‘A booze cruise in reverse’ – why the French love visiting English vineyards

If you have even the slightest interest in English wine, you will remember the cock-a-hoopery when English sparkling wines defeated champagne in a blind tasting competition for the first time. Now there is expectant talk about whether English Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays can ever again compete with Bordeaux. But there is something else that English wine producers are quietly very good at and they do it without even glancing across the Channel: tourism.

England has adapted as easily to welcoming vineyard visitors as it has to making sparkling wine that you enjoy chilled in your glass. The wine-loving day tripper can practice yoga among the vineyards of Tinwood Estate in West Sussex or glamp next to the vineyards of Yorkshire Heart near York. If all you want to do is eat and drink, the range of dining experiences in the vineyards is equally impressive, from the homely feel of a picnic with egg sandwiches to the polished luxury of white linen napkins and a star chef.

But despite the friendly competition with our neighbors, in my years of conversations with English wine producers, only once has anyone referred to French wine tasting. And it wasn’t in a good way.

“Around the time we were planning our tourism offer, our whole team took a trip to Champagne to share production knowledge and techniques,” says Tom Whiteley of Henners Vineyard in East Sussex.

“We also wanted to see how one of the most famous wine-producing regions in the world approached tourism. This has completely determined our approach to the cellar door, but especially from the perspective of how not to do things… there was something almost cold about the whole thing – sterile, elitist, and it generally felt uncomfortable to browse and try wines.”

Henner's winery covers three hectares in the village of Herstmonceux in East Sussex

Henner’s winery covers three hectares in the village of Herstmonceux in East Sussex

America – usually California and once, even more surprisingly, Texas – is often mentioned as a positive source of inspiration.

“The model for us was Napa, California. There is a fantastic tourism scene anchoring itself around LA,” says Jack Merrylees of Balfour Winery in Kent. “The vision has always been to offer the same from London – we are only 50 minutes away by train.”

The most frequently mentioned template is South Africa. The first time I visited Rathfinny Wine Estate in Sussex, in 2018, co-owner Sarah Driver described the “light bulb moment” when she realized a tasting room needed to be part of the original, highly ambitious building. “[My husband] Mark said: Did I want to go and see the wastewater treatment plants he was researching in South Africa? It was January, I thought ‘Sunshine’. We toured wineries and I realized that wine can be an experience; it’s not just what you drink.”

Tinwood Estate is located in the heart of West Sussex, ChichesterTinwood Estate is located in the heart of West Sussex, Chichester

Tinwood Estate is located in the heart of West Sussex, Chichester

For the Goring family on Wiston Estate, also in Sussex, the South African heritage of matriarch Pip Goring has been hugely influential. Brand director Kirsty Goring says that when her mother-in-law first arrived in England, she missed the connection between eating and sharing the country’s produce. A family trip to South Africa in 2006 took the whole clan to Haute Cabrière and La Motte in Franschhoek. “The way they combined the food and wine, the cellars and vineyard around you, I absolutely loved it,” says Kirsty. “On a later trip we visited Creation, which inspired our restaurant Chalk.”

For the warm welcome, airy restaurants and menus to match South Africa, English producers have each layered a highly individualized brand of British hospitality. Circa, Sandridge Barton’s restaurant in Devon, aims to showcase the best sustainable local produce alongside locally grown wines. Balfour, in Kent, sells honey, wine and apple juice from its estate. At Albury Estate in Sussex you can take a game walk through the chalk grassland and spot barn owl boxes and blue butterflies.

Guests can glamp next to the Yorkshire Heart vineyards, near YorkGuests can glamp next to the Yorkshire Heart vineyards, near York

Guests can glamp next to the Yorkshire Heart vineyards, near York

In addition to the feel-good factor, British wine tourism is an essential part of the sector. English vineyards welcome 1.5 million visitors every year. Tourism accounts for a quarter of all income for English and Welsh wine producers, according to the latest figures from trade body WineGB, which defines wine tourism as sales through cellar doors; food and drink; guided tours; events; and accommodation.

Tourism also breeds loyalty. The memory of a nice day out can ensure that you continue to buy the same wine from the same producer for decades. It also gives wine producers a direct relationship with their customer, which means greater margins and less dependence on a third-party retailer. Direct-to-consumer sales (including those from a producer’s website, but also cellar door sales) account for around 30 percent of all English wine sales.

On June 23, The Grange winery will host the 10th Vineyards of Hampshire Fizz FestOn June 23, The Grange winery will host the 10th Vineyards of Hampshire Fizz Fest

On June 23, The Grange winery will host the 10th Vineyards of Hampshire Fizz Fest

There is a great sense of camaraderie between the wineries, who work together to increase the richness of their visitor offering. June 17th marks the start of English Wine Week and many producers will be holding events to celebrate. For example, on June 23, The Grange winery in Alresford, Hampshire, will host the 10th Vineyards of Hampshire Fizz Fest. “It will be high quality wine, quite a village fete feel and the ukulele band from Alresford,” says Zam Baring, managing partner of The Grange.

Meanwhile, Balfour, which attracted 20,000 visitors to its Hush Heath Estate last year, is working with VisitEngland to attract visitors from Britain and beyond.

“We get a lot of visitors from across the Channel,” says Merrylees. “Something like a reverse booze cruise.” Now there is a thought.

English vineyards to visit

Langham Wine Estate, Crawthorne, Dorset

Langham makes some of England’s most admired sparkling wines and has a café open for brunch and lunch. Guided tours (self-guided) from £15 pp. Special events include Fizz Fridays Seafood Sessions, £55pp (01258 839095; langhamwine.co.uk).

Sandridge Barton, Stoke Gabriel, Devon

Sharpham’s new house specializes in still wines. Self-guided tastings cost £12pp and Vineyard Safaris £45pp. Restaurant Circa serves locally produced, seasonal dishes. Self-catering accommodation includes an 1850s boathouse on the River Dart, from £1,000 for three nights (01803 732203; sandridgebarton.com).

Balfour Winery, Staplehurst, Kent

A family favorite on 400 hectares of orchards, oak woodlands and vineyards, Balfour offers free self-guided tours and tastings from £15 per person. A café offers seasonal plates to share and the restaurant has an a la carte menu (01622 832794; balfourwinery.com).

Knightor Winery, Trethurgy near St Austell, Cornwall

A boutique winery making superb still wine using grapes from Cornwall and beyond. Knightor offers cellar door tastings from £10 per person and has a shop in Trethurgy with a café. Tastings are also available at the Portscatho vineyard on the Roseland Peninsula (01726 851101; knightor.com).

Henners Vineyard, Herstmonceux, East Sussex

Henners Vineyard has a new cellar door and offers tours and tastings from £27 per person or the option to order wine by the glass (from £5) and cheese and charcuterie boards from £9 (01323 832073; hennersvineyard.co.uk).

Black chalk, near Andover, Hampshire

Located in an old dairy building with a courtyard patio, the Black Chalk tasting room serves light bites, wine by the glass (from £7) or flights from £11. Vineyard tours and tastings from £15 pp, with treehouse tastings from £ 110 for two people (01264 860440; blackchalkwine.co.uk).

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