The notion of English wine might once have made you gasp and stretch your eyes. However, England's expanding vineyards are now gaining serious plaudits, with quality on an upward curve – and an accompanying tourist industry now emerging. The increasing demand for local produce, coupled with English wine's relatively low alcohol level (often 11.5 per cent) are a big part of the appeal – and these factors mitigate against the relatively high cost of a bottle: typically in the £7 bracket for a still wine, due largely to the high excise taxes.
Wine making in England is hardly a new occupation. The Romans planted vines here – and enjoyed the results. Monasteries continued the tradition, and in 1086, 42 vineyards were recorded in the Domesday Book. But agricultural and climatic change coupled with the effects of the Dissolution of the Monasteries led to the decline of English grape growing.
Fast forward to the 1940s when English vine keeping was revived. The first commercial vineyard of modern times was planted in 1951, by Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones at his estate in Hambledon, Hampshire.
For years, wine production remained something of a retirement hobby. Now, however, the industry has become a great deal more professional. The recent growth in the number of vineyards is much less significant than the increase in their average size, says Julia Trustram Eve of English Wine Producers, the marketing arm of the industry. "Over about the last seven years acreage has more or less doubled," she says.
At 265 acres, Denbies in Surrey, is currently the largest English single-estate vineyard. But earlier this year planting began on an estate more than twice that size on a chunk of the Sussex Downs. When fully planted Rathfinny Vineyard will cover 600 acres, a substantially larger area than many wine estates on the Continent.
There are also vineyards over the white cliffs of Dover – or almost: the 3.5 acres of little Terlingham Vineyard, for example, are set just back from the North Downs coast near Folkestone.
Recently the big success story has been in the South-east. Kent and Sussex are home to some of the most highly regarded producers, especially in areas of chalky soil. Similar to that of the Champagne region in France, this yields particularly good crops of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes that are made into sparkling wine.
Across England, from the Isles of Scilly to the Yorkshire Dales, there are now more than 400 vineyards. Last year, they collectively produced four million bottles. Most were aromatic whites made from Germanic vines, but there were also increasing quantities of sparkling wines, some rosés and latterly some reasonably successful reds. Yet this, of course, is the merest fraction of the quantity made in rather sunnier places – in France, Languedoc-Roussillon alone produces more than 400 times as much.
Just look at the medals, though, starting with last September's Decanter World Wine Awards. Ridgeview's Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2006 – grown and made in Sussex – won the trophy for best sparkling wine in the world, beating competitors from Champagne. At this year's International Wine Challenge, one of the world's biggest wine competitions, Chapel Down in Kent won a gold medal for its sparkling Rosé Brut while Denbies in Surrey picked up gold for its still Chalk Ridge Rosé 2010.
Other events this year have given a boost to English winemakers. The royal wedding generated a patriotic swathe of English sparkling wine sales. A few weeks later, it was trumpeted that Ridgeview's Cuvee Fitzrovia Rosé was on the wine list of the Buckingham Palace banquet for President Obama. And 7.5 acres of Windsor Great Park are to be planted with vines (Windsor Grape Park anyone?).
So where can you buy English wine? For the moment, the principal outlets are the vineyards and wineries themselves, specialist wine stores and farm shops, while Waitrose is the only big supermarket stockist. All the more reason, then, to plan a wine tour. Start by arming yourself with a map of vineyards to visit across the country: there's one published by English Wine Producers, available free through the website englishwineproducers.com. It gives a host of contact details for English vineyards that are regularly open to the public.
Running a vineyard anywhere almost inevitably calls for a great deal of commitment and passion on the part of the owner or manager. Given the climate challenges of England, make that "mad passion" when it comes to nurturing a vineyard. That's part of the appeal of a visit.
But don't confuse English wine with British wine. A survivor (or hangover) of colonial days, British wine is made from imported grape concentrate which is then processed and bottled in this country. It developed as a convenient, and cheap, way of producing wine for consumption across the Empire.
