vineyard

Meet Denbies – Britain’s biggest vineyard

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 20, 2016
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The conservatory at Denbies

The conservatory at Denbies

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.

The entrance

The entrance

Looking towards Box Hill

Looking towards Box Hill

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.

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Britain at its most picturesque – the Wye Valley wine trail

Posted by Victor Keegan on June 08, 2015
Engilsh vineyards, Uncategorized / No Comments
Parva1

Sheep at Parva Farm vineyard in Tintern

 

THE WYE VALLEY has a strong claim to be the cradle of the tourism industry in Britain. When Continental wars deprived monied people of the Grand Tour in Europe they perforce turned homewards and the Wye Tour from Ross-on-Wye to Chepstow – passing Goodrich Castle and Tintern Abbey – became the trip to make for them and for poets like Wordsworth and Thomas Gray not to mention painters such as Turner.
It is almost the last place you would think of today as a vineyard destination. That is because we define our vineyards by county or pre- defined regions and can’t easily cope with a river haven like the Wye Valley which transcends countries – Wales and England – as well as counties (Gloucestershire, Monmouthshire and Herefordshire). But today it has a strong claim to be a vineyard destination as well.
Travelling up the Wye from Chepstow the first vineyard you come to is Parva Farm on the left of the river (open all year) stunningly situated up a steep slope in Tintern overlooking the river and, if you reach high enough, the Abbey.  Its wines have won a stack of silver and bronze medals. Marks and Spencer recently asked for as much of its Bacchus as they could spare.
A few miles up river at Monmouth you can visit Ancre Hill Estate (April to end September) a biodynamic vineyard which burst on to the scene two years ago when its 2008 (Seyval) white was voted the best sparkling wine in the world at the Bollicine del Mondo in Verona beating off competition from established champagnes. This was an astonishing achievement for a new Welsh vineyard which even my Welsh friends have difficulty in believing.  On a sunny day eating a lunch of their local cheeses, vines stretching out before you, with one of their lovely sparkling or still wines (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay etc) is a great joy.
Further upstream at Coughton, near Ross-on-Wye, on the site of a Roman vineyard, is newcomer Castle Brook whose delicious Chinn-Chinn 2009, made with classic champagne grapes, recently won a gold medal and was voted the best sparkling white in the whole of the South-West Vineyard Association’s area beating off the likes of Camel Valley in Cornwall and Furleigh in Dorset. Castle Brook is owned by the Chinn family, probably the biggest asparagus growers in the country. It is open by appointment but wine can be purchased online.

CastleBrook

Christopher Chinn of the Chinn family who have diversified from asparagus into sparkling wines

Further north, less than ten miles from the Wye with a good restaurant and accommodation is the highly regarded Three Choirs whose 80 acres produce fine prize-winning wines, including gold. The vineyard also makes wine for dozens of other vineyards. If you take into account the whole vineyard experience – including the quality of wine, the setting, the food and the atmosphere, this one is up with the very best.

ThreeChoirs

Three Choirs, one of Britain’s oldest and most successful vineyards

Strawberry Hill

Banana trees at Strawberry Hill

Strawberry Hill vineyard, so close to Three Choirs that you could almost use it as a spittoon, is one of the most unusual vineyards anywhere and one of my favourites.  It makes good wines (some stocked by Waitrose) partly from over an acre under glass enabling it to grow Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon  not normally possible in England.
It claims to be the only vineyard in the world growing commercially under glass, which no one has yet contested. As if that isn’t enough, it  has rows of flourishing banana trees – growing outside! – as well.

There are plenty of other vineyards in The Wye Valley (depending on where you draw the boundaries) including a new 3.5 acre one at Wythall in the grounds of a stunning Tudor mansion, Lullham, the wonderful Broadfield Court, also Coddington,  now under happy new ownership, Sparchall and a micro vineyard The Beeches at  Upton Bishop. This is by no means a complete list. If all these can’t generate a vineyard trail I don’t know what will. If Wordsworth were alive today, I wonder if he would have  written about Wines  a few miles above Tintern Abbey rather than  his celebrated “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey” .Either way Galileo’s description of wine as sunlight held together by water has a unique resonance in the Wye Valley.

