Elisabeth Else and Ian Hardwick share their visits and musings on English and Welsh Wines. We would like this blog to provide interesting information and share our enthusiasm for English wine to those with a general interest in the English countryside or local food & drink to experienced wine lovers and anyone in between.
Driving along the track up to Rathfinny Estate, you get a beautiful view of where the Cuckmere River flows into the sea. This is an extra special treat on top of the views of vines that stretch as far as the eye can see, with the Rathfinny Trail looping around the property, which includes the Flint Barns Guest Accommodation and the new Tasting Room. Looking out over the water to the south made me think of other vineyards from which you can see the sea, not the most expected view from what is, at the end of the day, an English farm.
The first time I saw the sea from an English vineyard was from high up in the vines at Polgoon Vineyard & Orchard where you can sneak a peek at the waters of Mounts Bay. The Vineyard and orchard lie just north of Penzance. The country is so narrow here that it’s only a short drive between North and South coasts and sometimes it can even be raining one side and clear the other. When the weather is good, there are few places nicer to enjoy a glass of local wine with a crab sandwich in the open air café. The Cornish are proud of their local produce and you’ll see wines from Polgoon, Camel Valley and more in the local restaurants.
The sea is more of a sneaky peek from other vineyards, but no less enjoyable (or beneficial for keeping the worst of the frost away) for that. From Castlewood in the Devon / Dorset borderlands, the vineyard known to the lucky few for its bijou music festival, the rolling hills that stretch as far as the eye can see, also let you see the sea on a clear day. The vineyard is open by appointment but give Rob a shout and if there are a few of you, he’ll take you over to the vineyards and then give you a tasting in the cosy cellar door. If you’re very lucky, he might even test out some of his own cheese with it, an exciting new development at this dairy farm.
Terlingham in Kent has a lovely view over their organic vineyards to the English Channel beyond. The family who bought the vineyard a couple of years ago started gently with a few tours last year. Things went well and we can look forward to more openings this year. Having spent a little while in the area, while working with Eurotunnel, I know there’s lots to explore in the area. If you’re looking for a fabulous meal, I can highly recommend Rocksalt in Folkestone for local produce in a delightful harbour environment that’s positively Mediterranean on a sunny day, and cosy otherwise. There are usually at least couple of local wines on the list, too. Do pop into the café at nearby Elham Valley Vineyard, too.
Another seaside town with lots to explore is Rye in Sussex. Head a little way inland to find Charles Palmer, producers of sparkling wine, where again you can glimpse the sea. Although established for a little while now, things are always evolving and they have now brought their winemaking in-house. They have their own historic house B&B and are close to lots of other visitor-friendly vineyards, including Oxney Organic (who have self catering and barn conversion self-catering as well as shepherd’s huts) and Chapel Down are not far away, either.
Our final vineyard in this selection with a sea view is Gusbourne Estate – you’ll have to work for it, exploring the vineyard trail and maybe climbing the Saxon Barrow from where you can see the wind farm at Camber as well as the power station at Dungeoness; a tasting in The Nest, their smart tasting room, makes the effort worthwhile. Gusbourne isn’t far from Ashford International, so only an hour from London’s St Pancras station or why not check out the tours of Kent vineyards offered by English Wine Tasting Tours, who will pick you up from near London Bridge Station and guide you around a selection of vineyards, usually with lunch at a gastro pub?
If you see the sea from a UK vineyard, share an image on social media and tag us in. We’d also love to hear if you have any suggestions for another theme in our #6vineyards series.
So what makes us want to visit a vineyard in Winter? A good walk and some fresh air come pretty high on our list, plus somewhere with a nice atmosphere indoors to taste some lovely wines. Maybe even a bite to eat or a hot chocolate if there’s a real nip in the air! Here are 6 of our favourites.
This is one of the country’s top winemaking brands – they produce consistently outstanding sparkling wines and their single varietal Chardonnay and Pinot still wines are always very good, and sometimes (when the weather Gods play ball) utterly magnificent. Start your visit by exploring the vineyard trail, then head into the beautifully appointed The Nest for a tasting. Gusbourne isn’t too far from Ashford International railway station, with its fast connections to London’s St Pancras.
Bluebell is another vineyard with a great trail, it leads you around the vineyard and over to the woods where the eponymous bluebells themselves appear in spring. The cosy tasting room is open Monday to Saturday. Why not book in advance to have a tour or a cheese platter with your tasting?
