its “Noble Harvest 2011” desert wine, one of only three UK gold medals awarded at the 2013 International Wine Challenge. Most recently in the 2016 IWC Challenge Denbies won another gold for its sparkling Greenfields Cuvée NV made from classic Champagne grapes.
When I visited the vineyard a few years ago they were selling approaching 80% from the cellar door. Now it is down to around 50% as they lead the long awaited surge of UK wines into supermarkets such as Marks & Spencer, Lidl, Aldi, Waitrose and Tesco. They still claim to sell more than any other vineyard from the cellar door – not least Surrey Gold which is the best selling wine in the UK – which is not surprising when you get over 300,00 visitors a year.
Chris White, the chief executive, says that, though sales are rising dramatically they are not planning to plant more than five or six more acres but will buy in 10 to 15% more grapes from other vineyards. He claims to be in the forefront of developments including minimal pruning and has what he claims is the only picking machine in the country. He is also thinking of producing a Bacchus which would be bottle fermented for nine months, a fascinating prospect. Denbies is moving away from herbicides and its winery (though not the vineyard) has been organically certified.
But it is on the wines it will be judged and our four-strong tasting party was very impressed especially with the two sparklers (Greenfields and Cubitts) and the 2015 Noble Harvest dessert while the Pinot Noir was surprisingly good for an English red. Denbies has been making sparkling wine since 1990 which puts it among the earlier vineyards to go into commercial production. It has taken a long time to gain international recognition – but long-term thinking is one of the crucial factors in the startling success of English and Welsh vineyards.