Peter Ustinov once said ‘I imagine hell like this: Italian punctuality, German humour and English wine’. Such a dismissal, however, may soon be old-fashioned, as England is undergoing a viticultural renaissance, putting out wine at a rate not seen since the Middle Ages. In the last 5 years there has been a 75% increase in the number of vineyards, and the quality of produce is gaining widespread praise and stimulating vineyard tourism: visiting vineyards, whether for a day trip or on holiday.
Copyright Sharpham Vineyard
Wine had reached English shores by the time the Romans had, and the Normans introduced a fresh, French zeal to the industry. But the late Middle Ages saw much decline, as the Black Death decimated the workforce and the dissolution of the monasteries destroyed main producers.
That is, until the 1950s, when three Englishmen independently started studying domestic winemaking and recording their findings. Vineyards slowly appeared, new grapes were imported and styles grew in complexity.
But why the sudden flourishing now, when countries across the globe are churning out top notch bottles? Colin Munday, from The English Wine Centre in Sussex, explains that it is partly a case of supply and demand – the demand is increasing, so the market is growing. And demand is increasing because of quality. Although climactic changes, low alcohol content and increased PR funding are all helping, ultimately it is the excellence which is turning heads.
Mark Buckenham, wine buyer at The Wine Society, describes their best offerings as ‘terrific’, and points to their notably English character. ‘The bacchus grape is used a lot,’ he explains ‘which has flavours of hedgerow that provide an English feel.’ This is what Munday means when he talks of English wine containing ‘characteristics all of its own’. The artisanal style that prevails provides a welcome respite from today’s mass produced alcohol, much as niche coffee shops are currently all the rage. The time and money invested in quality has begun to reap recognition in the form of awards. The prestigious International Wine Challenge, for example, has honoured a number of English wines this century.
An interesting aspect of English wine is that so much of it is sparkling, making tough comparisons with Champagne predictable. The soil is chalky and the climate cool in Southern England, just as it is in the Champagne region, and the same types of grape prosper. The sparkling wines of England are often dry, medium bodied, and aromatic, and a lack of oak produces clean, crisp varieties. Despite the competition from Champagne and Prosecco, English sparkling is holding its own amongst critics.
Luckily for discerning wine buffs, there is ample opportunity to engage with English viticulture: there is a boom in enthusiasts visiting vineyards and even spending holidays there. ‘Success depends on selling at the farm gate,’ Mark Buckenham tells me, ‘so places with restaurants, cafes, accommodation and shops do a lot better. This business runs alongside sales.’ Tours of the premises, expert analysis of the industry, and wine tasting are all treats to try, as is the opportunity to spend time in the picturesque English countryside.
Here are five vineyards to visit if you’re ever looking for a wine-tasting destination.
Since 1989, Camel Valley has been producing still and sparkling wines in Cornwall. In the last decade they have scooped numerous international prizes, including trophies and gold medals from both the International Wine Challenge and Decanter. In 2011 and 2012, Camel Valley received the trophy for Best Sparkling Rose in the World at the Bollicine del Mondo in Verona, and winemaker Sam Lindo made history by being the first winemaker outside of Champagne to be nominated for Best International Sparkling Winemaker of the Year in 2014. There are daily tours during the week and every Wednesday evening there is an extended tour and tasting session. Camel Valley also owns two cottages in their picturesque setting for public rental.
In East Sussex, The English Wine Centre operates a restaurant and hotel which guests from across Europe are flocking to. For around £350 guests can stay 3 nights and expect food and, of course, wine tasting. Trips to Rathfinny vineyard are also included.
In the middle of the Kent countryside, Chapel Down Winery has a restaurant and a shop which sells both food and wine. Daily tours are £10.00 for adults, with concessions for pensioners, students, and children, with longer tours for groups. Tailored packages are offered, with food and cheese tasting included. Chapel Down received a Certificate of Excellence from Trip Advisor last year.
Tours, group tours, and tastings are all available in this award-winning Gloucestershire vineyard. Visitors can choose to stay at Three Choirs Vineyards in their hotel rooms (double from £115) and lodges (from £145), as well as visit the restaurant, shop, and visitor centre. Its comprehensive size and range of facilities ensure a full experience.
The Biddenden Vineyards are in the heart of Kent. Walks in the 23 acres are encouraged, as is sampling the wide variety of wines, ciders, and juices. There is a cafe, extensive shop, and free guided tours each Saturday. For those wanting a lengthier stay, there is a self-catered loft attached to the main farmhouse.