An English wine odyssey


In memory of the late Mike Roberts, pictured in today's Fizz assortment – part 2, we are republishing this 2011 article by Susanna Forbes, founder of and closely involved in the forthcoming International Cool Climate Wine Symposium in England in 2016 (earlybird tickets available until the end of this month). She gives us her 2011 introduction to wine tourism in the UK, with her pick of some of the best places to visit. Please note that some of the specific details may have changed since the article was written, and a few updates have been added in square brackets.

The news that Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall will be serving as the new President of the UK Vineyards' Association crowns what has been quite a remarkable year for English wine.

From royalty to presidents, from the ultimate sparkling wine trophy at last year's Decanter World Wine Awards to launching liners, English – and Welsh – wines have had their fair quota of headlines. But, rather like the swan gliding effortlessly through a silent stream, it's the busyness below the surface that is keeping all afloat. And that unseen action is what I've had the privilege of witnessing as I've been researching, the drinks tourism website which gathers all British drinks together on one site.

Little did I realise two years ago when I offered to do a piece for Square Meal on the UK's best winery visits that this research would be so stimulating. Watching an industry in growth and on the move inspired me to want to spread the news further, and is the result.

At the time I visited over two dozen vineyards and I have seen many more since and spoken and tasted widely. (There are currently over 400 vineyards in the UK [470 by Dec 2014], about a quarter of those also have wineries.) Most places remain small and there's a good range of grape varieties in the ground, with champagne varieties in the ascendancy [about 50% of the vineyards, Dec 2014]; siting is vital and professional training has come to the fore. Walking around the vineyards stresses the necessity of the last two factors, since the challenge of creating ripeness, texture and flavour, let alone alcohol, in such a marginal climate hasn't changed. What has changed is the people behind the wineries. No longer self-taught, they have spent time, often at Plumpton College in East Sussex (see below), and travelled widely.

The other difference is that, particularly in the more southerly counties, there is a good selection of wineries to visit. They may have a more quirky feel than those in longer established, larger winemaking regions in other parts of the world, but there are good things to taste, the notion of terroir is taken very seriously, and you might well get to meet the owners, as we did when we stopped by Ali and Paul Englefield's charming Highdown Vineyard, near Worthing in Sussex recently.

So if you want insight, good tastes and a great day out in the country, now's the time to embark on your own English wine odyssey.

As with all wine explorations, it pays to go prepared. Arm yourself with the UKVA's latest map (available via their website) and purchase the handy Guide to The Wines of England & Wales from the Behind the Label publishing team [Wine Cellar Door also useful]. And do check on for tour times, maps and facilities on offer. After all, when somewhere such as Wickham in Hampshire [bought by Three Choirs in 2014] has not only guided tours and a friendly farm shop but also a very good restaurant, it would be a shame to miss the opportunity to enjoy the lot.

Below are a few of my highlights along with some suggestions as to how to make the most of your visit.

Best all-round experience: Camel Valley Vineyard

With slopes that scroll down to the River Camel, Camel Valley turns heads for both its sparkling and its still wines, in particular its Bacchus and rosés. Current UK Winemaker of Year, Sam Lindo shares touring duties with father and founder Bob and assistant winemaker Sarah, so rest assured a tour here will be as informative as you want it to be. But do book ahead, particularly for the mid-week afternoon Grand Tour, and allow time to sit on the verandah afterwards to muse on your visit and the wine in your glass. Best of all, book one of the barn conversions and make this your base for your Cornwall quest. With (relatively) near neighbours Rick Stein in St Austell and Nathan Outlaw in Rock, cycle-ways, and the Eden Centre within easy reach, this has to be a gastro-tourist's dream scene.

Boutique dimensions: Ridgeview

Nestling on the South Downs with vineyards that gently incline towards a ridge with views of the sea, the aptly named Ridgeview epitomises what a good boutique winery in the UK can offer. Founders Mike and Christine Roberts may have handed over much of the day-to-day running to the next generation, but they remain very involved. Ridgeview's wines will be familiar to many readers, not least because of the vast quantity of awards they have gathered – I often joke with Mike that the only reason he's building again is he needs another wall to display said accolades. Although the Ridgeview shop [shop and tasting room recently refurbished] is open throughout the year, tours take place just one Saturday morning a month, except during harvest. So again you need to book ahead for your chance to spend time with the equivalent of English wine royalty, to wander around the carefully tended vineyards and well-equipped cellar, and to finish with a taste in the delightfully bright tasting room.

