Grape Expectations: Where to Find the Finest English Wines

With French champagne houses planting vines in Kent, an English wine hailed ‘sparkling of the month’ by The Ritz and the opening of UK’s first vineyard hotel, it’s boom time for English wine, finds Judith Baker 

Lead image: Hush Heath

Two years ago France’s most prestigious champagne brand Taittinger planted vines near the Kent village of Chilham. It was the first time a grande marque champagne house had planted a vineyard in the UK with the aim of producing a top quality English sparkling wine.

‘We were very impressed by the quality of English sparkling wine already produced here,’ said Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, and indeed, English wines are on the up. And what better excuse for exploring the English countryside, than our blossoming wine scene?

Here’s where to raise a glass to some of England’s finest wines…

1 Denbies Wine Estate, Surrey
England’s largest single estate vineyard is converting its existing farmhouse accommodation into what is being billed as the UK’s first vineyard hotel. Set on the Denbies Estate in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with sweeping views across the vineyard and North Downs Way, the hotel will have 17 en suite bedrooms (including a bridal suite), an Orangery-style garden restaurant, outdoor dining cabanas and its own ‘Enomatic wine dispensing machine’ – meaning guests can taste and purchase Denbies wine by the glass. The hotel will open in summer 2019.

2 Ridgeview, East Sussex
Founded in 1995, Ridgeview was one of the first wineries to be devoted to the production of English sparkling wine. Situated in Sussex on the picturesque South Downs, the winery is operated by the second generation of the Roberts family. Not only is Ridgeview the current title holder of ‘International Winemaker of the Year’ in the International Wine and Spirit Competition – making history for English wine – Ridgeview wines have been served at four Buckingham Palace State Banquets and exported to 17 countries around the globe.

3 Biddenden Vineyards, Kent
Kent’s original commercial vineyard at Maidstone turns 50 in 2019. Biddenden was originally a 40-acre apple orchard, but when apple prices started to decline in the late 1960s, owner Mrs Barnes decided to plant one third of an acre with vines. Nowadays, visitors are welcome to stroll round the 23-acre vineyard to see the 11 different grape varieties grown on gentle south-facing slopes. It’s still owned and managed by the Barnes family.

4 Rathfinny Estate, Sussex
Rathfinny Estate’s Blanc de Noirs featured as the Ritz Hotel’s Sparkling of the Month in May 2019. Sarah and Mark Driver left their jobs in 2010 to set up Rathfinny Estate near Alfriston in the South Downs of Sussex with the express intention of producing some of the world’s best sparkling wine. Rathfinny Wine Estate hosts regular tasting sessions throughout summer, during which guests are shown how the grapes are turned into award-winning sparkling wine.

5 Vineyards of the Surrey Hills
Spring 2019 saw the launch of Vineyards of the Surrey Hills – a cluster of beautiful vineyards that excel in producing outstanding wines from the rolling North Downs. Nurtured on the chalky limestone hills with the same geology as that of France’s Champagne region, these vineyards have a unique location in the heart of Surrey. Each vineyard has its own offerings, with a variety of tours and experiences.

6 Albury Organic Vineyard, Surrey Hills
Albury Organic Vineyard is celebrating its 10th Anniversary with the Albury Wine Festival on 9 June 2019. The event will feature tours of the vineyard, wine tastings, masterclasses with renowned English wine experts, live jazz music from the FB Pocket Orchestra, local artisan food and a pop-up wine bar. Plus there’ll be the chance to sample wines from all other Surrey Hills Vineyards.

7 Vineyards of Hampshire
Vineyards of Hampshire is a collection of nine boutique winemakers and vineyards across the southern coastal county. Their seventh Annual Wine Festival – Fizz Fest – takes place on 21 July 2019 at Exton Park Vineyard and will feature masterclasses, vineyard tours, tastings, food and live music.

8 Digby Fine English’s Tasting Room, West Sussex
England’s first negociant (a wine merchant who assembles the produce of smaller growers and sells them under their own name), Digby Fine English has opened its Fine English Tasting Room in Arundel, West Sussex, just steps away from the historic castle and a few minutes from where the wine is made. The elegant room is overseen by the brand’s namesake Sir Kenelm Digby, who is credited with inventing the modern wine bottle in 1630. Digby blends grapes grown in Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset.

9 Rothley, Leicestershire
A little further afield is the lovely dog-friendly Rothley Wine Estate run by Liz Robson in the picturesque Leicestershire village of Rothley. Liz planted her first vines in 2008 (it takes around five years for vines to mature) after leaving a career as a midwifery lecturer and author. Since then, her wines, both still and sparkling, have been showered with awards on the regional, national and even international stage. The vineyard has regular tours and tastings.

10 Hush Heath, Kent 
Hush Heath estate is set in 400 acres of Kent countryside. Hush Heath has a number of still wines each named after a member of the Balfour-Lynn family including Liberty, their Dalmatian. Hush Heath Manor Pinot Noir was inspired by Richard and Leslie Balfour-Lynn’s home, 1503 Hush Heath Manor. Hush Heath Estate premises were extended in 2018 to include a state-of-the-art visitor centre. Visitors can choose a self-guided walking tour of the estate or a tour led by an expert followed by a complimentary wine tasting.