There’s nothing quite like a glass of something sparkling to make an occasion feel special. As a former professional hot air balloon pilot, I have been used to opening a bottle of Champagne after every passenger flight as part of the ballooning experience. Words and pictures by Dani Maimone.
It is in part through ballooning that I have been fortunate enough to visit several well-known Champagne houses such as Moët & Chandon, Bollinger and the iconic Veuve Clicquot as well as several smaller artisan houses. So it was with great interest that I prepared to embark on a journey around some of Surrey’s vineyards where English sparkling wine is being produced and now winning international awards.
Mike Keeble, an accountant from Shere, recently returned from a trip to Champagne with a light bulb moment. Realising that our UK sparkling wines are gaining pride of place on the world stage and that some of the vineyards producing them were literally on his doorstep, he thought it would be a great idea to set up sparkling wine tours in Surrey. Why travel to France when some of the best vineyards are right here?
Mike said: “It’s only fairly recently that UK sparkling wines have been considered a true threat to the market place but now even the famous Champagne houses are taking notice. You know our wines are being taking seriously when famous French names such as Taittinger start buying land and planting up vineyards in the UK with a multi-million pound investment and a plan to produce high quality English sparkling wine“.
Of course, you can’t call it Champagne, unless it has been produced in that region and uisng their method. Having said that, the method, something that is explained to us at our first port of call, Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking, is a carefully crafted science that has been used for several hundred years and many wineries outside the Champagne region are now using it to create fabulous effervescent varieties of their own.
Denbies, a former pig and cattle farm located in the Surrey Hills, within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), was set up by Sir Adrian White. It is now managed by his son Christopher and is currently the largest vineyard in the UK boasting 265 acres of vines. Denbies won a total of 29 medals at international awards this year including a gold from the International Wine Challenge for its sparkling Greenfields Cuvée NV. A poignant win, as not only was Greenfields the first sparkling wine to be made at Denbies (originally labelled as Classic Cuvée), but the vineyard is also celebrating its 30th anniversary.
On our arrival at Denbies we were greeted by a glass of their award-winning sparkling wine and welcomed by the knowledgeable Anne Denny, Front of House and Tours Manager. A brief video detailing the history of the vineyard sets the scene for a walking tour of the winery and a trip to the cellars. It was here that Anne produced the bottles for our tasting, all set on a large wooden table in front of beautifully carved oak caskets carefully crafted from trees that were blown down in the great storm of 1987.
It was fascinating to hear that when frost threatens the vines, a large industrial propane burner is used to heat the air around them. I tried to envisage 20 or so hot air balloons all lined up with their burners going as a possible alternative, but I digress. It was a great insight into how the largest vineyard in the UK operates and an education about the terroir, in other words the soil, climate geology and viticulture, that help to create the taste of the wines. It appears that parts of Surrey have the perfect chalk soil and geology similar to the Champagne region, hence the success with grape growing in the area.
From the largest vineyard we made our way to one of the smallest vineyards in Surrey, a tiny, one-acre plot of land with a view to die for that is High Clandon.
This tiny, Mike calls it ‘boutique’ vineyard, is managed by Bruce and Sibylla Tindale. They welcomed us into their home and proudly invited us to tour their delightful vineyard which is past a wildflower meadow, flanked by a bed of beautiful roses and set on a south-facing slope. Sibylla tells us that she can taste a hint of rose in the wine which is made from a special mix of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, the classic combination for sparkling wines and Champagne. This charming couple delight in sharing their story and their passion for what they are doing shines through. They started planting the vines in 2004 and bottled their first wines four years later.
We tasted their delicious award celebration vintage and it was no surprise to learn that their 2009 Succession Cuvée won three international wine awards in 2015, two golds and a bronze. This is one of only seven English sparkling wines to achieve this, not bad for a one-acre plot and a man who went back to ‘school’ as a mature student to study the art of viticulture and oenology, gaining a BSc Hons degree in the process.
From the ‘Quintessence’ of High Clandon to a quintessential British pub, The Queens Head in West Clandon for a pleasant and relaxed lunch stop. Mike regales us with information about the future of sparkling wine in this country and how climate change is having a detrimental impact on the Champagne region. The future is certainly looking rosy or could that be rosé for the UK’s wine industry.
Our next stop was Albury Vineyard that uses a mixture of organic and biodynamic practices to produce their variety of still and sparkling wines. We all understood the organic aspect but the practice of burying cow horns stuffed with dung from lactating organic cows which later gets dug up and used to spray on to the vines, did seem a little, well, bonkers. It was when Nick Wenman, the owner, explained it further that it made more sense. He described it as “an holistic approach, which harmonises nature’s elemental forces of the earth (the soil), water (the vines), air (the weather) and fire (the sun) and also recognises that the phases of the moon have a significant influence on plants”.
Apparently some 500 vineyards around the world use biodymanics and have done for many years, so clearly what’s good enough for them is good enough for Albury and clearly hasn’t stopped Nick and his manager Alex Valescchi producing award winning wines. What I can add to this is that the resulting wines produced using these methods do taste delicious, as we found out on our tour.
We ended our trip with a whistle stop tour of Silent Pool Gin Distillery. Rude not to really as it is literally next-door to Albury Vineyard. This distillery is yet another success story, owned by Ian McCulloch and far exceeding its predictions of producing 4,000 bottles in its first year to 45,000 and that number is growing, such is its popularity.
I would like to say a huge thank you to Mike and English Sparkling Wine Tours for this thoroughly enjoyable day out. I got to meet some lovely people and learnt so much about the UK industry and the fascinating world of viticulture, too much to condense in to this article.
If you are looking for something that is that extra bit special for a small corporate group of say 10-15 people, life celebration or friends day out then at £145 per person this won’t break the bank. Tours can be tailor made to your requirements and take you on a journey that is educational, inspirational and most of all, full of fizz and fun!
To get in touch and book a tour, please call 07968 981915 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit www.englishsparklingwinetours.co.uk