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The Jurassic wines of Dorset

Posted by Victor Keegan on November 02, 2014
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Furleigh Vineyard

THE GEOLOGY of Dorset which has made the Jurassic coast an international heritage site is now helping to build a thriving new industry: vineyards. The soft rise and fall of the terrain – with a structure similar to  the Champagne area of Northern France – almost cries out for grapes to be grown. And so they have been. During the past couple of years the wines of Dorset have graduated from being merely interesting to winning top prizes. And I don’t doubt there’s more to come. Furleigh Estate, an attractive vineyard/winery hidden at the end of a long track off a remote country lane near Bridport, started the ball rolling by becoming the first English vineyard to win a gold medal at the very prestigious French wine tasting competition Effervescents du Monde almost two years ago with its Classic Cuvee 2009. Its winemaker Ian Edwards was voted UK Winemaker of the Year.

Liam Idzikowski of Langham

LANGHAM Wine Estate near Dorchester is  hidden like so many English vineyards along a maze of narrow country lanes. Earlier this year it not only won the Judgement of Parsons Green against 100 other top sparkling English wines with its 2010 Classic Cuvée – you can put down that telephone, it’s out of stock – but was also awarded 8th place with its  Reserve Blanc de Noirs. Not bad for a first year’s production and an impressive feat for its admirable Irish winemaker Liam Idzikowski (pictured, right) who kindly showed me the winery and vineyard which manages to employ modern techniques without losing the atmosphere of the farm that gave rise to it. Langham expects to produce 35,000 bottles this year, double last year not including 5,000 bottles produced for a nearby vineyard. Like so many other vineyards in Britain nearly 90% of the wine is sold locally, a good business model which enables them to retain the retail and wholesale profit margins and avoid heavy marketing and transports costs.

ALSO IN THE gold medal league, though your won’t find it on any label, is Wodetone Vineyard (bottom, left) overlooking the Dorset coast where Nigel Riddle farms 30 acres of the classic Champagne varieties that all go to nearby Furleigh for making into wine under their label. Nigel seems quite content with being a gold winner at one remove as it removes all the hassle of making, selling and marketing.
ANOTHER Dorset vineyard which we will definitely be hearing more about is Bride Valley owned by the wine guru Steven Spurrier and his wife Bella and managed by seasoned vineyard manager Graham Fisher. I intend to write more about this fascinating vineyard in my my next blog but we were treated to a glass of Bride Valley, 2011 (Classic Cuvee) from their first sparkling harvest, only available in small quantities which was delicious. It is another important factor in Dorset’s rising reputation for sparkling wine.

Andrew and Sarah Pharoah of English Oak

NOT FAR away along south Dorset’s golden strip is English Oak named after the handsome tree that stands on part of the carefully manicured 16 acre vineyard run by Andrew and Sarah Pharoah (left) who, amazingly,  prunes every vine herself. That’s love for you. I came here because my wife and I were dining in a restaurant in Dorchester last year and were surprised to find on the menu an English wine we had never heard of (in addition to our surprise at seeing an English wine at all in a restaurant). We both thought it was very good and so I was not surprised to learn during my visit that they had already won silver medals and are hoping for gold. Since they are lucky enough to have the the triple- gold winner Dermot Sugrue of Wiston – another Irishman – as their wine maker they have as good a chance of any to make this dream come true. They don’t have a cellar door but they sell almost all they produce (only sparkling) locally in Dorset. This year they have produced 20 tons of grapes which works out at about 15,000 bottles, twice last years crop following nothing at all in the nationally disastrous 2012.

Melbury Vale’s cellar door and van

AT THE OTHER end of the scale is Melbury Vale, south of Shaftestbury, (left) run by Joseph and Clare Pestell which has only two acres of its own – though more are on the way – but makes wine for eight other small vineyards locally covering 20 acres. Like so many others all its wines are sold locally either from its cellar door it to local establishments. Joseph says they will produce about 1,000 bottles this year similar to last year. It would have been twice as much except that they lost all their Pinot Noir to disease which, Joseph thinks, would have been good enough to turn into  red wine. What is happening in Dorset is not untypical of a number of other counties where almost romantic enthusiasm, combined with increasing professionalism, is regularly raising the quality of the country’s wines. Everything is going for English (and Welsh) wines at the moment except the weather. And even that has been kind for two years running.

Lovely Autumn tints at English Oak

Wodetone


 

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The grapes of Rath . . . Britain’s biggest vineyard takes shape

Posted by Victor Keegan on August 20, 2014
champagne, Engilsh vineyards, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

 

Rathfinny’s first grapes

IF YOU want to speculate about the future of English sparkling wine look no further than the soft undulating hills of Rathfinny Estate in east Sussex, the biggest gamble in the history of this nascent industry. It has already had more publicity than most of the rest of the UK’s 400 plus vineyards put together even though it has yet to produce its first glass of wine. On a flying visit yesterday I had to content myself with a glimpse of the first grapes (see above) and I had to walk quite a long way down the vineyard even to see those. Cameron Boucher, the highly experienced vineyard manager from New Zealand (below) says they have already planted 150 acres of the 400 planned which would make it the biggest vineyard in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe. He says the first of the smaller quantities of still wine will be produced next year, though it may not go out under the Rathfinny brand. It will be several years yet before its flagship sparkling has matured in bottle long enough to be released on to the market.

