Surrey Gold - class in a glassBy Leigh Mencarini
April 06, 2009
We have the Romans to thank for bringing wine to our country. And it’s fair to say that since Caesar’s vines were planted in English soil they have grown deep into the foundations of our culture.
Britain’s relationship with wine has not always run smoothly. Henry VIII’s dissolving of the monasteries in the 16th Century, when copious amounts of English vino was produced for sacramental purposes, left a gaping hole in our wine-making history. In fact it completely ceased until after the Second World War. However, the UK is now home to more than 400 vineyards, mainly in the South East.
Just an hour out of Reading and you’ll find yourself in the midst of the sort of striped landscape you might expect on a Tuscan hillside.
Surrey’s Denbies Wine Estate sits snugly within a protected valley on a south-facing North Downs slope. Its 265 acres of chalky soil produces red, white and sparkling wines from 18 grape varieties; five red and 13 white.
My fiance Andy and I left the car behind to experience England’s largest vineyard. It was a warm afternoon and, as a result, the place was buzzing with visitors; families, couples, young and old.
We only just squeezed on to the interior tour as the weather meant the exterior tour train ride was fully booked. It was a shame to miss out, but we still had the 360-degree panoramic cinema experience and travelling through the working winery to look forward too.
Beforehand we took the chance to explore the rolling acres on foot, as well as grab a simple lunch from the bright, airy Conservatory Restaurant. Denbies was also hosting a local artists’ exhibition, and the gift shop and garden centre offered plenty of shopping opportunities.
Time for the tour. Once we were led into the theatre, and the film began to roll, it became clear how much local pride there is in Denbies. It has the goodness of the terrain to thank for its success, after all. We were taken through the journey of seasons at the vineyard, to understand every natural process of the vines, before being seated on the ‘people traveller’ for the indoor tour.
This ‘slow coaster’ took us through the working winery, where the production process is explained, from grape to glass, adding to the anticipation all the way down to the cellars, where our guide handed us tasting samples.
Their biggest seller is Surrey Gold, made from a blend of Muller, Bacchus and Ortega grapes. For £6.75 a bottle, you get a fragrant medium dry bursting with fruit and floral aromas, just offset with delicate spice.
It was easily my favourite, and can be found in the bars of the Houses of Commons, Lords, and even Her Majesty has had it poured at her table in Windsor when entertaining guests (not my usual haunt, but it’s nice to know we share good taste).
We were also given the definitive answer on whether English wine is Old or New World, too. England is an ‘Old World’ country, but because wine has had to be reintroduced here, along with more modern production methods, Denbies concedes that it actually produces 350,000 bottles of New World wine a year. In my opinion it matters little, just as long as you like the taste.
By far the nicest gem of knowledge we came away with was the suggestion that a vine has a similar life span as a human being.
It’s said that they peak at around 30 to 35 years old, and then carry on producing grapes until, at around 65, they don’t die but ‘retire’. It’s a romantic notion and given how most of Denbies’ vines are around the 20-year mark, one that suggests the best is yet to come.
We were staying at Wotton House just outside nearby Dorking; a grand, country house once the family home of the diarist John Evelyn, who was born there in 1620. Now a conference and leisure centre with more than 100 rooms, it plays host to business events and countless weddings – and it’s easy to see why.
Inside, it boasts stunning period features and outside, beautifully landscaped listed grounds; 20 acres set in the valley of the North Downs. An ideal backdrop for any special occasion.
Our room overlooked the circular courtyard and was cool but comfortable, thanks to the gloriously high ceilings. The facilities had moved on from the 17th Century, however, with a TV, gleaming modern bathroom and mini fridge; there’s nothing worse than lukewarm water when you need to quench your thirst.
That evening we were dining close to a wedding party in the Orangery bar, which gave a nice atmospheric feel to the proceedings. Although not quite as glamorous as the Lounge Bar, with its inscriptions and stunning, fan-like ceiling columns, the Orangery’s twinkling chandeliers and heavy, dusty green-coloured drapes made our surroundings feel quite lavish.
Sadly there were no English wines on our menu to appease our new-found appreciation, so we settled for another New World option; Hardy’s ‘The Riddle’ Shiraz Cabernet (£19.95). We were dining from a set menu, which at £25 a head was really quite impressive in comparison to what you might spend at a town centre venue.
The next morning we headed east from Wotton to Box Hill, just before the sunshine burned off the cool blanket of fog, to catch some breathtaking views of the Downs. As well as walkers it’s a favourite spot for those on two wheels, either hard-core cyclists or leather-clad bikers.
But once you’re at the top you’ll be pleased you made the effort (even if it only meant mastering your car’s clutch control).
Once we’d made it to the pinnacle of those winding roads, peering down over lush woodland and hills, it became very clear to me why those Roman vines had thrived on English soil all those centuries ago.
And after 65 years, when the vines at Denbies decide to retire, I can’t think of a better place to have taken root.
Leigh Mencarini stayed at Principle Hayley Hotels and Conference Venues, which runs Wotton House, Guildford Road, Dorking. Visit www.principal-hayley.com/dorking/wotton-house/index.asp or telephone 01306 730000 for room prices and availability.
For information and tour prices at Denbies Wine Estate, London Road, Dorking, call 01306 876616 or visit denbiesvineyard.co.uk