Not that long ago you would struggle to catch a glimpse of vines in England. Now, slope after sunny slope is carpeted in vines, in the southeast particularly, with more than 160 wineries open to the public in some form or other. And as wineries have multiplied, producing bottles that are gaining recognition worldwide (total sales of 5.5m bottles in 2019 grew from 3.2m in 2018), producers are exploring business opportunities beyond simply selling wine.
Cue the wine tourist. From gourmet picnics among the vines, to vineyard rambles with winery owners, from a lease-your-own-vine scheme, to a sauna in a wine barrel, a growing number of wineries are offering much more than a taste of their finest. Even major attractions are getting in on the act – we’re thinking of you, Sussex Modern, a partnership between some of the UK’s most vibrant and pioneering cultural organisations and vineyards.
Where to start? We’ve come up with a list to focus minds, each with a particular USP – just in time to celebrate English Wine Week, which runs this year from 19-27 June.
Best English vineyards to visit
Best for vineyard picnics
Alfriston, East Sussex
It’s a case of no expense spared at this well- groomed estate on the South Downs, three miles from the sea, with its regimented rows of vines planted on south-facing, largely frost-free chalky slopes spread across 93ha. But then owners Mark and Sarah Driver have always declared their intention to produce not just Sussex’s, or even England’s, but some of the world’s best sparkling wines in their gleaming, gravity-fed winery. And if that isn’t enough to get people through Rathfinny’s RIBA award- nominated doors, then the vineyard picnics should do the trick.
Held in the Cradle Valley at the western end of the estate, right next to the Flint Barns (where you can stay over in one of 10 bright, comfortable bedrooms), the popular picnics give you a table positioned next to the vines, where you’ll receive your pre-ordered hamper, together with an ice-bucket rammed with your chosen fizz. Highlights include an aromatic salad of roasted butternut squash, rose harissa, pomegranate and yoghurt, plus wood-roasted sea trout with dill pickle and a layer of blitzed watercress, finished with a bubbly-friendly mascarpone cheesecake, English strawberries and elderflower jelly (£25 per head).
Best for a VIP experience
A few miles from the spa town of Tunbridge Wells, you’ll find the Balfour Winery on the Hush Heath Estate. Owner Richard Balfour-Lynn has tripled capacity in recent years and added an impressive visitor centre, which offers tutored tastings, an art and wine tour and vineyard walks. There’s also a vast wooden deck bordered by vines that shouts ‘summer wedding’. The 162ha estate boasts 53ha of vineyards ringed by ancient woodlands, plus a stellar line-up of wines, thanks to a crack team headed up by Fergus Elias.
To make the most of a visit, sign up for the Balfour Wine and Dine Experience, at £175 per person. After being met at Marden railway station (just under an hour from London Charing Cross), you’re taken up to the first-floor balcony overlooking the estate where a glass of Balfour Brut Rosé awaits. Your ‘Balfour Ambassador’ will give you the estate’s lowdown, from history to wildflower conservation, then explain the winemaking process as you have a nose around the winery. You’ll get to see parts of the estate not accessible to other visitors, and enjoy a three-course lunch with carefully paired wines that makes much of Kent’s equally sparkling produce.
Best for gastronomes
The Grade II-listed Georgian hotel is a splendid sight, with its sweeping views over the river Exe and its 21-plush rooms and suites – and now five super-swanky shepherds’ huts. Once a private home, it was renovated by top chef Michael Caines and awarded a Michelin star for its elegant plates rooted in the classics just six months after opening in 2017.
Wine gets equal billing here. There’s a team of sommeliers working the three intimate dining rooms, offering 600-plus bins from top estates, and if you sign up for the Michael Caines Gourmet Experience, you’ll also get a wine tasting in its inner sanctum, The Wine Room.
Next year, Lympstone Manor will be able to add its own wines – first a Pinot Noir – made with a little help from nearby Devon winery Lyme Bay. In May 2018, 17,500 vines were planted on south-facing slopes that run down towards the river, with the main aim of producing classic Champagne-method sparkling wine, ready in spring 2024. ‘When I discovered the place, I knew it would make an incredible hotel and restaurant, but I also saw its potential as a vineyard. The microclimate here is on a par with the South East, with a perfect elevation. Most of the great vineyards of Europe are all located near rivers, so why not the Exe estuary?’ reasons Caines.