The tasting room and shop at Furleigh is open every day except Sunday and there are usually several wines open for tasting as well as the full range to purchase. While having a great reputation for their sparkling wines, Furleigh also take a pride in their still wines, with many of their names reflecting Furleigh’s location on the Jurassic Coast. If you’re looking for a rather different way to get some exercise, Furleigh also host Nordic Walking sessions at beginner and intermediate levels, both followed by a well-deserved glass of Furleigh fizz, you’ll be pleased to hear!
Denbies is one of the longest established visitor-friendly vineyards in the UK, but no less worth a visit for that. Their tours head up to the top of the vineyards in a “train” of carriages pulled by a Land Rover; you’ll get a guided introduction to the vineyard as you go and the view from the top is superb. If you fancy something less touristy or more energetic, the 7 miles of public footpath that traverse the estate should be enough to keep you busy! There’s a café too, as well as a restaurant and even a farmhouse B&B. With some outstanding winemakers there now, don’t miss the shop!
Quite a few wine producers start out just growing grapes and getting another winery to help with making the wine, at least to start with. Once they have started to build their reputation, they often yearn to build their own winery and get their hands even more dirty! One such is Hidden Spring, who opened their winery last year. They are open at weekends, and on other days by appointment. The advantage of visiting a small winery is that you’ll probably be show around by one of the owners, which will give you a good feel for life behind the scenes.
One of the most exciting openings of last year is the extensive new visitor facility at Hush Heath. Their vineyards have long been one of our favourites for a stroll and the new tasting room and shop complement this perfectly. The wide open interior still has a cosy feel and the large balcony will be a lovely spot to enjoy a glass or two overlooking the vines. Open almost every day of the year, Hush Heath is the perfect “drop in” vineyard, although you should book in advance if you’d like a tour of the winery.
Have you been to an English winery in Winter? We’d love to hear how it went.
You know how it goes when you start thinking of something like a new car or a name for a child and then you start seeing them everywhere? Well I’m a bit like that about English & Welsh Wine, call it thought association, if you will.
As I listened (and it’s a good listen, I do recommend it), here are some of the thoughts that came to mind…
In the immediate vicinity of the Strawberry Line are a couple of excellent vineyards, there’sAldwick Estate, which specialises in weddings and business events, I stayed over there once in their self-catering apartment, a great little getaway from the world where you can wake up to the sight of vines, always a favourite for me! Their wines are gaining increasing recognition too, which is great to see.
Close by is Dunleavy Vineyards, I had the pleasure of drinking their rosé with owner Ingrid and my friend, artist Laura Cramer, in a delightful wine bar in Bristol. Laura later went to visit Ingrid and created a beautiful series of paintings, one of which illustrates this post. The vineyard is not open often, but do pop to the charming Garden Café at Somerset Flower Farm close by, where you can by the wines and have a nice cup of tea, too.
The programme also mentioned Winscombe, which is where you’ll find Kerry in The Wine Shop. She usually has a great selection of local, wines on offer, which made me think of how important independent wine merchants are to introducing special wines to a new audience.
The Strawberry Line itself in the programme is a disused railway line that used to be used to deliver locally grown fruit to market and is now well used as a walking and cycling route. Did you know that Camel Valley, one of our best known and respected vineyards is also on a disused railway line? In fact a great way to get there is to hire a bicycle and cycle along the Camel Way from Padstow.
Looking for a vineyard you can actually get to by train? Chartham Vineyard in Kent is just around the corner from a station of the same name. They are open on Saturdays for tastings all year round and also have an art gallery in the converted barn that is their tasting room, so you may end up buying a painting or ceramic piece, too!
At the end of the programme we were introduced to a café where young people who struggle for work are gently introduced to a variety of skills and later helped to find more permanent employment. This is very similar to the ethos of the Fifth Trust who run Elham Valley Vineyard in Kent, which includes a garden centre and café, just one of half a dozen or so charity vineyards who all do great work in their own very different ways.
So what’s this, an article on English Vineyards that barely mentions wine? That’s not to say the wine isn’t important, far from it, but vineyard visits are also about the stories you create and the memories you make. These are just a few of mine, what is your happiest memory of visiting a winery?
There are more great gifts from UK vineyards than ever before this year. Hopefully we’ve given you the information to get to know your local wine producer and you may already have checked out their offerings. Here are some more great ideas for you.
Wine & More
Who doesn’t love a beautifully packaged gift of local wine? We’ve searched through the online shops of our producers for some presents that are particularly special.
Albourne Estate are one of the best producers of still wines out there and they are offering a Wine Gift Box of any 3 of their still wines for £45 (plus £9.99 delivery or free collection from the vineyard).
