And how to support local producers in the meantime
Glorious weather and trips to the vineyards usually go hand in hand. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has rendered this natural pairing epidemiologically inadvisable. But, as restrictions lift, and we’re encouraged to get out and about a little more, making a trip to one of England’s lesser-known wine regions ought to be at the top of your list.
The Vineyards of Surrey Hills offer a diverse range of wine experiences, including some of England’s oldest, newest, largest and smallest producers, making sparkling and still wine, and all within a short drive of one another.
Since its founding in 1989, Greyfriars has grown to encompass 40 acres of vineyards and produces a wide range of sparkling and still wines. The estate encapsulates the spirit of modern English winemaking, investing heavily in English sparkling wine, and they have recently completed a 3,500 square foot chalk ‘cave’ to store wine. This will facilitate the bottle ageing that is essential in giving English sparkling its distinctive bready-pastry-yeasty flavours.
While the estate is currently closed for tours and tastings, you can support them by buying their wine online. They deliver locally for free and nationwide within a couple of days and are also offering contactless collection from the vineyard, plus they’re currently offering a tour and tasting for two, when they reopen, with all case purchases.
Chilworth Manor Vineyard
The Chilworth estate dates back some 1000 years but its ten-acre vineyard was only planted back in 2013. This makes Chilworth the baby of the group. The idea to plant a vineyard was a bit of an accident, coming about as the result of an opportune birthday gift of some vines and a well-timed trip to a vineyard in, of all places, Sweden.
The result is a gorgeous vineyard that sits on a gently sloping site just outside the grounds of the manicured Chilworth Manor. Their English sparkling wine is still in the works, but you can buy a bottle of their crisp 2019 Rosé via their website with nation-wide delivery or collection on Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 11–1 pm.
While the Manor is only open to the public on special occasions, the vineyard is located on the North Downs Way, a gentle track that runs right through the Surrey Hills and past many of the vineyards in the group.
Albury Organic Vineyard
Further along the North Downs Way sits Albury, one of only four certified biodynamic vineyards in the UK. Biodynamic winemaking involves growing grapes organically and using astrological signs as a guide to steer the winemaking process. It is, understandably, controversial. The wine, however, is superb.
I was able to sample some of Albury’s upcoming releases, including their sparkling rosé and Blanc de Blancs which was undergoing dosage trials. This involves making the crucial decision of how much sugar to add to the nearly finished wine. These additions help balance the wine’s sky-high acidity, and provide a little bit of extra weight and body. While neither had been released when I tasted them, they both showed excellent potential. The Blanc de Blancs was particularly interesting. This 100% Chardonnay fizz was already teasing in its flavour complexity early on and will continue to develop for a long time to come.
Albury are currently offering a contactless click-and-collect service on Wednesdays and Saturdays. You can also order wine for delivery, nationwide, within three to five working days.
The smallest of the group is High Clandon, a one-acre vineyard owned and managed by husband-and-wife team, Sibylla and Bruce Tindale. They’re both proud of their ‘glass barn’ tasting room, which may be of less use now. Fortunately, the property looks out onto a wildflower meadow, beyond which lies the vineyard. The views are expansive and, if you are blessed with a clear day, you can see London.
Sibylla and Bruce manage everything in the vineyard themselves. Their unique approach to vineyard management sees Bruce look after the Chardonnay and Sibylla the Pinots. The results speak for themselves. Sibylla proudly exclaims that their vineyard has the most gold medals per hectare in England, although a small denominator probably helps, she adds, tongue-in-cheek.
You can order High Clandon’s signature Cuvée, a quite rich, classic blend from the 2014 vintage via their website, for delivery or collection. And, if you’d like to visit, they are still running private tours and will be holding an outdoor art and sculpture exhibition from mid-July to early August.
Denbies Wine Estate
A mere 20-minute drive from High Clandon is Denbies Wine Estate, the UK’s largest vineyard estate. Located just outside of Dorking, the estate includes a visitor centre, hotel, two restaurants and one of the UK’s largest wineries. There really is nothing else like it in the UK.
Despite its size, visitors remain important. According to Jeannette Simpson, Denbies’ COO, they receive up to 350,000 every year and some 40% of sales are through their cellar-door. The pandemic has understandably hit hard. Despite this, Denbies’ estate remains open to the public. Totalling 265 acres, it provides plenty of space for a socially distant walk.
They are also offering take-out only refreshments from their ‘Hatch on the Lawn’ for visitors. For anyone looking to buy wine, you can click-and-collect from Monday to Friday, or order for delivery, all with 20% off.