Drinking for England: the very best of the country’s vineyards

10/04/2020 06:49

Written by Bradt Guides

If there's one thing we could all use right now, it's a glass of wine. And while most of you will have bottles in your cabinets from the likes of France, Argentina and South Africa, how many have tipples produced in England?

While still under the radar, England is now firmly on the map when it comes to producing wines of internationally recognised quality. Sussex and Kent tend to dominate the conversation – most of the commercially viable vineyards hug the southeast where the climate is more temperate and the soils are limestone-rich – but the country's vineyards stretch from Cornwall to the Chilterns.

Join us on a virtual tour of some of our favourites.

Camel Valley Vineyard, Cornwall 

Back in the days when English wine was not something you mentioned in polite conversation, Bob Lindo and his wife Annie were rethinking their lives. Bob, a pilot with the RAF, had just emerged barely in one piece from a spectacular crash with no option but to look for another career. ‘We were doing a bit of sheep farming in Cornwall already, but it was while trying to repair a fence – lying on my side because of my injuries – that I realised how right this hillside would be for vines,’ says Bob. ‘Much more appropriate than sheep.’

Two decades on, Camel Valley Vineyard is very much established at the top of the English wine-makers league table, a strong Cornish presence in a niche industry so far dominated by producers in Sussex and Kent.

Camel Valley Vineyard England UK by © Another Sun Photography, Shutterstock© Another Sun Photography, Shutterstock

Although the Lindos started with still red and white wines, their runaway success has been the sparkling white ‘Cornwall Brut’, made by the méthode champenoise, but with three grapes particularly suited to the English climate – Seyval Blanc, Reichensteiner and Bacchus.

‘It’s not champagne; that’s what the French make,’ says Bob. ‘We make Cornish sparkling wine that should be judged on its own merits.’ Those in a position to judge have heaped awards and accolades on the product and the Lindos’ son, Sam, has now won the Best British Winemaker award no less than three times. On my last visit, Sam was proud to display the new Royal Warrant, issued by the Prince of Wales in 2018.

Tours run daily with Bob or Sam – visit the website for more info.

Chiltern Valley Winery, Buckinghamshire

The Chiltern Valley Winery & Brewery, situated near Skirmett in the central Chilterns, makes wines, beers and liqueurs. A lawyer bought the place in the 1980s when it was a pig farm, and quickly decided to move the pigs on. By 2007 the business had received a royal warrant, as Prince Philip enjoyed its 5.4% Barn Ale so much.

Chiltern Valley Winery Chilterns by Chiltern Valley Winery© Chiltern Valley Winery

To find out more, book a place on one of the regular tours with the genial Steve, who’ll take you round the traditional farmhouses to explain the production, bottling and labelling process. The tour concludes with a guided tasting of a selection of wines, ales and liqueurs. Spoilers: you’re allowed to dislike some of the selection, as they have widely varying qualities. 

If you don’t have a designated driver or taxi waiting, or if you just want to linger longer, bed and breakfast facilities are available.

Dalwood Vineyard, Devon

It all began with a casual remark in 2008 from one of a group of pub skittles players: ‘Did you know the Romans grew vines on Danes Hill?’ This hill already had historical importance, being one of the chain of hilltop beacons that would be lit to warn of a Spanish invasion in Elizabethan times.

A few acres of sloping southwest-facing land happened to be available and an idea was born. ‘We had no knowledge, no experience, just enthusiasm’ said Mike Huskins, the spokesman of the vineyard which now produces award-winning wines. England’s new-found enthusiasm for growing vines prompted a rueful remark from a winemaker in Bordeaux as he conceded that Dalwood was doing pretty well: ‘You haven’t got history holding you back’.

Dalwood Vineyard Devon England UK by Dalwood Vineyard© Dalwood Vineyard

Dalwood doesn’t do the grapes-into-wine process – it would be financially unfeasible with only a small acreage of vines – so the grapes are sent to the winemaker Brooksbanks Barrs in Somerset. As Mike said, ‘You can make great wine from great grapes; you can also make crap wine from great grapes, but it’s a hell of a job to make great wine from crap grapes.’