 

Cameron Boucher, vineyard manager


 Mark Driver, who left a lucrative job in the City to plough £10 millions of his own money into Rathfinny, is in danger of giving hedge funds a good name. He is nothing if not ambitious, planning to go from scratch to selling a million bottles of English sparkling against the established giants of Champagne about 90 miles across the channel who share the same chalky geological strata as Rathfinny.
Some people think he is barmy, others that he will usher in the next stage of the English (and Welsh) wine revival as it ups its game from a niche product to a serious industry. Having in my previous career as a journalist chronicled the remorseless decline of the UK’s manufacturing base over 40 years, I find it refreshing to observe a fledgling industry with such juicy prospects.
Of what other industry in Britain could it be said that it has a world-class product yet barely one per cent of its domestic market? Most of the wine produced in Britain is sparkling and we regularly win top honours. In the recent prestigious Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships England scooped 11 gold medals and 14 Silver, more than any other country except France.
Of course, it is not as simple as that. Vineyard guru Stephen Skelton (@spskelton) in his new book Wine Growing in Great Britain, points out that most of the growth in sparkling wine in the UK has come from Prosecco and Cava selling at well under £10 a bottle, a market that UK sparklers shy away from and that three quarters of Champange is sold at less than £20 a bottle which won’t leave much profit for low volume UK producers.
But, if warmer summers persist, a larger output could bring unit prices down in Britain and nowhere more than Rathfinny which stands to reap economies of scale as great as any in Champagne and on land that is considerably cheaper. But two things will be crucial to its success: it has to produce wine that wins top medals and – something manufacturing industry never had to contend with – it needs a succession of good summers.

English Wine Centre

 

 

 Before visiting Rathfinny we had our first trip to the long-established English Wine Centre at nearby Berwick  (left) which combines a shop selling a huge range of English (not yet Welsh) wines with lovely gardens, a hotel and a delightful restaurant serving a high standard of food which we enjoyed along with samplings of English wines of which the Nutbourne from West Sussex and Surrey Gold whites stood out for us.
We decided to walk there from Berwick station along the Vanguard Way, a picturesque path along the slope of the downs which brings you out a few hundred yards from the wine centre. We were late as it took us a while to figure out that the path went straight through the middle of a field of closely packed with seven feet high rows of sweet corn where GPS is of limited use.

 

Follow Victor Keegan on @BritishWino or @vickeegan

His London blog is LondonMyLondon.co.uk

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Britain leads the world in vineyards – under glass

Posted by Victor Keegan on June 10, 2014
Engilsh vineyards, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

The Great Vine glasshouse backed by Tudor chimneys

ENGLAND’s wine industry may be miniscule compared with France, Spain or California but we have something they can only dream about: the biggest grapevine in the world. Take a bow Hampton Court whose Black Hamburg vine I saw yesterday which has grown apace since my last visit, er 40 years ago. It now measures 12 feet around its base with tentacles extending to approaching 120 feet. Small wonder that Guinness World Records declared it the largest in the world as far back as 2005. It could be the oldest as well having been planted in 1769 by Capability Brown except that the city of Maribor in Slovenia claims its Vine of Maribor is 400 years old. For reasons of space the Hampton vine hasn’t been allowed to grow in a straight line. Its carefully manicured branches are spectacularly spreadeagled across the inside of a specially built glass house like multiple layers of Formula One circuits. When I last visited the Hampton grape it had a rival at the Jesuit College at Manresa House in Roehampton where what was claimed to be the longest grapevine in the world was lodged in one of the largest greenhouses in the country – but it has long been lost to redevelopment. There is also a small vineyard on the Gloucestershire/Herefordshire border, Strawberry Hill, which claims to be the only – and therefore the biggest – vineyard in the world growing grapes on a commercial scale under glass, a claim that has yet to be refuted.

