Wednesday, 11 June 2014

A taste of the Surrey Hills

Time was, English (and Welsh) wine was something to try for its novelty value. You didn’t expect it to taste much like wine as you knew it – and much of the time, that expectation was fulfilled.

In recent years, however, quality levels have shot up and consistently enjoyable wines from England and Wales are no longer a novelty. In fact, at a recent event to mark the launch of the Surrey Hills Trust Fund, I was challenged to select wines only from the Surrey Hills.

Eating locally grown produce is something we are all familiar with. Is it now possible to think about drinking locally in the same way?

Winemaking in the UK has a long history, which may date back to the time of the Romans. It is tempting to imagine our Romano-British ancestors reclining on their couches and knocking back locally produced wine, as they while complain about the state of the weather, bemoan the performance of their team in the chariot racing and ask the servants to turn up the hypocaust.

Archaeological evidence certainly exists for wine drinking, in the form of amphorae and drinking cups; as well as for viticulture. However, no evidence has yet been found of actual winemaking in Roman Britain, in the form of winery equipment, presses and so on, so they may have been downing Cuvée Asterix from Gaul rather than Vin de Pays de Surrey. 

Wine was certainly made in Britain from the late Saxon period onwards, though colder periods like the Little Ice Age (from around 1350-1850) will have wiped out some, if not all vineyards. Modern English winemaking began after the Second World War and plantings really took off from the mid 1990s, when we found that sparkling wine was where our strength lay.

The Surrey Hills are home to quality-focused sparkling wine producers including Greyfriars and High Clandon.

High Clandon
Sibylla and Bruce Tindale have planted a 1-acre vineyard in Clandon, with stunning views of London up to the Wembley arch and the Shard. They look after the vines and the wine itself is made by multi award-winning winemaker Sam Linter at Bolney Estate in Sussex.

They have just released their 2009 Succession Cuvée, a blend of just over half Chardonnay, with the remainder divided between Pinots Noir and Meunier. Over four years on its lees have given finesse and elegance to the Chardonnay fruit, with a floral hint on the nose and generous apple and spice on the palate.

They also made around a third of their (admittedly small) production as Ultra Cuvée 2009, based on the same base wine and blend, but with a lower dosage at disgorgement. This makes for a drier wine, but also changes the feel of the wine in the mouth, with fine, minerally acidity and more precisely defined fruit.

Both cuvees are available for £29. To find out more and to buy the wine, go to

Greyfriars Vineyard
Many of you will have driven past Greyfriars, on the Hog’s Back southwest of Guildford. For years I’ve thought what a fantastic spot this is for making wine – it has a southerly aspect and free draining chalk bedrock under a thin layer of soil. The original owners planted the first vines here in 1989, but Mike Wagstaff and his business partner took over in 2010 and have vastly expanded the plantings and are producing high quality wines which really do justice to the site.

They are shortly to release two wines:

Greyfriars Rosé Reserve 2012
A blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which has spent nine months on its lees, retaining delicious fresh flavours of cream, blossom and peach, with a twist of pink peppercorn.

Greyfriars Blanc de Blancs 2011
A 100% Chardonnay, some of which was fermented in old oak barrels, and which has spent 21 months on its lees. I found this delightfully fresh with a hint of fresh ginger and breadiness on the nose and with a light bodied elegance.

Sparkling wines are definitely the stars of the English wine scene, but Surrey man (or woman) cannot live by fizz alone, and there are high quality still wines to choose from.

Albury Organic Vineyard Silent Pool Rosé 2013
Nick Wenman’s master plan is to produce a high quality organic sparkling wine from his vineyard across the A25 from Albury, just above Silent Pool.

His first vintage of sparkling wine will, he hopes, be released by the end of this year. However, in the meantime, he has made a bit of a splash with his still rosé. Serendipitously, the inaugural vintage was selected to be served on the royal barge for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, whereafter it promptly sold out. The 2013 has just been released and is available at a number of retail outlets for around £14-15. It is a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier with aromas and flavours of strawberries and cream and just a hint of fruit sweetness to balance the natural acidity.

Element 20 2011
Denbies is a name familiar to most locals and is possibly the only English wine producer that most Surreyites would be able to name. They make a wide range of wines, including award-winning sparkling wines, many of which are available to buy on the High Street and in supermarkets.

Also made at Denbies, and made using at least some fruit from their vineyard, is this ambitious barrel-fermented blend of Chardonnay with a little Pinot Gris and Bacchus. A rich but dry style of wine with chalky minerality, spice and a long, elegant finish. This is an exciting wine, perhaps inspired by white Burgundy, but a uniquely English expression of the style. I love it, but am clearly not alone as it was awarded a Silver Medal in the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Available online and elsewhere for £20 a bottle:

So, can you now drink locally without sacrificing quality? I think that’s a yes.

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