County vines: mapping the perfect English wine escape

Food & drink

County vines: mapping the perfect English wine escape

To celebrate the start of English Wine Week we take a tasting tour of some of our finest vineyards – and the best places to rest your head afterwards…

Emilie Hall

BY Emilie Hall17 June 2021

No longer a punchline – ‘les rosbifs font du vin?’ – or something your mad neighbour might do in his muddy field, English wine has become serious business. The amount of vineyards has quadrupled since 2000 and recent warmer and drier summers (cheers, global warming) has meant record output, too.

Not all is created equal – the still stuff won’t always knock your socks off – but sparkling wine made in England’s southern counties is giving champagne a run for its money. It’s all to do with our chalky soil and sea breezes, you see. Just ask Taittinger, the mega French Champagne house who are building their newest winery in, um, Kent. The rest of the world is getting wise to Blighty’s bubbles, too – a tenth of UK wine is now exported.

This blossoming in our back garden is great news for those of us looking for ways to shop locally and support small businesses – most of England’s producers are still family-owned, small-batch and low intervention, not to mention the minimised carbon footprint of wine that has to travel acres, rather than oceans, to reach our glass. It’s an opportunity to travel more sustainably, too, thanks to the burgeoning wine tourism industry that’s growing up around our grapes. While South Africa remains shut, Bordeaux barred and Napa a non-starter, you don’t actually need to board a flight to spend hazy afternoons in vine-striped fields…

Kent

The Pig at Bridge Place has the signature rustic romance of its brethren: cosy nooks, a Bamford spa and a moreish menu sourced within its noted 25-mile radius. And, being smack bang in the heart of English wine country, there’s a laundry list of locally lauded wines on the bar menu. But why not taste them in situ, too? Here, you’re in driving distance of the biggest names in British wine. The holy grail of homegrown is Chapel Down – they’re the official fizz of 10 Downing Street, the Oxford and Cambridge boat race and were the first English wine to be served at Ascot. With restrictions lifted and the sun finally shining, they’re once again offering guided tours as well as more immersive experiences like tutored tastings or fizz and falconry. 

At nearby Gusbourne, the tour includes a ramble through the vines and an expert-led tasting in the garden, or you can opt for a picnic – you’ll get a hearty hamper filled with Kent and Sussex-made cheeses, charcuterie, local fruit, homemade bread and a bottle of Gusbourne’s Brut Reserve with reusable glassware to take home. 

And just three miles from the Pig’s front door is Simpson’s Wine Estate on the sunny, sheltered slopes of the North Downs. Tastings of their new releases happen on weekday afternoons, there are vineyard tours at weekends and sunset sessions with cheese, charcuterie and wine pairings on Friday evenings. Be sure to stop in the cellar shop and buy a bottle of their sparkling rosé to take home. 

Hampshire

In the heart of the Hampshire hills, grand Georgian pile Heckfield Place is the quintessential countryside seat, complete with 400 acres of grounds. The food is as spectacular as the setting, thanks to superstar executive chef Skye Gyngell (of Petersham Nurseries and Spring at Somerset House fame). Here, Marle restaurant is the main event and the menu is uniquely connected to the landscape – all dishes are dictated by the seasons and the produce of the estate. The same soil that surrounds Heckfield also happens to yield delicious sparkling wine and the hotel’s 1,200 bottle-strong cellar features plenty of home-turf heroes. When it comes to vineyard visits, we’d start with Hattingley Valley – it’s run by Simon Robinson: grape guru, font of all wine wisdom, and chairman of WineGB, the leading association for British vintners. Tours of their eco-friendly winery are available on weekends. 

Making a day of it? Hop along to Hambledon, England’s oldest commercial vineyard. Their tours are relaxed but informative – they’ll explain the process in as much or as little detail as you like, so you can busy yourself with sampling the merchandise (if you get a taste for it, you’ll find Hambledon stocked in the cellar at other Smith hideouts in Hampshire, including Lime Wood, Chewton Glen and the Pig). 

If you’re sailing by on a Saturday, call in at Raimes who offer vineyard tours of their family-owned boutique estate from May to September. You can also book in for a tasting at the cellar door shop and find excellent deals on cases of their first-rate fizz when you visit in person (buy the Blanc de Noirs in bulk and thank us later). 

Surrey

The historic Beaverbrook is the kind of place where you really wish the walls could talk – the visitor’s book reads like a who’s-who of the twentieth century. Its most famous resident, Lord Beaverbrook, was a friend of Winston Churchill, and the estate is rumoured to have been an alternative war bunker, sometimes hosting the entire war cabinet. All these stories are interwoven with its modern incarnation as a sybaritic playground for unparalleled staycations (particularly of the wine-sodden sort). For instance, at the top of the menu in Gatsby-esque drinking den, Frank’s Bar, you’ll see a Churchill quote, “Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” While Winston sadly didn’t live to see the ripening of England’s wine industry, you’ll be in prime position to witness it first-hand if you make this Art Deco den your base. 

Definitely start with Denbies – it’s open daily and is just 12 minutes by car from the hotel (or, if you don’t plan to make much use of your spittoon, call a taxi). We wholeheartedly recommend the train tour which chugs along at a leisurely pace, letting you enjoy the postcard-perfect views while sipping a glass of their sparkling cuvée. Squint and you could be in the South of France… 

And Albury is an organic and biodynamic vineyard run by father-daughter duo Nick and Lucy, whose passion for their sustainable methods shines through. Their tours and fizz tastings resumed in May, and you can pop in any Saturday or Sunday for a self-guided amble through the vineyards and a snoop around their cellar shop. If your visit has left you wanting more, don’t worry – Albury’s Blanc de Blancs is also served back at Beaverbrook. Cheers!

Want to continue your tasting tour? We’ve a world’s worth of wine escapes for you to sample