For a sparkling day out sampling prime English fizz, head to the area around Burgess Hill in Sussex where you'll find two of the country's most successful vineyards. Multi-award winning Ridgeview Wine Estate (01444 241 441; ridgeview.co.uk) is a large and bucolic family-run operation near Hassocks. Most of the year it opens for free tastings (11am-4pm daily except Sunday) and for guided tours (£10 per person) – however while harvest is under way there is no scope to welcome visitors.
At Bolney, a few miles west, another family operation is open for visits throughout the year: Bolney Wine Estate (01444 881 575; bolneywineestate.co.uk) is a pioneer of English plummy reds as well as producing sparkling wine and a zesty white. It is set on a hill in historic woodland and offers a variety of guided vineyard tours and tastings (booked well ahead). A standard tour with tasting costs £55 for two people, and each couple takes away a bottle of red.
Going west, there are rich pickings in Devon. Set near Totnes, just above the River Dart, the Sharpham Estate (01803 732 203; sharpham.com) is a picturesque 500-acre farm. Organic cheese is made courtesy of the Jersey cattle grazed here. Over the past 20 years a vineyard has been established, producing still and sparkling wines. All of which gives a gourmet spin to the Sharpham farm shop, open 10am-5pm daily except Sunday.
At Shillingford St George close to Exeter, 4.5-acre Manstree Vineyard (01392 832218; boyces-manstree.co.uk) is run by the Boyce family who also own a fruit farm. During summer and autumn you can stop by for a free tastings daily except Monday; it's best to phone ahead during harvest.
Eat, drink, buy, sleep. At Alfriston in East Sussex, The English Wine Centre (01323 870164; englishwine.co.uk) started 20 years ago as a specialist shop. In January 2008, it was taken over by Colin and Christine Munday, who have developed a gourmet restaurant alongside the shop and added a boutique hotel with five sleek rooms in a new yet traditionally styled property (doubles from £135 per night including breakfast). The shop stocks 140 wines selected from across England; the restaurant serves contemporary English cuisine and allows you to sample accompanying English wines before making a final choice with your meal, while tours to local (several not usually open to the public) are also arranged here.
In Surrey, large and lovely Denbies Wine Estate (01306 876616; denbies.co.uk) has two restaurants, a farm shop, wine and gift shop, and cinema and little train. The vineyard's "Ultimate Experience" wine tour runs daily from 11am-4pm, with shorter opening hours from December to March (adults £9.50, including three tastings). Also on site is a seven-bedroom farmhouse surrounded by the vines and offering doubles from £98 including breakfast.
In Gloucestershire, Three Choirs Vineyard (01531 890 233; threechoirs.com) at Newent is a magnificent, 75-acre operation with impressive visitor facilities. These include two restaurants, a shop and accommodation in 11 rooms whose French windows give views straight on to rows of vines; doubles from £125 with breakfast. Cookery courses take place here, while guided tours are offered daily at 11am and 3pm costing £8 (£4.50 without wine tasting).
There was a time when received wisdom held that grapes would only grow south of the Wash. Today, England's most northerly commercial vineyard is a thriving 10-acre outfit 12 miles north east of York. Ryedale Vineyards (01653 658 507; ryedalevineyards.co.uk) was planted in 2006 and released its first vintage in 2009. It has since won a handful of awards and has also opened comfortable B&B facilities (doubles start at £85 per night including breakfast).
A little further south, Leventhorpe Vineyard (0113 2889088) on the south-west fringes of Leeds has won praise from Oz Clarke, most notably for its Madeleine Angevine white. Set in a microclimate on south-facing slopes, the five-acre vineyard can be visited between 11am and 4pm most days, although it's best to call in advance.
You can taste a fine range of English wines at the Calf's Head Hotel (01200 441 218; calfshead.com) at Worston in Lancashire's Ribble Valley. In April last year, the inn launched a dedicated English wine list, featuring 16 still wines. The expectation was that it would make about five per cent of the hotel's wine sales but the enthusiastic take up accounts for about 40 per cent of such orders.