A couple of vineyards have started producing other interesting drinks, notably vermouth and gin. One of these is Bolney Wine Estate, who have a rather splendid Rosso Bundle at £30 (plus £4.99 delivery or free collection from the shop) featuring a full bottle and a miniuture of their red vermouth, a balloon glass, tonic and a cocktail book.
Over at Bluebell Vineyards, who are also in Sussex, they have a wide selection of gifts including a Savoury Hamper £55 (for collection only) and a Sparkling Trio for £85 (free shipping), comprising one each Blanc de Blancs 2013, a Rosé 2013 and a Classic Cuvée 2014.
A very special present idea from Fox & Fox is their Gold Medal Gift Box – three bottles of sparkling wine, a Blanc de Blancs 2013, a Blanc de Noirs 2014 and Mosaic Brut 2014 (a 50/50 Pinot Noir/Chardonnay cépage). Each of these has won gold medal in an international competition and the 3 bottles are presented in a wooden gift box, the price is £125 and there is no delivery charge.
Down in Cornwall, our friends at Polgoon have been working hard on gift ideas and we particularly like their Art Bacchus Gift, which includes a print of Paul Lewin’s ‘Veor Cove’ with a bottle of limited edition 2016 Bacchus £108 (plus £9 delivery or free collection).
You may have read about some of the exciting things happening in East Anglia, one of the vineyards up that way, Giffords Hall, is one of the few English Producers to make a magnum, their Rosé Magnum is £27, or £36.80 with wooden presentation box (£7.95 next day courier or free collection on one of their festive shopping days).
A great way to get involved in what’s happening at your local vineyard is a membership scheme. Benefits vary, but usually include private access to the vineyard and winemaker as well as early access to new wine releases. These make a great gift for a friend, or even for yourself!
Albury is an organic vineyard in Surrey, located between Guildford and Dorking. Their wine club has been going a good few years now and costs £80 for single membership or £95 for a couple (with free delivery). Each membership type includes a bottle of Rosé and a bottle of Sparkling wine, invitations to members events, discounts on further wine purchases, the opportunity to get involved in harvest and more.
Along the Jurassic Coast sits Furleigh Wine Estate, where £150 will get you membership of their wine club and lots of benefits including a welcome bottle of sparkling wine, a case of 6 bottles of still wine, plus another bottle on your birthday (or other chosen date), invitation to a “Get Your Hands Dirty” lunch, discounts on further purchases and more.
One of the exciting new openings this year has been the new winery, cellar door and visitor centre at Hush Heath Estate. A great way to enjoy everything that’s on offer there, including behind-the-scenes access is membership of the Hush Heath Wine Club.
Oxney is another organic vineyard, this one based near Rye. The recently launched Oxney Wine Club includes 3 bottles of wine per quarter, to include their top sparkling wines, as well as discounts on further purchases, tasting invitations as well as discount on hire of their tasting room. Membership is £302 with wines to be collected or £335 shipped.
Some wine producers continue doing tours all year round, while of course there is less to see in the vineyard, the visit to the tasting room is even more welcome! For many of those vineyards, and for the ones only open in the summer, you can often purchase tour vouchers. Here are a few we can recommend.
Just to the west of London, near Marlow, Harrow & Hope have recently launched tour vouchers at £20 per person (free delivery) which come with a beautifully embossed card and hand written note.
Rathfinny in Sussex offer some enticing tour voucher options including a tour, tasting and lunch £55 or an afternoon tour for £20. Tours can be taken on selected dates between May and September.
Over in Dorset, Langham Estate offer a guided tour voucher for 2 people at £30, which is nicely presented and can include a personal message. They have a café on site, so you, or your giftee can enjoy a bite to eat before or after their tour as well.
If you’d like to be shown around Stopham Estate in Sussex by one of the winemakers, you have two tour options, a tour with tasting at £25, or the same tour to be followed by lunch at the local pub for £42.
Another rather special option is the Discovery Tasting at Gusbourne Estate, this is the ideal way to experience an extended range of Gusbourne wines, paired with a delicious lunch. A full tour of the vineyards and winery is followed by a tutored tasting including some special wines that don’t feature in their standard hosted tour. this tour is £65 per person and can be booked as a gift; the lucky recipient will receive a gift card in the post.
Love wine and vineyards, but don’t fancy owning a whole one? How about a vine rental or leasing scheme? Benefits are generally fairly similar to those of membership schemes, but you can usually do and visit your very own vines too!
If you’re in the Wiltshire area, A’Beckett’s vineyard, you can rent 10, 25 or 50 vines for £50, £150 or £300. You get to choose whether to have Pinot Noir or Chardonnay vine and you can visit them at any time during opening hours during the year of the lease.