So Dalwood’s five founders, all of whom fit in their vineyard work with other jobs, can take full credit for their success. Their first award was in 2015 with the bronze medal in the Decanter World Wine Awards (‘Problem was, we quickly sold out of the whole batch’) and in 2019 they won the silver medal in the English Independent Wine Awards (EIWA).

Careful thought was given to the varieties of vines grown. ‘Pinot noir is the oldest cultivated vine in the world, and susceptible to every disease going, but it adds a little bit of style,’ Mike said, ‘like fancy laces in a pair of shoes’. They also grow madeleine angevine, seyval blanc and solaris, which are more able to deal with the West-Country climate.

Dalwood wine is entirely in keeping with its community-minded village – harvesting is a community effort (the reward of a bottle of wine and a meal at the Tuckers Arms pub being payment enough) and the wine is sold in several local outlets including the Dalwood Community Shop.

Holmfirth Vineyard, West Yorkshire

The farmland around Holmbridge in the Peak District is traditionally home to sheep, but look up at the vertiginous slopes above the settlement and you will see fields of vines. Holmfirth Vineyard isn’t an obvious location for wine growing: the sun rarely shines here and the slope isn’t south facing.

You’d be forgiven for wondering why the owners, Ian and Becky Scheveling, thought it was a good idea to plant a seven-acre vineyard here. ‘Someone asked me what’s been a good year,’ the vineyard manager and tour guide laughed when I visited. ‘I told him, we haven’t had one yet.’ In truth the weather doesn’t matter too much. The grapes used are hybrids, produced to withstand northern climes.

Holmfirth VineyardView of Holmfirth © Paul Daniels, Shutterstock

Across the valley, the criss-cross of dry-stone wall stretches up to the moors. The vineyard seems incongruous in this landscape, but it works. Inside, Luke offers a couple of rosés and a red to sample after explaining how the wine is produced. The wine is light and fruity – and slips down the throat surprisingly easily. It transpires that the Schevelings’ vision for a winery on the edge of the Peak District wasn’t such a daft idea after all.

Kerry Vale Vineyards, Shropshire

As if growing a vineyard from scratch didn’t feel enough like hard work, June and Geoff Ferguson unwittingly chose part of the Roman site of Pentreheyling Fort in Shropshire to nurture their grapes. Since the 1950s the land – overlooked by the moody hill of Corndon to the east and the flat-backed Kerry Ridgeway to the west – had been used as a smithy and smallholding, but the buildings were so dilapidated by the time it came into the Fergusons’ hands in 2009, they had no choice but to start again.

That was when they realised the ancient history they’d acquired. ‘It’s a scheduled ancient monument so any work we carried out was subjected to a Watching Brief and supervised by archaeologists,’ June explained.

Kerry Vale Vineyard, Shropshire© Kerry Vale Vineyards

Aside from the well-known link between Romans and wine, the past and present are woven together beautifully at Kerry Vale thanks to stories told by the Ferguson family. Hares (thought to have been introduced to Britain by the Romans) are often found gambolling on the site and, during excavations the overseeing archaeologist discovered a fragment of Roman samian ware depicting a symbol of a hare. And so Kerry Vale has called its UK Vineyard Association bronze award-winning rosé The Rare Hare. 

You’ll find the hare pottery and other unearthed objects upstairs in Kerry Vale’s tasting room and art gallery, where vineyard tours end with a light-hearted presentation and the all-important tasting session. For a vineyard that only yielded its first proper harvest in 2013, Kerry Vale is amazingly successful. Summer Days, the medium-dry white wine created from Solaris vines, also has a bronze award from the UKVA, while the dry white, Shropshire Lady, earned silver. All are made at Halfpenny Green Vineyards and all are vegetarian.

