Elisabeth Else and Ian Hardwick of winecellardoor.co.uk take us on a tour of some visitor-friendly vineyards in England and Wales.
Visiting vineyards, talking to winemakers and understanding the landscape, practices and passion that lie behind them is always the best way of appreciating a wine. What's more, buying direct from the cellar door can offer exceptional value for money and the opportunity of finding special wines not available elsewhere.
However, finding out which vineyards welcome visitors, and then finding where they are, isn't always simple. In England and Wales at least, we hope the task is made much easier by www.winecellardoor.co.uk. Begun as a response to our not being able to find the information we wanted about the vineyards we were interested in, we set up the site having met while working at the national tourist board, VisitBritain, and discovering we shared an interest in wine.
Driven by the search for stories and the sense of place behind the wines we sought out, we have just relaunched the site with more information, better photos, improved navigation and an ever-growing number of places to visit. Who knew that over 200 UK vineyards welcome visitors? We've visited at least 100 of them ourselves and managed without too many arguments to choose these few to share with other oenophiles.
The filters on the website make it easy to find out which vineyards can offer tours and when they are available, linked blog posts give more detail and a flavour of whether you will be shown around by a tour guide, the person who makes the wine or the owner, who may of course be the same person.
We also love a self-guided tour so we can wander and inspect the vines before tasting. If you do too, pick the vineyard trail option and you're likely to find Nutbourne, West Sussex, whose vineyard and windmill are pictured immediately below. Where else can you taste wine in a windmill? The Gladwin family, who also own London restaurants The Shed, Rabbit and Nutbourne, have been growing grapes at their Sussex vineyard since 1991. They produce an impressive range of good-value wines from seven varieties, including their trademark Nutty sparkling wine. A vineyard trail leads visitors through the vines and there are sculptures to spot as well as alpacas and plenty of great picnic spots.
A trend we've noticed over the last year or so is more top-quality producers opening their doors to visitors, often combining a space they can use for trade tastings and visitors. Gusbourne and Wiston Estate both fit into this category, having opened in 2017.
One slightly more established and where you're guaranteed a warm welcome is Bluebell, East Sussex pictured above right. A former pig farm might sound like an inauspicious location for a vineyard and winery, but Bluebell Vineyard Estate near Haywards Heath proves it's anything but. Producing mainly vintage sparkling wines under the care of winemaker Kevin Sutherland, Bluebell sits in lovely Sussex countryside and offers tours and tastings, a pond, views and a great vineyard trail. In April and May there are bluebells in the woods, and if you've not had your fill, the famous Bluebell Railway with its steam locomotives and historic rolling stock is nearby.
We found ourselves being asked where children are welcome and our new website makes it easy to find out. While this may sound a strange idea to some, happy children mean more tasting opportunities for the adults. So what makes a good child-friendly vineyard? Actually we've found it's rather simple – a printed sheet of A4 with some questions or drawing, a pencil and a small prize at the end. A cat, dog or other animals always help too.
Our, possibly surprising, winner of most child-friendly English vineyard is Breaky Bottom, East Sussex. The journey along a narrow track over the hills to Breaky Bottom, hidden in a hollow of the South Downs near Lewes, is part of what makes a visit here so memorable. Peter Hall has been making wine in this beautiful spot for over 40 years and all that experience shows. The wines, including one made from 100% Seyval Blanc, are wonderful. This is Ian's children's favourite vineyard (minutes after leaving they asked 'When can we visit another vineyard?') and it's easy to see the appeal of this charmed landscape.
One of the filters we have always been keen to include on the website is accommodation. What could be nicer than waking up close to the vines or finding your bed close-by after a good tasting? There are a surprising number of vineyards with accommodation, with options ranging from pitching your own tent to luxuriating in a boutique hotel, with glamping, B&B and self-catering options too.
One of the newest to offer accommodation is Oxney Organic, East Sussex. This 21-acre vineyard near Rye offers regular tours and tastings with optional platters of cheese and cold meats for lunch. If you get too worn out enjoying the unadulterated pleasures of the vines and wines, spend the night in one of the quirky-yet-stylish shepherd's huts located in the vineyard.
If you're keen on seeking out organic or biodynamic wines, another filter on www.winecellardoor.co.uk will help you find other interesting vineyards to visit across England and Wales such as Ancre Hill, Monmouthshire. An obsessive attention to detail, the highest environmental standards and a heartfelt commitment to biodynamics make this one of the most exciting wine producers in the UK. Visitors can see the recently constructed winery made of straw bales, learn about the principles and philosophy behind the biodynamic approach and taste an uncompromising range of still and sparkling Welsh wines which have won many admirers. Self-catering accommodation is offered in a three-bedroom cottage, with many other attractions in the area to justify a trip.
We're always impressed by the small number of charity/community vineyards around the country (a filter on the site will reveal them). They are all genuine enterprises supporting people recovering from mental health problems (the therapeutic benefits of winter pruning and harvest are easy to imagine) or offering a variety of other community benefits. If you feel like lending a hand or joining in harvest, there are many places where you would be very welcome.
We are often asked which wine-related activities are available in London. Our next choice ticks both boxes: Forty Hall, London. From London's only commercial-scale vineyard, just inside the M25 near Enfield, you can take in the view of the Olympic Park, Canary Wharf and The Shard. It's run by dedicated local volunteers who tend the 10 acres of vines. Wines are made offsite by leading organic winemaker Will Davenport and sold in the farm shop, where you'll also find a great range of organic meat, fruit and veg from Forty Hall Farm. Ian's wife makes superb cakes for the volunteers – another benefit of joining in!
Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII's fourth wife, did rather well out of the annulment of their marriage. Not only did she gain the manor of Nyetimber in West Sussex (wine lovers will recognise the name), she also acquired Great Lodge in Great Bardfield, Essex. A huge, Grade I listed timber-framed barn dating from Tudor times is now used for sumptuous weddings and dominates this welcoming vineyard with beautiful gardens and woodlands to explore. This is a fine spot to taste East Anglia's signature Bacchus still wines and is one of around 50 UK vineyards that can host a wedding.
We're great advocates of maps and our map enables you to find a vineyard close to somewhere you may be travelling for business or near to friends or family. Holmfirth Vineyard and the Marquis at Alkham have both been happy discoveries from travelling in Yorkshire and Kent respectively.
A good time for wine tourism for most people is of course the summer holidays, although our next choice is open all year: Polgoon, Cornwall. If anyone needed another reason to visit Cornwall, Polgoon near Penzance adds wine to the list of the county's attractions. You can take in the sea view from the top of the vineyard and enjoy a glass of their Cornish still and sparkling wines and ciders at the on-site café before or after a tour. Stock up for a picnic at the shop and deli selling Cornish produce and enjoy the sea air. The picture above shows a vineyard tour at Polgoon.
It's been so hard to choose just a few, but we hope to have whetted your appetite. There are more opening all the time and it is our intention to keep www.winecellardoor.co.uk up to date and as useful as possible.