Chet & Waveney are a fairly new vineyard in Norfolk, their vine leasing scheme has a number of options ranging from £550 upwards, including maintenance of your vines, with the opportunity for you to visit your vines, take part in harvest and receive discounts on other wine purchases.
It’s simply not practical for all vineyards to offer food, but if you’re heading a distance to collect your vineyard treasure or just fancy a nice day out, we thought the inside track on a good pub might help, so we’ve had a chat with a few vineyards to get their recommendations for a proper English pub.
Not far from Alresford in Hampshire is Hattingley Valley vineyard. They recommend the Yew Tree and since it’s between the vineyard and their winery, I think it’s safe to say that it’s undergone pretty rigorous testing! In fact we’ve been there too, and the home cooked food is excellent. Hattingley don’t have a shop, as such, but tours run all winter at weekends and you can always call with an order during weekday working hours and collect from the office.
Over in the Cotswolds, you’ll find Poulton Hill Estate, who have recently opened their cellar door on weekdays, and by appointment on Saturdays. The Village Pub (great name!) at Barnsley is just 15 minutes away by car and serves Poulton Hill’s wines by the glass and the bottle. Don’t think you can make it that far? Just find 4 or 5 friends and you can hire the whole North Wing and stay over at the vineyard!
Astley Vineyard is in Worcestershire and open Friday to Sunday for tastings and purchases from the cellar door. They recommend the Hampstall Inn, a recently renovated riverside pub just a mile from the vineyard. The pub doesn’t seem to have embraced the world of the internet and social media, so we suggest going to the vineyard first and they’ll happily point you in the right direction.
If you’re looking for wine and food in Wiltshire, pop into a’Beckett’s Vineyard on the edge of Salisbury Plain to try their wide selection of wines and apple juices. Owner Paul will be happy to tell you all about the wines and the heritage orchard. Once you’ve done your shopping, head over to the Green Dragon in Market Lavington, just a few minutes’ drive away.
Stopham Estate in Sussex pride themselves on producing wines with “precision and passion”; with a background as a Formula 1 engineer, that’s something owner & winemaker Simon knows all about. Tours of the vineyard run March to October and lunch at the nearby White Hart on the river at nearby Stopham Bridge (pictured above) can be included. Out of season, you’ll have to contact the vineyard to arrange to collect your order.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that it’s been the biggest ever wine grape harvest in this country. There are two factors at play here, the number of grapes per vine has been unprecedented, with numerous photos of massive bunches of grapes shared. The number of vineyards being planted is also increasing and some of those will be lucky enough to have had their first commercial harvest (typically 2 or 3 years after planting) in this exceptional year.
The Best Quality?
While much has been made of the great quality, I think it’s fair to say that this year’s conditions have presented the opportunity for exceptional quality, which some will have taken advantage of. Those big bunches I mentioned earlier? They are pretty hard to get ripe in our climate – the producers with the knowledge and deep enough pockets, will have done some pretty brutal “green harvesting” to reduce the number of grapes growing to maturity, thereby giving the remaining fruit a better chance to ripen to a greater degree than is usual here. Where that hasn’t been done, the quality will probably be consistent with a normal year here, so still pretty good!
What does this mean for Sparkling Wines?
Sparkling wine can be made with grapes that are much less ripe than still wine. The additional quantities this year will obviously enable more fizz to be produced, but it will also help canny winemakers build up their reserves. This is both in terms of quantity (to balance out years when little or no wine is produced, like 2012) but also to have additional components or flavour profiles to use in the blending of future wines. This is actually called a “library” and is seen by many as essential to building up a quality non-vintage (NV) or multi-vintage (MV) house style.
What about Still Wines?
Still wines are much more dependent on ripe grapes, so there could be some really exciting wines coming along. Expect some beautiful Chardonnay, exceptional Bacchus as well as more rosé and red wines from 2018. We’re also noticing a resurgence in some of the less popular varieties – while Rondo and Ortega fell out of favour to the more “classic” varieties for a few years, some producers are now realising that the reason they were planted in the first place is because they grow well and are disease-resistant in our climate and are starting to use them again in good quality wines again, either in blends or on their own.
When do I get to Taste these Wines?
This is where you need patience, I’m afraid! Some of the still wines from 2018 will be released in 2019, but many producers will hold them back until 2020 if they can. For the sparkling wines, a second fermentation in bottle means that it won’t be until another 2 or 3 years after that they will start to appear.
