The Best Vineyard Visits in England
By Master of Wine, Christopher Burr
The quality of wines grown in the UK is improving every year, and now many wineries are producing world class wines. Whist there is evidence of vine growing in this country right back to the time of the Roman occupation, it is wonderful to see that with a slightly warmer climate and some hot summers, our own wine growing and consumption is seeing a mini boom. In the last two years it is estimated that over a million new vine plants have been planted each year. The start of major vineyard planting in recent years goes back to the early 1970's, and has steadily been increasing, mainly in the last fifteen years. Now these vines are mature and starting to produce lovely wines.
The best so far tend to be sparkling wines, made most often from the same grapes as grown in Champagne, and made exactly the same way is in Champagne and grown on similar soils. Indeed, many of our sparkling wines easily rival good Champagne brands. .
Now there is also a big emphasis on our still wines, and there are some great local wines, red white and rose to be had.
There is no doubt that one of the best ways to discover wine, get to taste the variety and very often meet the wine-maker or owner, is to visit the winery and vineyard, and most wineries now do tours with samples, and hold events. Many also have accommodation in the vineyards, and many also have first-rate restaurants. After all, wine is often best with good food.
Around the world wineries have for many years offered tours, and some of the best I have visited have been in California, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The Europeans are more restrained in offering tours, but this is gradually changing, but generally one is only accepted by prior introduction.
In the UK, we are much more open, and some tours and added events are really worth a summer's day out.
It is always worth booking ahead of your visit, especially if you wish to dine. Also, certainly for events and accommodation, be that at the vineyard, or in some cases at nearby recommended hostelries.
I am happy to recommend some of the best vineyards to visit, starting in Kent, always known as "the garden of England", and particularly apposite as one of the best places to grow grapes.
One of my favourite sparkling wines is Gusbourne, who have 60 acres in Kent and 30 acres in West Sussex. They offer excellent tours including sampling for £30 per adult rising to a special tour including a lavish meal for £155 a head. They use top chefs and cater only at weekends, unless specially booked.
They are at Appledore, near Ashford, Kent. Tel; 01233 884680, and for local accommodation at around £100 a night email; nest@Gusborne.com.
Also in Kent, at Tenterden on the High Weald, is one of the largest producers, Chapel Down. They offer a package of good tours and events, and have an excellent restaurant called the Swan.
Tours range from £28 per adult, to a special package with three courses and a selection of wines for £130.Contact to book;- 01580 766111. www.chapeldown.com.
The quality of wines grown in the UK is improving every year, and now many wineries are producing world class wines.
Still in the east, I move north to East Anglia, and Suffolk near Bury St Edmunds. Wyken Vineyards make a good selection of sparkling and still wines, but they are also worth visiting for the excellent prize winning and much written about cooking. With wild game, venison and produce all grown from the local neighbourhood, the owner, Lady Carlisle trained at the famous Los Angeles, Berkeley, restaurant Chez Panisse. One can also stay at Wyken for £89 a night. Contact;-02359 250287
Moving west to just south of Buckingham, is the charming estate of Chafor. Run by Tim Chafor and his family, they make excellent sparkling wines and many good still wines.Tours are £18 per head and they have many events with fun cooking and wine pairing. Well worth a visit if nearby. Tel; 07973 892427. Chafor.co.uk I have to admit an interest, as Tim Chafor makes wine from grapes from a small vineyard I was involved with planting in Bedfordshire.
So now back to the South of England , there are many great vineyards to visit on the North and South Downs, the wonderful chalk escarpments running along the south coast, and the same geological structure as in Champagne.
One of the UK's brand leading wines for both quality and consistency is Nyetimber in West Sussex. I first came across these wines in the 1980's when under the ownership of a guy who wrote famous pop songs. This is an ancient medieval house and estate, which goes from strength to strength with new investment, a top winemaker and new plantings.Tours can be arranged for £40 per head including sampling, and there are many special events to go to. Contact;- www.nyetimber.com.
At Staplehurst near Tonbridge is the superb Hush Heath Estate of Balfour. They do excellent tours for £25 and for £45 weekdays and £65 at weekends special visits with more samples and snacks. Contact;- tel;01622 832794. balfourwinery.com.
Again, one of my favourites in Sussex at Bodiam near Robertsbridge, is Oastbrook Estate Vineyards. American Brewer and her husband Nick are passionate about their wines, and give superb and enlightening tours, £20 with Tastings and £25-30 for groups.They have some superb special events with great cooking and often events with musicians and interesting speakers. They also have the most charming accommodation in the vineyards. Contact;- 07808 890428 www.oastbrook.com.
In Hampshire, Hattingley Valley, near Arlesford make outstanding wines and also have great tours charging £25 per head. As per normal, they also have special events and dinners. Well worth a visit, contact 01256 389188.
Further west is one of the first major UK producers. In Gloucestershire, near Newent, is Three Choirs, who started selling wines from their 75 acres in 1973.The tours are excellent, and on Saturday and Sunday their brasserie is open from lunch and dinner. They also have very comfortable accomodation. Contact;- 01531 890223 firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Dorset, Bride Valley is the project of the late Steven Spurrier and his wife Bella who now runs it. Steven was a top taster and wine writer, well known and admired throughout the international wine industry.The wines from Bride Valley at Litton Cheney are excellent and tours can be booked on a Thursday and Saturday for £22,50 per head. Contact 01308482767 email@example.com.
There are many more vineyards I could suggest, Denbies just south of Guildford, or in the Thames Valley the excellent Harrow and Hope. I haven't mentioned any of the Welsh wineries, primarily because I haven't yet had a chance to visit them!
I would seriously encourage you to visit and support your local wineries, the people tend to be very friendly and hospitable, and the wines make a wonderful excuse for a day out.
Christopher Burr. Master of Wine. May 2023.