Inside the greenhouse

Hampton Court produces about 600lbs of grapes a year which ripen at the end of August and are sold in Palace gift shops in September. You would think they would ripen a lot earlier judging by the size of the ones I saw yesterday. The vine could easily produce more that twice current output but only at the expense of subsequent harvests. The grapes were originally grown as a luxury food for the royal table but are now made available to us proles. Although Black Hamburg is an eating grape there is no reason why it couldn’t be made into wine which could be served in the Palace’s Tiltyard Cafe where no English wines are available despite their increasing reputation.
The Great Vine  is a marvellous grapey experience, Bacchus’s Cathedral and well worth a visit though it is quite pricey to get into the Palace these days even if it is just to the gardens. The roots of the vine are outside the greenhouse under the dirt patch which can be seen on the right. There is no reason why the vine should not continue for another 100 years but if it doesn’t there are plenty of offspring around. In 1818, Edward Jenner planted cuttings from the Hampton Court vine  in his greenhouse at the Chantry, Berkeley where two are still fruiting today. A cutting taken in the 1860s now forms a canopy over the conservatory at Huntington Castle in Ireland. There is no keeping a good cutting down.

Little known fact – Hampton’s Great Vine was grown from a small cutting that came from Valentine’s Park in Essex

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Enigma variations – how Elgar and Britannia’s wine hooked up

Posted by Victor Keegan on May 21, 2014
Engilsh vineyards, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

 

Cathie Rolinson tending the specially heightened vines

Lovells, tucked away in the foothills of the mouth-watering Malverns, is one of those quintessentially English vineyards that is little known outside its own area. And with good reason. It has married terroir with heritage to become part of the local community captalising on links with local industries like Morgan cars and especially Elgar, the father of modern English music, whose grave is a short walk from the vineyard in Welland.
Lovells recently added to its own five acres some 1.5 acres at  nearby Tiltridge which brought with it the Elgar brand offering lots of opportunities to hook up to tours linked to music.
As with most vineyards in England and Wales, 2012 was a bit of a disaster but last year they produced 3,000 bottles and they hope to reach 20,000 bottles from vines already laid down in a few years time, weather permitting.
I arrived just as a consignment of sparkling rosé from Three Choirs (their winemaker) was being unloaded to the cellar door, situated close to a very pleasant modern shop, with eating and tasting area recently converted from a holiday let cottage.

Part of the shop and tasting area

CathIe Rolinson, whose family runs the estate, says that over 80% of  their produce is sold from the vineyard to people who are proud of their heritage and keen to buy from the region. The rest goes to local shops, restaurants etc. This is typical of so many family run vineyards of this kind. Cathie’s husband, who is an engineer, has designed special metallic posts to accomodate the vines at a high level making it easy to pick the grapes without straining your back. That’s my kind of vine.
They can entertain group visits of up to 40 people including stag and hen parties. Interestingly, she has noticed a surprising number of people under 30. Hey, is English wine becoming cool at last?
I purchased four bottles including a pleasantly dry Promenades which has whetted my appetite for the others.
The vineyard is open Tuesday to Friday 11am – 4pm and on selected Saturdays from May to November. Outside of these hours & seasons it is best to call first 01684 310843 and they will be happy to help. There is a wine shop & tea room. Tours should be booked in advance.

No,not Chateau Mouton – just a couple of model sheep watching over the vines

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Reading between the vines . .

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 15, 2013
champagne, Engilsh vineyards, Merrett, sparkling wine, Uncategorized / No Comments

 

Brian Edwards and Sarah Bell

It is not often I have the  chance of visiting a vineyard with no less than 430 different varieties  of vine on display. But yesterday was the annual open day for Sunnybank Vine Nursery run by Sarah Bell and Richard Stow. It is  home to the National Collection of Vines spread in neat formation across 0.4 remote hectares in rolling Herefordshire countryside facing Garway Hill, once owned by the Knights Templar.

I had the pleasure of being shown around by Sarah who bought the vineyard in 2008 knowing very little about vines. She has learned fast, helped by Brian Edwards, the former founder-owner (above with Sarah) , who joined us walking up and down between the rows commenting on the pros and cons of every vine within sight. I couldn’t help asking them what vine they would recommend for would-be amateur wine makers wanting to avoid complications (who could I have been thinking about?).
Interestingly, from all of the 430 varieties around them they both chose the same two: Seyval, which “ripens right up to Yorkshire”  for white wines and Rondo (“early ripening on any site”) for red.

Some of the 430 varieties

Other tips – Don’t even think of trying to grow the claret grape Cabernet Sauvignon in the UK (though Cabernet Cortis is a fair English substitute for it). Shiraz is no good  in the UK either. Seiggerrebe can make a good wine but is a small cropper Triomphe d Alsace is effectively disease resistance.
Sarah, whose day job is in the software industry,  finances the vineyard by selling roots and cuttings during the dormant season (November to March) from her website www.sunnybankvines.co.uk

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