So Will there be Bargains?
We’re not expecting massive bargains – it’s an expensive business producing wines in this country and producers will want to make the most of a year that helps to pay them back, and to future-proof their budget from leaner years. That said, we’re already hearing of tanks full and barrels full, which is likely to mean that storage for full bottles will also run out. I think it would be reasonable to expect modest offers on wines already made to help clear out space for the new ones. Such offers will be online, at the cellar door, and no doubt some supermarkets will spot a good opportunity, too; remember that the first two of these options will benefit the winery most.
What about Visiting Vineyards?
There is more wine to sell and a spirit of optimism in the air – at least there will be once the exhausted harvesters and winemakers have had a chance to recover from their exertions! While some producers have good reasons not to open their doors, the number welcoming visitors is increasing all the time (our website lists over 200) and the quality of facilities is improving, too. This year alone, we’ve seen a huge opening from Hush Heath, a new winery and tasting room at Hidden Spring and we know of a good number more in plan. We’ll be out there visiting them and reporting back so you can find them easily and know what to expect when you get there.
Not sure which are your favourites? Download our App (FREE on Apple and Android) – when you get to vineyards, you’ll even be able to record your own tasting notes.
Seen the excitement of harvest on social media and want to be a part of it? Check out both the short courses and degree courses at Plumpton College. If you haven’t been involved before, volunteering is a great way to find out if it’s for you – while getting out in the fresh air and meeting new people as well!
Of course, join our mailing list if you haven’t already and follow us on social media, too. We’re now on Instagram as well as Facebook and Twitter.
With record harvests predicted this year and at least 80 UK vineyards welcoming volunteer help, isn’t it time you got involved? If you’ve never done it before, you might be a bit hesitant, so here’s our guide to helping you find the best experience and enjoying your day.
Hold on a Minute, can’t Machines do that Job?
Well actually, no. Grapes for English Sparkling Wine are always picked by hand and even where it would be fine for the wines to have machine picked grapes, the size of most English vineyards wouldn’t justify it. In fact, we’re only aware of two harvesting machines in the UK, one at Denbies and one at Buzzard Valley.
But Surely there’s Someone more Qualified than Me?
It’s true that many of the top vineyards will use professional pickers, largely from Eastern Europe, but with a few (and gradually increasing number) from the UK. It’s also true that these pickers will know how to deal with all sorts of different conditions of grapes. However in one field on one day, there will either be what we call “clean” grapes, or a small amount with a particular type of mildew, perhaps. You can easily be briefed on on the things you need to know about for that particular grape variety on that particular day.
The main advantage professional pickers have over the rest of us is speed and the fact that they will turn up and work hard regardless of the conditions – more on both of those later!
I’ve Never Done It Before, What’s a Good Way to Start?
Picking grapes is a serious business and obviously a major contribution to the producer’s income for that year. If you’ve an inclination to try, but don’t feel up to giving it a full day, why not try out a harvest experience?
Several vineyards offer these experience days – you have to pay to go along, but you get the chance to learn a little about how it all works and pick a crate or two, then you enjoy a hearty lunch and maybe a taste of delicious fresh juice from the very grapes you have picked.
One of those on offer this year is at Bluebell Vineyard. It’s £45 for a great day out and is on Sunday 7th October this year. Why not go along and try it out?
How Does it Actually Work?
Normally you will be given “snips”, a particular kind of light secateurs, although some of the smaller vineyards may ask you to bring your own if you have them. Some also offer gloves – I quite like latex gloves to avoid getting covered in ripe sticky grape juice and they can also help avoid blisters, but you are unlikely to be working hard enough on your first day for that to be an issue.
You will normally pick directly into your own bucket, which you will empty periodically into crates which have been left spaced up the rows of vines. These crates will then be collected by people who just focus on that task, leaving you to focus on the picking.
Most vineyards will get you picking the same row on the opposite side as someone else – this may be a friend you’ve come with or a complete stranger. Either way, you soon develop a camaraderie, pointing out bunches that are easier for your partner to pick and, on volunteer days at least, there’s usually time for a nice chat too.
Just turn up (on time, please!) for your briefing, a cup of coffee and maybe even a bacon sandwich if you’re lucky. Then get your snips and head out to the row instructed.
What About a Day Out for The Family?
Grape harvest can be an excellent day out for the family and a good number of vineyards offer a “friends and family day” where you can join in on that basis. Pebblebed near Exeter, Greyfriars near Guildford and Beacon Down north of Eastbourne are just a few perfect examples.
How Do I Learn to Harvest Properly?
