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English wine: Are you missing out?

It may have long been considered undrinkable, but English wine has been quietly getting better, with award-winning domestic brands now a reality. And, if you want a closer look, take heart that your local winery is probably expecting you

Published 25 Mar 2017, 08:00 GMT, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 12:48 BST
Hattingley Vineyard

Hattingley Vineyard

Photograph by The Electric Eye Photography

It's the first Saturday of the month, and the tractor is tootling along towards the vines. On board are a few eager novices, signed up to learn about the wine-making process before strolling around the vineyard, then heading back to base to taste a few samples.

This is not your typical wine tourism experience. But, then again, it's not your typical wine tourism destination. The likes of the Stellenbosch, Napa, Barossa and Champagne regions have all had plenty of time to get the formula down pat. In Hampshire, they're still taking baby steps.

Hattingley Valley is one of an intrepid breed of English wineries trying to open themselves to visitors. Marketing manager Rebecca Fisher says, "We've been doing this for the last couple of years. It was originally done ad hoc, and now the tour is open to all on the first Saturday of every month between April and September. We're planning to do it more regularly in 2017."

Of course, to get on board with the idea of a wine tour in England, you first have to get on board with the idea of drinking English wine. This is something that has only very recently stopped being seen as an absurd idea. Consumption is still low — less than 1% of the wine drunk in the UK is made here — but an average of 5.27 million bottles of wine are produced in the UK every year. And awareness is starting to hit that point where supermarkets will stock it, some shoppers will actively seek it out, and the wines produced are being recognised as international class by judging panels.

The breakthrough moment came in 2010, when the Classic Cuvée 2003 produced by the Nyetimber winery in Sussex came top in a competition run by Italian wine magazine Euposia. In a blind tasting, it came out ahead of several big name champagne brands. English sparkling wines have been taking scalps at competitions ever since.

According to Fisher, this shouldn't be such a big surprise. "Our [geographical] equivalent is the Champagne region," she says. "English wines tend to be attempting similar styles and grapes, and we've a similar chalk soil and climate."

Indeed, the three classic Champagne grapes — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier — make up over 50% of the wine grapes planted in the UK. And two-thirds of all the wine produced in England is sparkling. This may be something that changes over the next few years, though, as the wine industry continues to grow. The number of hectares under vine has doubled in the last 10 years, and is predicted to increase by another 50% by 2020. By that time, the number of bottles produced is predicted to double as well.

Nevertheless, it'd be a mistake to think of English wine as a brand new thing. What we're seeing is more a revival than a birth. "There's a very long history of winemaking in England, but the vineyards were ripped up during World War II when it was decided they were needed for growing food," says Fisher.

It took the industry a long time to recover from this, not just in terms of having the space to plant new vines, but with regard to the reputational damage and lost skills. Quite frankly, English wine subsequently became something of a joke — not helped by the fact that so few were making it. But things are changing rapidly, and English wine has gone from a widely derided niche to a highly fashionable one.

While the wines themselves are making an impact, British wine tourism is still a fledgling notion. The very climate, which makes for such superb sparkling wines, can be a limiting factor. Abroad, wine tourism often involves hopping between wineries in beautiful, blazing sunshine, which can hardly be guaranteed in the UK.

In addition, in established wine-producing countries, there are usually several reliable wine tour operators running tasting programmes if not daily, then several times a week. Thanks to their guaranteed departures, it's easy for people to book onto these tours on a whim, without having to get a group together.

The English wine tourism scene is not yet at a stage where this is viable. There are operators, but they tend to run tours only when the numbers are there, or on a very limited regular schedule. English Wine Tasting Tours, for example, run trips from London most Saturdays between May and November, alternating between routes in Kent and Sussex.

There's also English Sparkling Wine Tours, which runs on Thursdays and Fridays from Guildford rail station, taking in three wineries and a gin distillery. But neither are operating at the level of, say, the Wine Tram in Franschhoek, South Africa, or the variety of operators in Australia's Hunter Valley. And, doing daily tours won't become a commercial proposition until the very idea of wine tourism in England properly takes hold. It's a bit of a chicken and egg situation.

Meanwhile, the wineries are taking things into their own hands. Instead of waiting for companies to bring in busloads of people for a whistlestop tasting, they're offering an experience that's a little more involved.