Vineyards within easy reach of London include handsome and hugely productive Stanlake Park (0118 9320176; stanlakepark.com). It is a stroll from the station at Twyford in Berkshire, less than an hour by train from Paddington. The estate makes fruit liqueurs as well as a wide range of wines. The attractive cellar shop (11am-5pm daily, Sunday from noon) is set in a vine-clad Victorian-era greenhouse; here groups of up to four people can enjoy free tastings (a charge is made for larger numbers).
At Wisley (0845 260 9000; rhs.org.uk), just beyond the M25 south-west of London, the Royal Horticultural Society nurtures a show vineyard on which two German white grape varieties are grown: Phoenix and Orion. Wisley is open Monday to Friday 10am-6pm and 9am-6pm at weekends; admission £10.90; RHS members free. The crop is turned into wine at Plumpton College, the UK centre for wine education and research near Lewes in Sussex (01273 890454; plumpton.ac.uk). The resulting wine is served in Wisley's Conservatory restaurant.
There's something of a Californian spirit at two particularly halcyon vineyard restaurants. At Tenterden in Kent, Richard Phillips at Chapel Down restaurant is a slick, designer operation. Formal dining includes the likes of fillet of Kentish beef with creamed celeriac while Sunday brunch, featuring locally oak-smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, is an especially laid-back treat. Chapel Down's award-winning wines are also served (01580 761 616; richardphillipsatchapeldown.co.uk; closed Mondays otherwise open for lunches and dinners).
In Suffolk, the Leaping Hare restaurant at Wyken Vineyards near Bury St Edmunds is set in a terrific, creaky old barn that oozes atmosphere. The menu emphasises local produce such as game from the 1,200-acre Wyken estate and vegetables from the kitchen garden. After dining here, wander round the formal garden, a symphony of clipped box and roses (01359 250 287; wykenvineyards.co.uk; open for lunches and on Friday and Saturday evenings).
Tune into the sense of enterprise in the English vineyard scene. In West Yorkshire, seven-acre Holmfirth Vineyard (01484 691 861; holmfirthvineyard.com; closed Tuesday) is beautifully positioned in the striking Holme Valley, with views across the Peak District. A new restaurant and tasting lounge opened in May, while seven state-of-the-art apartments are currently under development beneath the vines, and should be completed in early 2012. Residents can use the self-catering accommodation as holiday homes but they will also be able to learn first- hand about wine making.
In Somerset, Secret Valley (01278 671 945; secret-valley.co.uk) near Bridgwater is a 400-acre farm where diversification includes 60 acres of Christmas trees and a four-acre vineyard. Six heated wooden wigwams have been recently built. They sleep up to five, and cost from £50 per night. They close for the winter in mid-October and re-open in March 2012. Residents have access to vineyard walks and can drop into the Secret Valley wine shop for tastings (Sundays 11am-4pm).
Join the harvest
While some vineyards, such as Ridgeview are closed to visitors during harvest, others are more than happy for the public to roll up their sleeves and help. Generally, the bigger operations streamline their harvests and have little scope to involve amateurs while many of the smaller outfits warmly welcome volunteer grape pickers.
Ebford Vineyard (07814 788 348; pebblebed.co.uk) in Devon evolved from a community project and embraces secateur-wielding visitors during the harvest. Tomorrow, you can join the picking of Pinot Noir grapes; while on 8 October, and then again over the weekend of 15/16 October, the Seyval Blanc variety will be harvested – see the website for details.
In Essex, West Street Vineyard (07941 224 938; weststreetvineyard.co.uk) in the pretty medieval town of Coggeshall, is a new venture in the throes of developing an environmentally minded wine centre, due to be completed in May next year. In the meantime, the harvest continues and volunteers will be gladly welcomed today for the picking of Faber grapes, though you're advised to call ahead.