If you’re at least averagely fit and healthy, you’ll be fine going somewhere that takes their volunteer harvest days in a more business-like manner.
I would definitely recommend Albury Vineyard where Vineyard Manager Alex Valsecchi (she’s the one in the middle of the front row on the picture above) will have everyone working in a disciplined manner. She has 4 people working a row – one pair at the bottom, the next pair starting a post up. You then stay in your pair and periodically leap-frog the other pair. I’m convinced that this variety of movement is better for your posture and helps keep you going, ensuring that the grapes are all brought in.
Chafor Vineyard welcome volunteers, too. I have picked for them a couple of times, one memorable occasion involving completing picking by the light of head torch, but that’s a story for another day. Dropmore Vineyard are very friendly and offer a delicious lunch, too.
How Many Grapes Should I be Picking?
As a volunteer, no-one is going to be counting how many grapes you pick. The best we’ve heard for professionals is from Giffords Hall in Suffolk, who say that their guys can pick a tonne a day each and owner Linda claims to be able to keep up with them! That’s about 65 of the crates that are normally used to collect grapes from your bucket.
Squerryes kindly (!) sent me out with their Hungarian pickers and I reckon I kept up for an hour, which I was rather proud of. That’s after a couple of harvest days a year for a several years, so you definitely do get better with practice!
Do I need to Bring Anything?
The main thing is to have good footwear, as always in a vineyard – that means practicality and comfort. I’m still looking for a great pair of boots from this country; meanwhile I love my Spanish Panama Jacks. Others will have Wellies (but be careful of getting cold feet in them, maybe up your sock quality!) or if you’re going to be in a vineyard a lot, maybe some Dubarry Country Boots (available for men or women). Definitely worth putting a good pair of boots on your birthday or Christmas list if you’re seriously getting into this lark.
Apart from that, just layers of clothing, with the top layer waterproof – this is the UK, after all! On the subject of rain, it’s not ideal to harvest in the rain, but if you’ve said you’ll go and the producer says the day is going to go ahead, I’m afraid you are honour bound to turn up.
Can I get paid for all this effort?
There are very few vineyards that pay local workers, because of the relatively low wages and need for commitment throughout rain or shine. Two that we are aware of are Rathfinny Estate in Sussex and Sharpham Estate in Devon; you’ll need to commit for at least a few days, if not the whole season, if you want to be paid.
What about Food?
Every vineyard I have picked at has provided a coffee and cake interlude (ideally brought out to the vineyard so you’re only away from picking for a short while) and then either a lunch break or a late lunch when you stop. Producers will know from previous experience how long it will take to get that day’s varieties in and will schedule accordingly.
One particularly memorable lunch was during a very cold & rainy pick at Danebury Vineyard (who don’t normally have visitors) – never has a fish & chip van been a more welcome sight.
Some producers also invite you to a harvest supper later in the year, or might offer you a bottle to take away on the day.
Come on then, what’s your Top Tip?
My best tip would be to make friends with a couple of vineyards in your area, You’ll probably be starting fairly early and you’ll certainly feel a few muscles at the end of the day, so a long journey isn’t ideal. Your starting point is taking a look at our list of vineyards looking for volunteers and then click the MAP VIEW link at the top to show them postioned around the country. Then pick a couple of local ones and join their mailing list and / or follow them on social media.
Once you get to know a few vineyards, you’ll find the one that best suits you and vice-versa. Note that some vineyards like Albury and Squerryes have membership schemes and harvest volunteers are drawn from their members; others like Oatley Vineyard and Danebury Vineyards have a small group who come back year after year and the fact that you can fit in is as important as anything else.
So go on then, what are you waiting for? We’d love to hear how you get on.
I ran a little tasting with friends the other day, something we’ve been doing for a few years now, but we were all beginners the first time. I thought it might be interesting to reflect back and share some of the ideas that work for us.
First find your Friends
We actually started out as a local authority evening class and when the teacher (the esteemed expert on German wines, Michael Schmidt) stopped running the classes, several of us decided to carry on. We kept with Thursdays and now meet once a fortnight, taking it in turns to host. Other people have joined and left over the years, but the group varies from about 6 to 12 people.
You can just taste in a pair, though, if that works better for you. Esteemed winemaker at Nyetimber, Cherie Spriggs (recent winner of International Wine Challenge Sparkling Winemaker of the Year; the first ever female and first ever winner from outside Champagne) had her first exposure to wine from her parents, who opened and discussed a different bottle every Friday evening.
Then Pick a Theme
Having a theme makes life a bit easier for the host and fun for the guests to work out (or guess!)
