The restrictions have been lifted and it’s officially time to get back out there, picnic basket in the car boot and vineyards on the SatNav.
International travel may be on a hiatus, but the UK is a burgeoning little wine nation in its own right. As a pioneer of the (very new) New World, there has never been a better time to explore what British winemakers have to offer.
The South East is fast becoming a wine-lover’s hotspot with vineyards cropping up next to one another. You can put together a weekend staycation itinerary (see Tillingham and Oxney below), taking in two or three estates at a time. East Sussex may not be Napa, but it is full of charm and award-winning English sparkling wine.
Some of the vineyards on this list have on-site accommodation but otherwise I would recommend booking an overnight stop nearby. This avoids any wrangling over who does the driving and which lucky passengers get to drain their glasses during the tastings.
The UK has an increasing number of vineyards and wine experiences to choose from, but I always advocate visiting those doing their bit for the environment and sustainability. As organic vineyards often believe in ‘poly-culture’ (keeping animals on the land at the same time), fresh produce and farm-to-table restaurants are frequently found on site.
The Vyneyarde, Westwell Lane, Charing, TN27 0BW
There is a distinct advantage to adding Westwell (pictured above) to your vineyard list: you can take a train from London to Charing station for a Saturday tasting with friends and no one needs to drive.
Westwell are masters of the Ortega grape, using it to produce their drinkable white wines and experimenting with it for skin-contact too. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are grown on site as well and the three are blended to produce their Special Cuvée and Rosé.
The Westwell sparkling wine (‘Pelegrim’) just trounced some familiar names in a blind tasting, beating Veuve Clicquot, Moet & Chandon and Laurent Perrier, to name a few. You know, those amateurs.
Their vineyard tours are £20 and include a leisurely stomp round the vines then a tasting of 5 Westwell wines. You can buy the bottles at a neat little discount afterwards, too.
This estate gets points from me for determination to change; they have been moving steadily towards a more natural approach from 2017 and, this year, aim to remove non-organic spraying entirely.
Rockfield Road, Monmouth, NP25 5HS
The champions of Welsh wine. Yes, that’s Welsh wine, not a typo. The team at Ancre Hill are a dynamic family of natural and organic winemakers, steadily changing the face of viticulture in Wales. Wine afficionado, Richard Morris, did what we all dream of doing: he bought some south-facing slopes, planted some experimental vines and now runs one of the best natural wine estates in the UK.
The site is stunning in beautiful Monmouthshire (a short drive from Bristol) and runs tastings, vineyard tours and a legendary set of BBQs for friends and family. The cheese platters are also not to be missed.
The Ancre Hill Orange Wine (a skin-contact Albariño) is always a sold-out hit so I suggest picking up 10 bottles of the new vintage from the cellar door and carefully parcelling them out to deserving friends over the year.
Dew Farm, Dew Lane Peasmarsh, Rye, TN31 6XD
Things get serious with Tillingham. When we talk about natural wine and regenerative farming, Ben Walgate and his team are at the front of the pack. Their highly progressive vineyard deserves credit for raising awareness of sustainable practices, soil regeneration and for showing that biodynamics can succeed in our mixed, British climate.
Tillingham does it all: sparkling wine, pét nat, rosé and even an orange wine made in terracotta qvevri in the style of ancient, Georgian winemakers. Their bottle designs are iconic, and I would leave room in the car to ferry your haul home after a tasting session and trip to the cellar door.
The on-site restaurant is also a smash-success, showcasing the estate’s own organic produce through dishes like roast squash with braised lentils and cavolo nero. Even the more casual pizza-oven option is a favourite. They do, however, book up very far in advance and if you want to stay overnight in their stylish, converted hop barn, I would book now for 2022.
Hobbs Lane, Rye, TN31 6TU
Good news! This could be a winning weekend combination: Tillingham (above) is only 10 minutes’ drive away from Oxney Estate (pictured above) so you could have lunch at one and an afternoon wine tasting at the other.
Oxney is a powerhouse of organic viticulture and their 35 acres produce 20% of all organic grapes grown in the UK. Their wine catalogue includes still wines, sparkling and even a cider. My favourite Oxney treat is to opt for the picnic basket, filled with charcuterie, olives, cheese and to head out in to the vines.
Wine is best enjoyed with friends and Oxney has a historic, quaint ‘vineyard house’ which accommodates 8 and can be rented for a weekend escape. Next to the Pinot Noir plot, there are some dinky, rentable shepherd’s huts and Kristin always leaves a bottle of Oxney’s finest out for guests.
Silent Pool, Shere Road, Albury, GU5 9BW
Less than an hour’s car drive from London is Albury, nestled in the Surrey Hills. This vineyard is a must-visit if you have little ones in tow as they run excellent family events and the vines themselves make for a great game of Hide and Seek.
Albury is family-run and female-managed, using only organic and, increasingly, biodynamic techniques. They produce a glorious sparkling rosé and a Blanc de Blanc but I personally love the ‘Attila’s Bite’, an eau-de-vie de vin named after the beloved vineyard Terrier.
There are beekeeping demonstrations and cheese platters to be had with a flight of their quaffable sparkling wines for £29.95. Silent Pool Distillery is nearby and Albury can be combined with a visit to Denbies, Greyfriars and other Surrey Hills vineyards a stone’s throw away.
Alicia Rose is a wine writer and tastings host with expertise in natural, organic and biodynamic wines. You can follow her on Instagram (@naturalwine.girl) and through her website www.naturalwinegirl.com.
Cover photo courtesy of Westwell. Shepherd’s Hut photo courtesy of Oxney Estate.