By Mark A. Wilson
Winery photos by Siobhan Sikka
DENBIES WINE ESTATE - NORTH DOWNS, COUNTY SURREY
VINEYARD - VALE OF GLAMORGAN, SOUTH WALES
years ago, at the 1993 Vin Expo in Bordeaux, I came across an amazing
sight; a booth decked out in British Union Jack flags with a banner
across the top that read "British Vintners Association."
I had no idea any wines were produced in Great Britain, so I decided
to try a few of the varieties being poured. They were mostly whites
of Germanic or French origin, and not surprisingly they weren’t
very good. The European wine writers and critics who were sampling
these novelties were all laughing, and mocking the idea that anyone
would ever choose to buy wines produced in Britain. I said sympathetically
to the staff working the booth that they had the toughest job at Vin
Expo that year.
Not any longer. British wines have come a long way over the past decade.
Indeed, to the surprise of many of the judges in blind tastings at
more recent Vin Expos, several Welsh wines, (yes, they make wines
in Wales!) have even won silver and bronze medals in their categories.
On a trip to England and Wales in January of this year, I decided
to visit two of the most successful wineries in Great Britain, and
see for myself whether the British Wine Industry had improved very
much since I’d first heard of it eleven years ago. I came away
Before venturing out into countryside to visit these vineyards, I
contacted the Marketing Manager for English Wine Producers, Julia
Trustrum-Eve, in London to get an overview of the British Wine Industry.
She informed me that commercial production of wines in Britain began
fifty years ago, in 1954. There are now 333 vineyards in Britain,
of which 105 are commercially producing wineries. But winemaking as
a serious business in Great Britain only got started in the late 1980’s.
The total production of all the British vineyards fluctuates between
about 1 million and 3.5 million bottles per annum, due to varying
weather conditions. The 2003 harvest produced around 1.8 million bottles,
but Julia told me the quality should be better than usual because
of a long, hot summer.
DENBIES WINE ESTATE - NORTH DOWNS, COUNTY SURREY
The Denbies Wine Estate is located in the Mole Valley in the scenic
North Downs of County Surrey, just outside the implausibly English-sounding
village of Dorking. This area, about an hour’s train ride south
of London, has been designated a Region of Natural Beauty by the British
government. The gently rolling hills, covered in lush greenery in
the warmer months, and the chalky soil are ideal for growing the light,
fruity white and blush wines produced here.
Upon my arrival at the visitor’s center, I was surprised to
learn that Denbies is the largest privately owned vineyard in Northern
Europe. It was founded in 1984 by Robert Denbies, and the first plantings
were in 1986. Today there are 265 acres under cultivation, and the
estate produces about 400,000 bottles of wine per year; or over 10%
of the entire UK’s annual production. Thirteen white wines and
five red wines are made at Denbies, and the root stocks come from
France, Germany, Luxembourg, and, a bit surprisingly----Northern California.
The tours given at Denbies Wine Estate are truly state-of-the art.
Last year, over 300,000 visitors came to see the winery, thus making
it one of the most popular tourist attractions south of London. Visitors
are first treated to a 25 minute film about the winery and the region,
which is presented in a multi-screen, 360 degree theater. The film
explains that the Romans first made wines in this region 2,000 years
ago. In the late middles ages, monks produced wines her for use in
their monasteries. And during the 17th. and 18th. Centuries, small
private wineries existed in this area for the consumption of local
nobility. A geology professor then explains that the chalky soil and
hilly terrain are similar to the Champagne region in France, which
makes it well suited for producing sparkling wines, (another revelation,
since I had never heard of English sparkling wines before).
After the film, visitors are asked to board a "people mover train"
with a guide, who takes them through each stage of a working winery.
At the end of the ride, the guide remains with the group for a tasting
in the cellars. The guides that I saw that day were generally stylish
and elegant older women, a welcome change from the bubbly young coeds
so often used as guides at California wineries.
The wines being poured that day were: Surrey Gold ($10), a medium
dry white blend of Muller, Bacchus, and Ortega grapes; Juniper Hill
($11) , a medium dry white blend of Ortega and Bacchus grapes; Greenfield’s
Cuvee ($26), a premium sparkling wine made from champagne grapes;
and Redlands ($16), a dry red blend of Dornfelder and Pinot Noir grapes.
I liked both the Surrey Gold and Juniper Hill wines; they were light
and fruity with a delightfully smooth finish that lingered on the
tongue, ( Surrey Gold is served on the Queen Elizabeth II ocean liner).
As for the sparkling wine, it was a little too sweet for my taste.
And the Redlands wine, though quite drinkable, was not as full bodied
as the California reds I’m used to.
The vineyards at Denbies are quite lovely to walk through, since the
scenery rises up into gently sloping hills everywhere you look. For
those who want to ride instead of walk, there is a "wine train"
available. It takes passengers to the most panoramic vistas on the
estate, where a complete commentary on each part of the winery is
given. And there is a very picturesque 17th. Century farmhouse that
now serves as a bed and breakfast.