Bolney Estate near Hayward's Heath in West Sussex is acting as something of a trailblazer in this respect. It offers a series of different tour options, from a £10 drop-in tour that lasts around 45 minutes, covers the basics and includes a few samples, to an altogether more involved £16 'Taster tour'. This includes being taken round by an experienced guide, learning about the history of English wine and receiving a run-through of the wine-making process for both still and sparkling wines, before ending with a stroll through the vines and a tutored tasting.

It has also opened a new cafe-shop, and is offering lunches, private tours, winemaker Q&A sessions, gourmet food-matching events and afternoon tea experiences. "We're moving in a more destinational direction," says Nick Hutchison, Bolney Estate's sales executive. "We're very keen on giving knowledge, so that when people leave here, they've actually learned something [useful]."

Deviations from the bog-standard wine-tasting model are cropping up in other English wineries too, partly because the numbers aren't quite there to sustain a multi-winery bus tour, but also because there's a blank slate on which to try something new. At the moment, the sort of person who'll go to an English winery is likely to be more curious and knowledgeable than the average wine drinker — so setting up visits to cater to that enhanced curiosity is a logical step for the winemakers.

And, moves are afoot to bring the efforts of the individual wineries together. The South East Vineyards Association (SEVA) produced its first wine route map in 2015, updated it for the second edition in 2016, and has now launched an iPhone app.

As of last year, there are now 20 wineries open to the public during working hours, where visitors can drop by for a tour or tasting, plus another 16 that can be visited by appointment only. Major ones include the Hush Heath Vineyard just south of Maidstone — which also has apple orchards on its 400-acre estate — and the Denbies wine estate near Dorking. The latter is the largest winery in the country, and also has an art gallery on site.

Nutbourne Vineyards in West Sussex holds its tastings in a windmill, Kingscote Estate near East Grinstead holds cookery classes in its barn, and Middle Farm, east of Lewes, has been selling English wines for 35 years.

Combined, these all, more or less, fit into a handy touring circuit — found in the SEVA app — and the map key shows which offer tastings, which have restaurants, which have shops or accommodation and which sell their products online. Also marked are nearby hotels and B&Bs, plus visitor attractions such as Down House, former home of Charles Darwin, in Kent; Battle Abbey, built on the site of the Battle of Hastings; and Pevensey Castle, also in East Sussex.

Belinda Mercer, the general secretary of SEVA, says, "It's all about the experience, and making it possible to visit wineries as part of any day out. For example, some people might want to tackle some of the wine route on the way between London and Brighton."

More producers are expected to be featured on the next map, particularly in the Weald area. Harnessing the trend for locally produced food and drink is also an aim, as local wines fit this mould as much as fruits, honeys or meats. This is an element that works well abroad — there are plenty of wine tours worldwide that drop in on a cheese maker or chocolate factory as part of the day out, so there's no reason why it shouldn't work in the UK too.

The pieces are beginning to come together for an English wine tourism scene that will at least hold its own against the big boys worldwide. And, if it manages to keep its educational and informative twist, then there's a unique selling point that could end up being emulated.

Five English wines worth trying

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée
The first breakthrough for English wines was struck by Nyetimber, and its fizzes are still regarded as being international class. The limited-edition runs can change hands for serious money, but the classic cuvée falls into the category of 'affordable blow-out treat'. From £32.99 at Majestic Wines. 

Chapel Down Vintage Reserve Brut
For a good introduction to English sparkling wines, the Chapel Down Vintage Reserve Brut is available from numerous outlets, priced from around £17. Made with classic Champagne grapes, it's the Kent winery's flagship product, notable for its fine bubbles. 

Gifford's Hall Bacchus
Outside the sparkling wines, the one distinctive varietal that British winemakers are doing well, and in large numbers, is Bacchus. A cross between Riesling and Sylvaner, it has tropical fruit flavours. Suffolk-based Gifford's Hall Vineyard produces a commendably good example, available for £13.99 from Waitrose. 

Coates and Seely Rosé Brut
Hampshire outfit Coates and Seely has carved out a reputation as one of the best winemakers nationwide, and its gently elegant, understated sparkling Rosé is a great advert for the winery. Made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, you'll do well to get a bottle for under £30.

Bolney Estate pinot noir
The majority of English wines are white or sparkling, so for Bolney Estate to produce an international award-winning red is an achievement. It's aromatic, medium-bodied and available for £16.99 from Waitrose. 

More info

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Published in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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