To many of us, the term “English wine” is something of an oxymoron, but surprisingly, just like many of its European neighbors, the UK has a thriving viticulture. In fact, there are reportedly more than 500 commercial vineyards and some 165 wineries in the UK. Did you know that they even produce a very quaffable sparkling wine?
The vast majority of vineyards are, for climate regions, found in the south of England in and around the southern county of Kent, where the weather is a little more vine-friendly than in the north. There are also a few vineyards in Yorkshire and even Scotland, further up that you’d expect to find any decent conditions for viticulture.
So, now that the UK has surprised you with its wine-making prowess, why not sample a few of the experiences to be had, all while tasting some of the local wines? You will be surprised at what you find.
1. Stay In A Castle
The Chapel Down Vineyard in Kent is one of England’s leading winemakers and produces a very nice sparkling wine indeed. Not only do they offer private tours through Chapel Down’s grounds and tasting rooms, but you can also come for a wine and cheese pairing or get a package with a tour, tasting, and lunch. But one of the nicest ways to experience this vineyard is to not drink and drive. Chapel Down regularly teams up with nearby Sissinghurst Castle to offer a truly indulgent experience: two nights at the castle’s farmhouse, a private tour and tasting, indulgent 3-course meals, sabrage tuition, and a ticket to the famous Sissinghurst Gardens, one of the most famous English gardens, created by Vita Sackville-West. The experience is a two-night, three-day indulgence of wine, good food, and beautiful surroundings.
Pro Tip: If you don’t want to drive, you can take the train from St. Pancras in London to Ashford International, both stops on the Eurostar to Paris, France. Then, change into the regional train to Rye, and from there take bus number 321 to Small Hythe. Chapel Down is walkable from the bus stop. The trip will take around 3 hours.
2. Learn The Art Of Sabrage
I already briefly mentioned sabrage above – it is the age-old art of opening a bottle of champagne with a saber by effectively cutting the top of the bottle off with the cork still in place. A technique believed to have been invented by Napoleon during the French Revolution, this impressive way of opening the bottle is still used during ceremonial occasions, mostly in France. But at Mannings Heath Golf & Wine Estate, you can learn how to do this yourself, perhaps even in time for a special party back home (if you have a saber handy). This estate is, as the name suggests, also a golf club, making it perfect for those who like to combine a gentle putt with a glass of wine afterward.
Pro Tip: Just at the edge of the estate, you can rent a 17th-century cottage to stay the night with all the golf club’s facilities such as a restaurant, bar, and tennis courts available to you, should you want to make a weekend of it.
3. Bluebell Steam Engine And Vineyard Tour
This experience ticks so many boxes that it is like a little vacation on its own. In Brighton, south of London, you get picked up by the wineries’ tour guide and taken to board the historic Bluebell steam train. For an hour and a half, you will chug through the lovely Sussex countryside before arriving at Bluebell Vineyard Estates. While there, you’ll tour the vineyard on an iconic red double-decker bus and end up on the estate’s terrace for a wine tasting before being taken back to Brighton. No self-driving is involved, so it is a perfect wine-heavy day out.
4. Search Out History
The southern English village of Hambledon is not only home to England’s oldest commercial vineyard, Hambledon Vineyard, but is also reportedly the home of cricket, a quintessentially English sport. Established in 1952, this vineyard, and especially its sparkling wines, have a history to be proud of. One commonly-told story is of Queen Elizabeth II serving Hambledon wine to then-President Pompidou during a reception at the British embassy in Paris, showing the French that the English wines are nothing to be sniffed at. Apart from traditional vineyard tours, Hambledon often offers selected workshops, such as the fabulous “Crab Cracking” workshop, where you learn how to crack, dress, and serve a fresh crab from the nearby coast, then pair it with the right wine. Summer welcomes guests to a Jazz & Fizz event complete with great views across the surrounding countryside as well as a picnic.
Pro Tip: When at Hambledon, it would be a shame to miss out on visiting Portsmouth on the Solent, an inlet of the English Channel. A historic port city, there is much to do and see.
5. A Fruity Tasting
When you think of it, it makes sense: why should wine only come from grapes? In the Scottish Cairn O’Mohr Vineyard, fruity wines are made from strawberries, raspberries, brambleberries, elderberries, and oak leaves. There are even strawberry sparkling wine, cider, and non-alcoholic varieties if you’re driving. With a restaurant, art, and a shop on-site, this is a fun place to linger. Treat yourself to the Deluxe Tour, which includes sampling your way through the menu, and you might never leave.
6. Going Large
Denbies Wine Estate in Surrey is a fully-fledged, grand operation, with its 265 acres of vines (which represent more than 10 percent of all the vines planted in the UK), 10 estate houses, and several restaurants. But that should not put you off; while here, you will get an experience that runs well and is tried and tested, even if it might attract a few more visitors than the smaller vineyards. With an onsite fine-dining restaurant, a small train pulled by a 4×4 for touring the area, a rather lovely gift shop, and numerous tours and experiences on offer you can certainly make a day of it here. Combine your tour with lunch, and you’ll get to experience the wines and good food together, as it is always best to do.
Pro Tip: A mere 21 miles from London, this is a surprisingly rural patch of rolling English countryside waiting to be explored. If you are a keen hiker, the North Downs Way National Trail, which goes through here, offers 153 miles of spectacular scenery.
7. In The Heart Of The Yorkshire Wolds
One of the northernmost commercial vineyards in the UK, in the heart of the Yorkshire Wolds and not far from the ancient city of York, Ryedale Vineyards has some 15,000 vines, including 16 varieties of grapes, such as chardonnay, pinot noir, Pinot Meunier, and Bacchus in over 12 acres of lovely countryside. There is “only” a normal tour of the vineyard and winery on offer, complete with wine and cheese tasting, but what is special here is that you can stay the night under the roof of the farmhouse in one of only two cozy rooms. Absolutely charming and personal, this is a lovely base to explore York, the lovely Castle Howard, and the Wolds.
Pro Tip: This is David Hockney country, with the artist having painted many depictions of the Yorkshire Wolds. You can follow a Hockney Trail following in his footsteps.
8. A True Champagne Experience
Now, when an established French Champagne house comes to England, you know you’re onto a winner. Domaine Evremond is the English outpost of the French Champagne house Taittinger and is promising to elevate the already very good selection of British sparkling wine even further. Alas, good things take time, and good sparkling wine and champagne even longer. The domaine has announced that it will not start producing wine for the first 5 years. The first vines were planted in 2017, the first harvest was collected in 2019, and the first wines will be released – hopefully – in 2024.
Pro Tip: It seems early to write about it, but if you are planning ahead and hoping to visit this beautiful part of England close to Canterbury and Faversham, then put this vineyard on your to-do list. I am sure the bubbles being produced here will be worth the wait.