Wine Tasting in England? Seriously? Oh yes! Every year, together with a group of close friends, who also appreciate wine, we go out and about Europe, trying to combine three of my passions – travelling, great food and, of course, wine. Last year, we went to Barolo in Italy, earlier in the summer we had a little stopover in the Alentejo, in Portugal and this time? We decided to stay right here in the UK and find out what is really going on with English winemaking.
We started the day bright and early and headed to Bolney Wine Estate, in West Sussex. This winery has been producing wine since 1972, having grown from 3 to over 30 acres of vines over time. British wines have been winning quite a few awards recently (in blind tastings) and we were really keen to find out why! Bolney is known for its sparkling wines, which were good, but have been trying to establish themselves as specialist red wine producers. We were indeed surprised by the Pinot Noir and the Sparkling red, which was actually very very nice.
Tours can be pre-booked, but were, in my opinion really quite expensive. I have never been anywhere where I had to pay £32 per couple for a tour and 3 little tastings of wine. I was also a bit disappointed not to have any discount on the actual wines (not even a refund of what we paid for the tour, which is, in my experience, normal in other winemaking regions). Nonetheless, it was worth visiting and I must say that the tour was very informative.
England’s terroir is ideal for white wines and also sparkling – and apparently, so so good, that many French wine makers are now buying land in South East England, or so we were told. I am no wine expert – I am just a girl who likes drinking and appreciating the odd glass of wine…
First point of difference? The grapes. It sounds silly, but I was expecting more chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, arinto and the likes. Of course not – the climate is totally different from Southern Europe (or the New World) and grapes used need to be different. Most grapes used are German varietals and really quite different – but also interesting. But British wine makers are determined to make World Class sparkling wine in the traditional method – similar to Champagne, and cool climate aromatic and complex still wines similar to those produced in Alsace, Sancerre and New Zealand.
Next stop was Chapel Down, in Tenterden, Kent. Chapel Down is one of the better-known wine makers in the UK (having supplied wines to Kate & William’s wedding reception), and the largest in the country. I was really quite impressed with the setup – of course, more commercial than the other wineries we visited. Interestingly, this was more similar to other places I have been, with a lovely restaurant in the property (I love the food+wine combination).
The tours cost from £7 per person, but they have a really interesting package which includes a 3-course meal, glass of wine, tour, tasting and £10 wine credit for £50, which seems incredible value. We really wanted to have lunch at the Swan, but arrived just as the kitchen was closing, which was unfortunate. But I can tell you that what we saw other fellow diners eat, looked amazing.
From this producer, I quite liked their Rosé Sparkling and one of their whites.
Last, but certainly not the least, was our final stop, in Biddenden, also in Kent. What it lacked in marketing, it had it double in charm. Malcolm was the most entertaining tour guide we have encountered. We absolutely loved it – Biddenden Vineyards is the oldest wine producer in Kent, founded in 1969 to produce wines and ciders. Being a smaller producer, interestingly, it uses some of Chapel Down’s infrastructure in order to produce its award-winning sparkling wines. We loved our Ploughman’s lunch (with a delicious chutney) and were also really surprised with one of its whites. Tours are free and lunch is around £15.
What I really liked and enjoyed during the day, was the warmth and hospitality of everyone around – and the knowledge each guide had (in all 3 wineries) was second to none. Maybe because this is something “newer”, everyone involved really knows the ins and outs of winemaking, plus they are native English speakers, which obviously doesn’t happen in most European countries.
The perfect way to end a fantastic day? An outstanding dinner at Thackeray’s in Turnbridge Wells. Young chef Richard Philips surprised us with an outstanding meal, set in a private dining room. I loved the decor, the attention to detail and the food. And everything being reasonable in terms of value.
But best of all? I loved spending a brilliant day with some of my closest friends. We love our little wine escapades – a great and relaxed way to spend some time together, catch up and just relax over a glass of wine. Next wine trip on the agenda – we are thinking Reims in France (bubbles, s’il vous plait) and Douro in Portugal. Which one? Tough choice, maybe we should do both!
So, if you ever find yourself in this part of the world, I’d definitely suggest going for wine tasting. In England, yes. And hoping they continue the great work they have been doing, and their wines win more and more awards, and become easier to find anywhere in the world. Cheers!