Five Winery Tours to Toast English Wine Week
Celebrate English Wine Week in one of these wineries.
Has the land of warm beer become the land of sparkling wine? Vineyard plantings in the UK have been expanding rapidly since 2010 and it’s the Champagne grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – that are by far the most widely planted, often on the chalky downlands of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire.
Yet sparkling wine is only part of the UK wine story. Some critics are predicting that Essex and East Anglia will be the counties of the future for still whites – and reds. Mould-breaking producers such as Tillingham are producing wild-fermented Pet-Nat (pétillant naturel) sparklers and fermenting some of their wines in earthenware qvevris. There is even a Pet-Nat style being made by Renishaw Hall Wines near Sheffield.
Rathfinny Wine Estate, Alfriston, East Sussex
Rathfinny is a winery with ambition. Mark and Sarah Driver bought the 600-acre property in 2010 and have spared no expense, planting Champagne varieties and building a winery that was shortlisted for a RIBA Regional Award for architecture.
At Tasting Room Restaurant, open for lunch and dinner, head chef Chris Bailey turns out Japanese-inspired plates based on local ingredients. The Hut serves walk-in customers charcuterie and cheese platters and cakes. Bedrooms in the restored brick-and-stone Flint Barns (from £100 per night B&B) are chic.
Winery tours (£27.50) give a thorough grounding in viticulture, then it’s off to the smart tasting room to taste through the range: Blanc de Blancs, Classic Cuvée, Blanc de Noirs and Rosé Brut, all made in a lean, low-dosage style. This summer, the star of the show will be the Rosé Brut from the excellent 2018 vintage. Made with 81% Pinot Noir and lees-aged for 24 months, it tastes of strawberries and redcurrants with a dash of cream.
Tinwood Estate, Chichester, West Sussex
Where iceberg and cos lettuces once grew, grapevines now thrive. Art Tukker was a lettuce farmer until the salad market shrivelled in the 1990s. The first vines were planted on the chalk and flint soils in 2007 and now the three Champagne varieties cover the 85-acre estate. The three Tinwood wines, Estate Brut, Blanc de Blancs and Rosé, are made at nearby Ridgeview, where Art is a shareholder.
Vineyard tours (£21), often conducted by Art’s wife Jody, cover soil types and how the grapes are grown, harvested and transformed into sparkling wine. Moving onto the deck of the tasting room (so glam you’d never believe it was once a tractor shed), tasters are talked through the flavour profiles of each wine, and there’s the option of a cheeseboard or canapé selection (£14 for two).
The wines are meticulously made. After 24 months of lees-ageing, they emerge bone-dry and crisp. The 2018 vintage, which will be on show this summer has a citrus-zest freshness underscored by a touch of toast.
Make a night of it by staying in one of the three cedar-clad self-contained lodges (£225 per night B&B), equipped with a whirlpool bath, air con, and a wine fridge.
Bluebell Vineyard Estates, Furners Green, East Sussex
You’d never guess picture-pretty Bluebell estate was once a pig farm. It was bought in the 1980s by the present owner, who developed a passion for wine after a transformative visit to Romanée-Conti. In 2005 he took the plunge and planted grapevines. With Plumpton-trained winemaker Kevin Sutherland on board, they now make 160,000 bottles a year: 80% sparkling, the remainder still Ortega, Bacchus, Seyval Blanc, Chasselas and a bit of Merlot.
A walk around the vineyard is followed by a tour of the tiny winery. Tasters are led through 5-6 wines, including the bracing lime-and-grapefruit Ashdown Estate White 2019, the only 100% Chasselas in the UK. My pick of the sparkling range is the richly biscuity, mandarin-fresh Hindleap Classic Cuvée 2015, Chardonnay-dominant and lees-aged for 26 months.
Tillingham, Peasmarsh, East Sussex
This is a winery visit like no other. During the tour (£35) you’ll see earthenware qvevris, imported from Georgia and used for fermentation. You’ll taste a wine called Col ’20 that’s made in the style of Italian col fondo, (bottle-fermented and not disgorged) and a funky, candy-pink, wild-fermented Pet Nat, PN 21, made with Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc.
Owner Ben Walgate is a man with vision. Tillingham wines are currently made with bought-in fruit until the estate vines, planted in 2018, come into their own. Walgate’s sights are set on organic, biodynamic, regeneratively farmed vineyards and low-intervention wines. Tillingham is already a food-lovers’ destination with the excellent Canteen restaurant (serving lunch and dinner), a wine bar/terrace and overnight accommodation, with 11 rooms in the converted hop barn (£195 B&B) and funky bell tents (£190 B&B).
Blackbook Winery, London SW8
‘Lo-fi’ is how American-born winemaker Sergio Verrillo describes the wine made at this tiny urban winery tucked under a railway arch in southwest London. It doesn’t take long to be shown around the small but perfectly formed Blackbook winery (tours £20) but what’s clear is the care and passion that go into the wine. The grapes are bought in from three growers in Essex, Oxfordshire and Sussex, with about 30,000 bottles produced each year.
Sommelier-turned-winemaker Verrillo trained at Plumpton, has worked in California, New Zealand and Burgundy, and has an affinity for Burgundy grapes. During the tour, you’ll taste four wines. High point for me was the Chardonnay 2020, made with fruit from Clayhill Vineyard in Essex, barrel-aged for nine months, unfiltered and unfined: rounded, toasty and mouth-filling. If this is lo-fi, bring it on.
The wineries above offer just a small taste of what’s going on. Many producers will be putting on a special show for English Wine Week, so find out more about what’s going on here.
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