Best for wannabe winemakers
You could almost be in Napa. With its slick on-site deli, urbane restaurant with covetable outside deck, modern winery and sleek tasting room, Chapel Down knows a thing or two about offering a premium winery visitor experience. One of the UK’s largest wine producers, it sits in a pretty Kent valley close to the charming market town of Tenterden. In addition to some polished cooking at its Swan restaurant, it provides visitors with experiences that range from ‘Fizz & Falconry’ to cheese and wine tasting. But if you’ve ever dreamed about owning a vineyard, here’s your chance – Chapel Down offers a vine lease scheme. Focusing on its Bacchus vineyard, you get to visit your vines any time to monitor their progress – even picnic beside them. You can help pick your grapes, too, come harvest time, plus attend an exclusive leaseholder event where you can meet the team and break bread with other vine lessees, before taking home a case or three of your wine (with personalised label). Choose from a one- or three-year scheme, from five to 40 vines, starting at £325.
Best for luxury lodges
Chichester, West Sussex
Bubbles, Fizzy and Pinot bound over, barking their welcome. The three friendly labradors belong to the estate’s owners, Art and Jo Tukker, and wait patiently as guests are shown around three luxuriously appointed lodges.
The couple point out the sauna housed in a wine barrel, the two-person jacuzzis, the walk-in showers, the huge beds draped in crisp linen and the fridges filled with wines, which can be enjoyed on your private decked terrace overlooking the vines as the sun goes down behind the spire of Boxgrove church. And if that isn’t enough to amuse, there are daily winery tours, lunch platters, twice-monthly sparkling afternoon teas, and free use of mountain bikes.
Art got the wine bug after completing a dissertation on viticulture while at agriculture college. After a stint working at Huia Vineyards in New Zealand, he persuaded his father to let him grow vines where the family lettuce fields once stood – 49ha of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Wind forward two decades and in addition to the three luxury lodges that are open all year round (from £195 for two including breakfast), there is a smart new tasting room and their three elegant sparkling wines, made by Ridgeview in Sussex as there’s no winery on site.
Best for biodynamic wine lovers
Peasmarsh, East Sussex
The qvevri buried in the earth in a picturesquely ruined oast house is the first sign that things are done a bit differently at Tillingham. Winemaker and visionary Ben Walgate plants his vines biodynamically, and he believes it’s the future. So does his landlord, Terence Kearley, or Lord Devonport, who has given him 28ha of his more than 400ha with which to play. And so do the swathes of 30-something hipsters (and now their parents) who flock to this mixed farm estate with its heart-stopping views across to the ancient, fortified hilltop town of Rye, with the Romney Marshes and sea beyond.
Hipsters have embraced natural winemaking, and when they’re not frequenting the East London bars that champion the movement, they are beating a path to Walgate’s artfully rusted doors. Here, they devour the wood-fired pizza housed in the Dutch barn, enjoy a glass or three of Tillingham’s easygoing, quirky, interesting wines (there are 24 different blends in the current – their first – vintage, made from 20 different grape varieties, half Germanic, the rest classics) in its stylish wine bar, or book well ahead to savour a smart meal in its restaurant proper, cooked with finesse by ex-St John chef Tom Ryalls. Then retire to one of its 11 country-chic bedrooms (from £165) – the two ‘feature’ doubles have the best views.
Best for urban winemaking
So, not a vineyard, but a winery – urban wineries have become quite the thing globally, appealing particularly to millennials who eschew the pomp for the party. London, too, has entered the fray with four urban wineries. At the vanguard is Gavin Monery, an Australian winemaker who created the capital’s first urban winery at London Cru, before joining forces with wine bar operator Vagabond to open its own urban winery, rolling out its first vintage in 2017. Housed in a unit on the Battersea Power Station development, it makes 25,000 bottles of wine from grapes grown in Oxfordshire, Essex and West Sussex.
Come harvest time, instead of shooing people away as most wineries do, Monery actively welcomes you in. ‘We want people to see the process from start to finish,’ he declares. You might witness the skin maceration on the Bacchus, or the whole-bunch pressing for the Chardonnay and Ortega. Monery recently added a Pinot Précoce to the range, naturally fermented in small, open-top fermenters, and makes a ‘pét-not’ – a less foamy pét-nat.
You can sip on these and more surrounded by steel tanks and old oak barrels full of the next vintage. There’s a short menu too. Blending sessions, tours and tastings are available on request.
Best for vineyard walks
Just three miles from the foodie hub of Padstow, set in a picture-perfect valley with a water mill, Trevibban is a family-run vineyard producing diversion-worthy sparkling and still wines, as well as cider from its apple orchard. On its Grand Walking Tour (£50 per person, wine tasting £15 per person), owners Liz and Engin Mumcuoglu take it in turns to escort guests around their estate on a three-hour amble.
The walk meanders over the gentle slopes of the Issey Valley, weaving in and out of the vineyards, while they discuss training methods and their low intervention approach. You’ll wander through ancient Atlantic woodland and around a lake where you might spot an otter or kingfisher, before looping back to the winery to try seven of the range, which includes a perky pét-nat and a bright fruity red. Lunch is included and features boards crammed with salamis and Cornish cheese, plus their son’s Themptation hummus.