Vines, Valley & Vistas

By Mark A. Wilson
Winery photos by Siobhan Sikka
Eleven 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 pleasantly surprised.
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.

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.

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, ($28).

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, or for complete directions, contact them via their websites:

Denbies Winery:
Llanerch Vineyard:

For futher information about travelling to Great Britain visit : VisitBritain 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.

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