Back at the visitor’s center, one can enjoy eating lunch or
a snack al fresco among tropical plants at the Denbies Indoor Garden
Conservatory. Guests may also relax in the Cloister Vineyard at the
center of the complex, where visitors can stroll through a serene
Italian style garden with all 18 varieties of grapes cultivated at
Denbies. All in all, this was a very pleasant way to spend a few hours.
VINEYARD - VALE OF GLAMORGAN, SOUTH WALES
Cardiff, the capital of Wales, has experienced a revival of its business
district and waterfront in recent years. The last time I had been
there, twenty years ago, it was a gritty port city with a depressed
economy. When I saw it again this January, I hardly recognized it.
Gleaming new hotels and fancy restaurants had been created out of
abandoned, (or as the British say, "redundant") old banks
and historic commercial buildings. And the once moribund waterfront
was alive with new shops, cafes, and live-work spaces.
But the main reason I had come to Cardiff was to visit a nearby winery,
the largest and most popular in Wales. The very idea of "Welsh
wines" came as a total surprise to me when I had discovered this
little known wine-making region during the research for my trip. The
concept of English wines was strange enough, but wines made from the
damp soil and cluody weather of Wales seemed preposterous.
Although many British citizens were aware that wines were being produced
in their smallest province since Victorian times, even they once poked
satirical fun at the alleged poor quality of Welsh wines. During Queen
Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1887, "Punch", the irreverent
British humor magazine, quipped that "It takes four people to
drink Welsh wine; one to taste it, one to pour it, and two to hold
the drinker down."
But all of that has changed today, as I would soon discover after
arriving at the Llanerch vineyard in South Wales. The Llanerch Winery
is nestled in a quiet, unspoiled valley called the Vale of Glamorgan,
about 15 miles northwest of Cardiff. The best way to get there is
by rental car, but the trip can take a lot longer than 20 minutes
for foreigners not used to driving on the left side of the road. Also,
it’s very easy to get lost among the small, poorly marked country
roads of Wales, so take a really good detailed map, and the phone
number of the tasting room with you.
Llanerch Winery was founded in 1998 by Peter and Diana Andrews, who
sold their highly successful chain of pharmacies and used the money
to convert an old farm they had bought in the 70’s into a vineyard
. At first, growing grapes was just a hobby. But when they realized
that they liked producing wines, they decided to make it a full time
business. Diana and Peter then chose to name their label "Cariad",
which is Welsh for "beloved", "darling", or "sweetheart".
Today, Llanerch Vineyard produces between 24,00 and 30,000 bottles
of wine a year, and is by far the largest of the eight commercial
wineries operating in Wales. It also attracts tens of thousands of
visitors a year to enjoy the natural beauty of the site. These vineyards
cover 20 acres, of which only 7 are currently planted. They occupy
a south-facing slope about 160 feet above sea level, and the hills
surrounding them as well the ground between the vines are carpeted
in thick, velvety grass even in winter.
There are several historic farm buildings on the grounds of Llanerch
Vineyards, including a restored 17th. Century cottage. These buildings
are used for tastings, group luncheons, and social events, as well
B+B facilities. (Only the grapes are grown here now, and the wines
are actually produced in Gloucester, England).
The tasting room is located in a quaint 19th. Century farmhouse with
latticed windows that look out over the vineyards. I soon discovered
why Cariad wines were winning awards for excellence at wine competitions
in France. Llanerch Vineyards makes six varieties, ranging from a
Rose ($12), to Celtic Dry White ($14), to Cariad Blush Sparkling Wine,
I tried the Premier Fume ($15), a blend of Seyval Blanc and Reichensteiner
grapes, that had a pleasantly smooth dry white taste with some vanilla
that had a long finish. Then I tasted the Celtic Dry White, a blend
of Bacchus and Kernling grapes that had an intense flowery note, reminiscent
of Sauvignon Blanc. The Rose was a Provencal style wine made from
Triomphe grapes, and had soft fruit flavor and a hint of strawberries.
All three of these varieties were much better than I expected, and
no one had to hold me down while I drank them.
After my epicurean sojourn to England and Wales, I returned home with
a new found respect for the British wine industry. While it is certainly
true that British wines are not going to give French or California
wines serious competition for the time being, they have noticeably
improved in recent years, and are well worth a try. As for their future,
as my guide at Denbies Winery remarked, "Don't forget---It wasn't
so long ago that people laughed at the idea of California wines competing
with the French". So, "Look out Napa Valley"..
To get the latest information on wine tastings, special events,
and tours at these two wineries, orfor complete directions, contact
them via their websites:
Denbies Winery: www.denbiesvineyard.co.uk
Llanerch Vineyard: www.llanerch-vineyard.co.uk
futher information about travelling to Great Britain visit : www.visitbritain.com
is the official national tourist office for the UK: England, Scotland,
Wales and Northern Ireland
Glyndwr Vineyard is the oldest established and family run vineyard in Wales.
Planted by Richard and Susan Norris in 1982, the estate comprises some 6,000 vines grown on gently south-east facing slopes in the heart of the beautiful Vale of Glamorgan...www.glyndwrvineyard.co.uk
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