Environmentally aware: Carters

It's not often you spot a wind turbine when you arrive at a vineyard, but Carters near Colchester in Essex is not your normal English winery. The property is not connected to mains electricity or water, so Ben Bunting and his family use wind to generate electricity, solar panels to power the computers and office-management systems, and their reed bed filtration area produces the mulch-friendly, nitrogen-loving plant Comfrey. The vines are grown organically and they recommend bird-lovers bring their binoculars. Visit any day between Easter and the end of October. Take your time around the nature trail, which cuts through the vineyards as well as the woodlands and wildflower meadows, before tasting a few of the wines. If you feel inspired and energetic, put your name down to help at harvest.

Inspiring: Plumpton College

Having taken a few of the short courses – in viticulture and winemaking, since you ask – this is the winery I have visited most often. Yet I never tire of turning that corner, with the ridge of the South Downs on my right acting like a protective wave, and trundling up the path to the college. Established in the late 1990s by Chris Foss as part of the University of Brighton, the wine department has grown substantially in both reputation and size in recent years. With the EU/DEFRA-funded WineSkills series of courses, a new research department and growing international links, it is perhaps not surprising that its wines – made by the students under the watchful eye of the experienced Peter Morgan – do more than hold their own. Group tours are possible, otherwise make a date for one of the open days/mornings for a chance to see round this gem. Make sure you visit the experimental vineyards, so-called because of the variety of vines and training systems on hand.

Idyllic: Sharpham Vineyards

Sustainability and spirituality are at the core of the Sharpham Trust, the charity which oversees the 500-acre Sharpham estate on which Sharpham Winery is based, and this seems to confer an air of tranquility on all who visit. Located in Devon near Totnes and the Devon Riviera of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham, the vines slope down towards the River Dart. There is a well-marked, self-guide tour option as well as a number of guided alternatives. Arrive by boat, enjoy lunch al fresco at Rosie's Vineyard Café – a destination in its own right – and take a peak at the award-winning creamery while you are there.

For foodies: Chapel Down

We may be behind some countries in the number of top-class restaurants embedded in wineries, but two that have certainly got it right are the aforementioned Wickham Vineyard in Hampshire, half way between Southampton and Portsmouth, and Chapel Down in the popular Kentish vinegrowing area around Tenterden. With its pivotal role in modern English winemaking, its accessible vineyards and aromatic herb garden, Chapel Down provides plenty for day-tripping wine lovers anyway. Add to that a contemporary restaurant with a decked first-floor terrace worth fighting over, and it becomes even more seductive.

Community: Denbies

Denbies wines are leaping forward in terms of quality thanks to the involvement of John Worontschak and his Litmus Wines consultancy – did you catch the IWC Gold-medal-winning rosé made from Rondo? The largest UK vineyard on a single site, Denbies continues to offer a wide range of activities at its well-situated winery near Dorking in Surrey. Got the kids with you this summer? Take them for a pony ride through the vines. They don't like horses? Book in for a Children's Photography Day or the Creepy Crawly Roadshow. For the older visitors, choose from a variety of tours – the introductory 360° video in the winery tour is worth the ticket fee alone. Feeling fit? Help out at harvest – or for those feeling really fit, enter the September Bacchus Marathon. But don't let all this activity put you off. Underneath all the activities, vineyards and wine are the elements that matter most, and with the vivacity and entrepreneurial approach taken by current general manager and son of the founder, Chris White, watch this space for news of the next gongs.

New ventures

There are plenty of newcomers large and small entering the wine industry. From ex-hedge fund manager Mark Driver's ambitious plans [Rathfinny Estate] to the more boutique nature of former South African surgeon Andrew Weeber at Gusbourne. [See Richard's diary of A year in the vines based on his experiences at the latter.]

In the future, I am looking forward to visiting Jane Mohan's Coggeshall Wine Centre near Colchester in Essex. Due to open in 2012 alongside her West Street Vineyard, the centre will be modelled on New World cellar-door operations. Showcasing English wine – and the East Anglia region in particular – in a contemporary open-plan fashion, it will have a seasonally inspired café and local wine wall upstairs, and a tasting cellar downstairs plus education and conferencing facilities. And looking ahead to 2013, I'll be paying a return visit to Gusbourne Estate in rural Kent, both for their wines and for the proposed bistro, serving local fare with style, 'along the lines of Mark Sargeant's place, Rocksalt in Folkestone', says Weeber. Sounds tempting.

More immediately, in a fortnight my husband and I are off on our summer DrinkBritain roadtrip in the new, emblazoned Mini. The vineyards of Yorkshire beckon – we'll let you know how we get on. (The photo above was taken by Melissa Tobin at Denbies.)

For Richard's recent tasting notes on English wines, see English Pinot Noir – the next big thing?