If the thought of picking a theme scares you, don’t worry, it can be almost anything – one of our group’s recent themes was “wines from the new Tesco Finest range”! More commonly though, someone will pick a grape variety and select different examples from around the world, or pick a region and select wines from there, there’s really no limit.
You can get wines from the supermarket or pop to your local wine merchant, who will almost certainly be willing to help find wines to meet your theme, or even suggest a theme. Maybe it’s the region you’ve been on holiday to, or one you are planning to visit. Or what about two grape varieties that often get confused? Of course if you have wines from recent visits to vineyards, that’s even better!
My themes tend to focus on or involve local wines, of course. I recently presented 6 lesser known English sparkling wines and I’ve previously offered a selection of Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio from around the world, including an English one from Stopham Estate. Another member of the group is more of an expert on Spanish wines and someone else loves Californian reds – we all learn from each other.
How many Wines?
It could be as few as 2 bottles, we find 6 is a sensible maximum. In the words of Jancis Robinson “You can learn far more by comparing two wines than by sampling just one at a time.”
As our tasting is on a “school night”, the bottles often don’t get finished, so we draw lots to take any leftovers home.
Sounds an Expensive Hobby
We split the cost of the wines between us and it normally varies between £8 and £15 per person depending on the number of people and the number of wines. We have an etiquette that if someone is thinking of bringing particularly expensive wines they raise the topic beforehand – sometimes we choose to have fewer wines to enable everyone to try somethings special without breaking the bank.
The theme, though, can be an inexpensive one, or it’s quite fun to vary the cost of the bottles – finding an inexpensive bottle you love is one of the delights of our tastings.
So that’s the wine, but what about the equipment? The amount of equipment you need is actually very little – keep reading and you’ll find a way to save even on that.
What about Food?
With people working later and travelling longer these days, it’s not always easy to eat beforehand, but that depends when your group is – ours is 7:45pm to 9:45pm, for example. The wines can also change with food, which can be very interesting.
One week I made a spaghetti bolognese to go with some Italian reds, but that’s unusual. Normally we go along the cheese & charcuterie route. I’m incredibly lucky that a couple of people in my group have recently got into bread-making – it’s nice for them to get an appreciative audience, too!
It’s entirely up to you, but we just split the cost of the wines and the host organises and pays for any food – that way no-one feels they have to lay on a great spread or contribute to something that they might not have chosen to eat.
The only rule we have is that all the wines should be tasted initially before we start on the food.
Whether you want to take notes as you smell and taste each wine or not is entirely up to you. Clearly, you will learn more if you take simple notes that you can look back on. Then again, if you’ve had a long day at work and can’t face the thought of anything that feels remotely academic, just turn up and enjoy.
It’s definitely helpful if the host produces some notes to share once you’ve tasted all the wines and guessed the theme. As you only have to do this when it is your turn to host, it’s shouldn’t be too onerous.
This is Just for Fun, Right?
A wine tasting group is definitely fun, but it can turn into something more if you want it to. As with most things, success is a matter of natural aptitude combined with hard work. Tasting a lot of wines is essential to the learning process and sociable tastings are one way to do that.
Of our group, some take it more seriously than others – one is now working for a famous wine expert, another has just got a job in the offices of one of the country’s foremost wine merchants. Others just treat it as a social occasion with a sprinkle of learning thrown in.
We’ve all honed our knowledge, though, from whatever level it started, and now find it easier to choose wines we like when shopping or eating out.
Equipment for Wine Tasting
The main equipment you need is glasses – to go back to Jancis Robinson again “You need only one shape and size of wine glass, even for champagne and strong wines. The most important things are that it is plain, has a stem and goes in towards the rim so that you can safely swirl the wine and maximise its aroma.” A very popular option is the standard ISO glass – available at many places including The online Wine Gift Centre, where the current price is £18 for a box of 6.
Other bits and bobs are up to you. The Wine Gift Centre has a handy set of all you need, including bags to hide the wines, spittoon, notes and more. You can use this for your own tasting and even as a game – The Tasting Wine Game is normally £25, but use our special code WCDGAME and you’ll get £10 off!
The Tasting Wine Game from Wine Gift Centre
So there you go, nothing to be frightened of and no reason not to get started now! Do let us know how you get on, we’d love to hear all about your first tasting.
We really love to hear of people enjoying other activities than just the obvious strolling and tasting in a vineyard and the impressions of someone who has only visited a few wine producers are always a delight to hear. We get both of those in the following guest blog post by Bristol artist Laura Cramer who asked for recommendations of vineyards to paint.
