Wandering the wine garden of England

Credit: Craig Payne Photography

From its ancient history to its modern renaissance, there’s more to English winemaking than you might expect

Words by Rebecca Hallett

In 1077, a monk named Gundulf travelled from Normandy to a small English city on the River Medway, to assume the bishopric of its derelict 400-year-old cathedral. He quickly set to work building a new cathedral, which still stands today, but he also established something else: a vineyard.

During Gundulf’s time as Bishop of Rochester, the order of Benedictine monks that he founded grew grapes alongside their other duties. In fact, Gundulf became so associated with his vineyards that a wine festival was held every year on the anniversary of his death. Eventually, of course, this tradition faded away – that is, until now.

In 2018, the Wine Garden of England Festival was held for the first time in over 1000 years, and there’s never been a better time to celebrate wine in the Southeast. Rows of vines may not be the rst image that comes to mind when thinking of the English countryside, but in fact the area is full of vineyards, with around sixty in Kent, Sussex and Surrey alone.

But of course, quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality. The real question must be: is it any good? The overwhelming consensus is that, yes, English wine is becoming a force to be reckoned with. And don’t just take it from the Brits; in 2017, the prestigious Champagne house Taittinger started planting a vineyard in Kent, under the name Domaine Evremond (www.domaineevremond.com). When France starts to get involved, you know you’re making good wine.

In fact, sparkling wine is what the Brits do best, with British bubblies scooping up accolades over the past few years. All the big-hitting vineyards in the Southeast have an excellent sparkling wine or two to their name, from Hush Heath (hushheath.com) to Bluebell (www.bluebellvineyard.org), and Ridgeview (www.ridgeview.co.uk) – which recently won Winemaker of the Year in the prestigious International Wine & Spirit competition – to Chapel Down (www. chapeldown.com), England’s leading wine producer. The area’s chalky soil and mild climate make it quite literally fertile ground for a good range of grapes, the most popular being Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Bacchus, plus Pinot Meunier and Ortega.

“The main wines you will find are still and sparkling whites and rosés,” says Elisabeth Else, who established Wine Cellar Door, the only online guide to visiting English and Welsh vineyards (of which there were over 200 at her last count). She suggests that, though there’s not as much red wine produced here as further south – “and don’t go expecting big heavy reds, our climate simply won’t allow that kind of ripeness” – we are seeing more and more variety in what’s available. “We’ve reached a really exciting place in this country, where sparkling wine producers have proved they can make wines as good as those from Champagne, so now they want to make wines that express our terroir and their own personality. In the same way that Picasso’s early work was more realistic in style, or a musician learns the classical methods before he jams more creatively, English and Welsh wines are going through the same evolution.”

Read the full article, see Vol 87 Issue 2 of BRITAIN magazine on sale here