Like many ideas the simplest ones are often the best. On a trip to the wine growing areas of France, South Africa or Australia you’d think nothing of booking a local wine tour, tasting and visiting the vineyards to enrich your experience. It’s odd then that no equivalent tour exists in England, or Surrey to be exact, despite the burgeoning reputation of the wine growers, like Denbies and others in the area known as the Surrey Hills.
Mike Keeble of English Sparkling Wine Tours has found a way to deliver the same experience in the UK. An accountant by trade with a passion for wine, his epiphany moment came whilst on a tour of Reims and Epernay in Champagne when he thought, why is no one doing this back in England? The chalk slopes of the Surrey Hills are the same as those in Champagne, the same seam of rock separated when the English Channel was formed over 400,000 years ago.
Our first stop was Denbies vineyard, celebrating its 30th anniversary and England’s largest vineyard by area at some 265 acres producing 300,000 litres of wine per year. We were warmly greeted with a glass of Whitedowns, a lovely refreshing sparkling wine more than an equal to its cousins from over the channel. The tour includes an informative film which explains how the terroir (the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced) in southern England is evolving to create a fantastic environment for making sparkling wines.
Next on to High Clandon vineyard, founded in 2004 by Sibylla and Bruce Tindale. Their small hand-manicured vineyard has 1,250 vines. The personal touch is there from the start of the process, pruning back the previous year’s dead wood, to the end when the finishing label is applied to the bottle neck by hand. Each year’s vintage has its own name: Queen’s Jubilee (2008), Succession (2009), Magna Carta (2010) and Celebration (2011). We tasted the Celebration vintage – a lovely and complex wine certainly to be critically acclaimed like its predecessors.
After a tough morning of tasting, lunch was at The Queen’s Head, East Clandon. By now our group had bonded, and over sharing boards of bread, charcuterie and olives (oh and more wine) we talked about how enjoyable the morning had been and how much potential the tour has.
The climate in Southern England makes wine growing a challenge, mainly due to frosts and vine pests, so to make wine organically is taking an already difficult task and making it harder. But that’s the choice made by Nick Wenman, owner of the 12 acre Albury Organic Vineyard. Nick and vineyard manager Alex Valsecchi believe organic viticulture produces better fruit and better wine. Some of the practices sound slightly eccentric, such as each spring season, spraying a solution made from Horn Manure, which had spent the winter in cow horns buried in the vineyard. The certificates on the wall suggest it works, and restauranteurs like Tom Kerridge and Angela Hartnett wouldn’t have Nick’s wines on their lists if they weren’t right up there.
The final visit of the day was a diversion off the sparkling wine route to nearby gin distillery of Silent Pool. The complex combination of botanicals, exact processes, a renowned German copper still maker and good marketing has meant that demand for their gin has soared. It was an interesting contrast to the wine makers. There are fewer external elements that can affect the quality of the final product, but the passion to make something as good as it can be was common to everyone that we met during the day.
The tour is educational, enlightening and enjoyable. Mike’s light touch approach is spot on as is his knowledge of the area and the vineyards. This tour is ideal groups of 10-15, businesses looking for an away day for staff or clients or clubs and societies. The price is £145 per person. For bookings visit: www.englishsparklingwinetours.co.uk
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