Did you know that wine tourism is on the rise in the UK? Well, thanks to a friend who created the fabulous Wine Cellar Door website, I took a trip to Somerset earlier in the season, to meet some local wine producers, on a quest for new material for a series of vineyard paintings, to celebrate what we produce locally, and the fact that you don’t have to be in France to produce amazing fizz!
I’ve highlighted below, the “life cycle” of one particular painting – from sketch to completion,
One of the locations I visited, was the Smith & Evans vineyard, found on a high plot above the stunning Somerset Levels. It produces an award winning sparkling wine from the classic “Champagne” combination of the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier grapes. I start off with some preliminary sketches. It’s a real challenge painting a vineyard, as the composition can be repetitive. But there are ways around that. In this case, the extraordinary rolling flat landscape, unique to this area, was a fabulous bonus and something I knew I had to include.
So I set to work, sketching out the scene, and slowly building up the colours, not quite knowing where it will lead. What I was particularly taken with, was the beautiful leaves of the Pinot Meunier vine, which have an almost silvery, dusty quality about them – like a dusting of flour…..which is in fact why the grape is called Meunier in the first place, as it is French for the word “miller” !
Keen to represent this exciting fact, I choose my colour palette carefully, and added some final silvery splashes to the painting in homage to my new found knowledge. “Somerset Vineyard” – oil on board 600mm x 800mm. There are so many wonderful vineyards open to the public, and as well as this one, I visited the charming Oatley Vineyard but for a full list of vineyards to visit and their opening times Wine Cellar Door website has all you need to know.
Not quite as visually exciting as a big bunch of lilies or tulips, perhaps, but the flowers on the grapevines of England & Wales are safely out and basking in the sunshine. The pleasure among growers (or was that just relief?) is also at least as high as the recipient of a big bunch of conventional blooms.
That Sounds Early
But hold on, I hear you say, I’ve learned that flowering happens at the same time as Wimbledon and it’s still the World Cup. You’re absolutely right, the talk this year is of flowering 2 weeks early. Stephen Skelton, expert in local wines recently said “With fantastic flowering weather & vines two weeks early, the outlook for harvest 2018 is very good.”
So Why is it so Good?
There are two aspects to this positivity, successful flowering and it being early.
Successful flowering is all about the weather being dry. You can imagine what happens to a tiny pollen grain in torrential rain – it would simply be washed off the vine. Although vines are self-pollinating, the pollen still needs to be transferred to the right place (via wind or insects) in order for the vine to go onto the next stage and produce grapes. So we have potential now for a good crop; going back to Stephen Skelton again “If the UK crops at 35 hectolitres per hectare (’06 was 33.5) then we are looking at 8.5 million 75 cl bottles off the 1,800-ha cropping. It might even be higher and 9.5 m bottles is not impossible.”
The fact that flowering (and therefore pollination) has occurred early means that there is also a potentially longer season for grapes to ripen.
Is it Equally Good for Still & Sparkling Wines?
One of the reasons this country, with its marginal wine-growing climate, is so good for producing sparkling wines is that sparkling wines don’t need grapes to be so ripe, as high acidity is good for the base wines that go into fizz. So as long as we have good flowering (tick!) and the weather is reasonable for the rest of the summer (fingers crossed!) we’re sorted.
For still wines, however, the harvest is timed on a careful balance of reducing acidity to increasing sugar. This isn’t an infinite scale however, as harvest has to be called before the temperatures drop and the risk of mildew rises. If we have early flowering, early pollination and earlier fruit set, but harvest dates stay around the same, the grapes would have more time to ripen.
If we assume that the cycle is currently 2 weeks early, but harvest stays about the same as usual, that would give the possibility of 2 more weeks for the grapes to ripen. For some grapes destined for still wines, that would give a greater crop, for others that the grapes could be picked at a greater level of ripeness, giving deeper rounder flavours and higher alcohol.
Any Downside to a Big Crop?
If an individual vine fruits too heavily, then there is a risk of grapes not ripening, so some Vineyard Managers are already talking about “green harvest” or removal of some of the early grapes. So yet again, more hard work in the vineyard.
So What is Next?
The next key thing we’ll be looking out for is “fruit set” when the grapes start to form. We’ll talk about that some more in due course.
Well, as we always say, despite the forecasts of a huge harvest, “it’s only potential until the grapes are safely in the winery.” However, at the risk of things all going wrong later, right here, right now, I’m thinking it could be looking like a good year for red wine. You heard it here first!
Image of grape vine flowers from Laurel Vineyard in Yorkshire.