Ryedale Vineyards, North Yorkshire

Ryedale Vineyards have crossed that north–south divide by becoming the most northerly commercial vineyards in Britain.

Close to the village of Westow, the vineyards were owned and run by Stuart and Elizabeth Smith up until 2016, an established name in the commercial world of grape growing, as the Smiths have been running a vine-supply business for over 20 years. The vineyards began in 2006 when seven acres of a gently sloping hillside were planted to vines. Said Elizabeth, ‘Before we bought the land, we made regular trips over the course of 12 months to see the plot in all different weathers – to see if it sat in a frost pocket in early morning for example, which could be  extremely damaging to the vines.

But the vineyard is on a south-facing slope, the ideal orientation.’ With such a lovely rural spot, the Smiths are keen to enhance the wildlife and are working with the RSPB to ensure that bird species such as tree sparrows and barn owls are protected by their activities.

Ryedale Vineyards Yorkshire UK by Ryedale Vineyards© Ryedale Vineyards

A selection of modern, disease-resistant red and white grape varieties are grown at the vineyard in addition to some small test plantings of the more familiar French Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, in the hope of producing some delicious sparkling wine in the future. ‘Because we are so far north, our vines have been selected specially to ripen early, before the harsh frosts arrive, although we try to put off harvesting for as long as possible to raise the sugar levels in the grapes, which makes a better quality wine. The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes tend to ripen later in the season so they are being trialled to see what happens.’

Their first commercial vintage was produced in 2008, most of which sold out instantly. ‘We were really thrilled to win several awards with our first vintage,’ said Elizabeth. ‘Our rosé, “Yorkshire Sunset” won a national award and our aromatic white, “Wolds View”, won a trophy as the best dry white wine in a regional competition.’

The public are invited to help out with the harvest – a very sociable occasion with a privileged opportunity to witness a lesser-known aspect of North Yorkshire. For those who prefer to sit back and hold a glass of wine, there are vineyard tours. Wine tastings are also available to guests staying in the adjacent farmhouse B&B that Elizabeth runs.

Wine can be bought from the vineyard, and there is also the opportunity to rent a vine, which includes a name plaque on a row of vines, a bottle of wine from the following harvest and an invitation to a special preview tasting when the wines are released – go to their website for more information.

Sharpham Vineyard, Devon

This vineyard in south Devon produces top-quality wine and their own cheeses and offers a variety of tours in addition to a café and shop selling their produce. The estate is not generally open to the public so this is one way of taking a proper look at the glorious landscape.

Sharpham Vineyard, South Devon by Sharpham Wine and Cheese© Sharpham Wine and Cheese 

Tours range from a self-guided walk round the vineyards followed by an ‘instructed’ wine tasting to a full-blown halfday Sharpham Wine Experience. You can also partake in a cheese flight (three cheeses) or a wine flight (four wines) to get your taste buds going. Particularly popular is the ‘Trek & Taste’ which gives you entrance to the vineyard, plus a tasting of three wines and two cheeses. 

Smith and Evans Wine, Somerset

Somerset may be a relatively minor player when it comes to England’s wine counties, but this part of the country does boast a coterie of excellent wineries, of which Smith and Evans is one. A long-established wine trader, Guy Smith and his wife Laura Evans (a film editor) spent five years looking for a suitable wine-growing site, which culminated in them finding this sunny, steeply sloping terrace overlooking the southernmost reaches of the Levels, and with it, providing stunning views across to the Blackdown Hills, the Mendips and Exmoor.

Vineyard Somerset by Smith and Evans Wine © Smith and Evans Wine

Both the white lias limestone (a soil common to both the Burgundy and Champagne regions of France) and the unique macroclimate (it’s very dry here) combine to make this the ideal spot for harvesting their two excellent wines: a dry white (Pinot/Chardonnay) and a sparkling wine. Visits are generally by appointment only but the shop is usually open if you fancy a little tipple and/or wish to purchase a bottle or two.

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