“It’s going to be a great year,” Katrina beams as she walks me slowly around the vineyard at Hambledon. “Last year we were were hit really hard by frost, but this year the weather has been unbelievable. It’s like we’ve traded places with Champagne.”
Gazing out across the vines in the early sun of what will soon become a 28C day, it’s hard to disagree with her. The grass of the surrounding hills has turned straw brown, unusual for this time of year, and the sky is uncharacteristically cloudless. We could easily be in northern France, where earlier this year freakishly violent hailstorms wiped out the equivalent of eight million bottles of wine.
But here in rural Hampshire, the vines are budding with the promise of a rich harvest come autumn – at least that’s what the experts assure me.
The British wine industry is fairly young compared to those of France, Spain and Italy. While the practice of winemaking was introduced to the UK by the Romans, with 46 vineyards recorded by the 11th century, the industry dwindled across the centuries so that by the end of the First World War, when land was sequestered to grow essential crops, it had been eradicated.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that vines were reintroduced. Since then, the industry has gone from strength to strength, with English sparkling wines winning a clutch of awards. And as Britain continues its love affair with boutique drinks – led by the revolution of the gin industry and the boom of microbreweries over the last few years – the sparkling wine industry is beginning to grow at a rapid rate.
As Sophie Christie reported for The Telegraph back in October: “In the wine sector, it means more consumers are swapping French or New World wine (wines produced outside the traditional wine-growing regions of Europe and the Middle East, in countries such as Argentina, Australia and South Africa) for the English variety.”
But now that the product is growing in popularity, established vineyards are starting to look to tourism to subsidise the cost of their labours of love, while getting the word of English and Welsh wine out to the masses.
The good news for those that love nothing more than to combine a passion for travel with a love of viticulture is that you no longer need to travel overseas to get your fix. You can wander vineyards and sample wine over the weekend without having to use any of your valuable annual leave or squander your hard-earned airmiles.
At Hambledon, Katrina strips it right back to basics, leading us through the winemaking process quite literally from top to bottom (they use gravity here to do a lot of the work). In a short one-hour tour, Katrina seems to distill information straight into your brain so that by the time you leave, you know exactly what terms such as “on the lees” and “racking” mean.
The vineyard – like many others in the region – produces just a handful of wines. We savour the classic cuvee, classic cuvee rose and premiere cuvee as Katrina tells us of plans for a premiere cuvee rose and the wine festival they’re hosting August 11.
There’s no denying that this is a raw industry. “We’re really where the Champagne region was 100 years ago” Katrina tells me as we pass diggers that are carving their way into the chalk at the start of a three-year project that will provide Hambledon with a vast and impressive cellar and visitor centre.
But where the region may be lacking in preparation for tourism, it’s certainly not lacking in passion. Here, where you would perhaps expect a healthy rivalry to spring up with neighbouring producers, there is instead a friendly community of growers.
In Hampshire, Danebury, Exton Park, Cottonworth, Hambledon, Hattingley Valley, Jenkyn Place and Raimes English Sparkling have come together under the name of Vineyards of Hampshire, and, to promote their excellent local produce, have organised coinciding Cellar Door Experiences once a month on Friday and Saturdays from mid-May to early September. Next weekend, they’re also holding their annual wine festival, this year at Raimes Vineyards in Alresford, on July 22.
The obvious downside to the traditional cellar door experience is that the public transport network around the small, picturesque villages of Hampshire is not quite up to the task of getting you around to each of them either smoothly or efficiently. So you’re left with the choice of naming a designated (and consequently fairly grumpy) driver or, as we did, opt for a bespoke tour.
Beyond the obvious, there were surprising advantages to a tour. Clive, our driver-guide for the day, who joined Hampshire Tours after giving up life in the city, took us to pretty towns and villages, such as Cheriton, Tichborne and Alresford, that we would likely have missed on our own.
If you’re used to the vineyards of Australia or South Africa, the experience of visiting some of Hampshire’s more boutique vineyards is very different, and, on the surface, seems comparatively basic. And for smaller producers such as Raimes, the grapes are transported to bigger sites such as Hattingley Valley, where they are turned into wine.
But there’s always something exciting about a nascent industry. A lot of love has been poured into the projects and its almost palatable. It is also, on occasion, surprising. While sipping some of the very last of Raimes’ delicious 2014 Blanc De Blancs in their pretty tasting room overlooking the farmyard and stables, we’re casually shown the back room – a stunning old barn that is one of the oldest of its kind in the country.
But perhaps the biggest draw is just how accessible it is. You can easily experience it all on a day trip from London – just hop on a train out to Guildford or Winchester and you’ll be picked up ready to drink your way around the sights of Hampshire.
Details: Hambledon Vineyard, East St, Hambledon, Waterlooville PO7 4RY; hambledonvineyard.co.uk. Cellar door days with Clive from Hampshire Tours cost from £70 per person; hampshiretours.net/2018-cellar-doors
Where can I try UK wine near me this summer?
There are over 500 vineyards dotted across Britain, from the Isle of Wight to Suffolk – and even as far north as Yorkshire. Many are open to the public. Here are nine from across the UK that you can visit this summer.
One of the UK’s oldest vineyards, Astley overlooks the Severn Valley and produces six wines including a rose, bacchus and vintage sparkling Kerner.
Details: Astley Vineyard, Stourport on Severn, Worcestershire, DY13 0RU; astleyvineyard.co.uk
Based in the heart of North Somerset, Aldwick Estate is also a popular wedding venue. It produces six wines including a low-in-stock 2013 Brut, a blanc de noirs and a pinot noir.
Details: Aldwick Estate, Aldwick Court Farm, Redhill, Bristol, BS40 5RF; aldwickcourtfarm.co.uk
Home to ne of the oldest commercial wine cellars in England, Adgestone has its own café as well as B&B rooms if an overnight stay appeals. They make four English wines including a blush, medium white and full-bodied red.
Details: Upper Rd, Brading, Sandown, Isle of Wight, PO36 0ES; adgestonevineyard.co.uk
By Royal Appointment to HRH Prince Charles, Camel Valley is situated on the sunny slopes above the River Camel and currently has 10 wines, including a pinot noir rose brut and a sparkling red, as well as a sparkling cider.
Details: Camel Valley Vineyard, Nanstallon, Bodmin, Cornwall, PL26 6EU; camelvalley.com
Found in the market town of Tenterden in Kent, Chapel Down is one of the UK’s most renowned. They stock their Kit’s Coty collection alongside their Chapel Down wines as well as a range of their own label spirits including vodka and gin.
Details: Small Hythe, Tenterden, Kent, TN30 7NG; chapeldown.com
Denbies Wine Estate
In the Surrey Hills AONB just outside Dorking, Denbies is an impressive winery, complete with restaurant, B&B and even a miniature train tour. They have plenty of wines to choose from, including whites, roses, reds and sparkling varieties.
Details: Denbies Wine Estate, London Road, Dorking, Surrey, RH5 6AA; denbies.co.uk
Hanwell Wine Estate
Found in south Nottinghamshire, this is one of the UK’s most northerly wineries and their tutored tastings include six local wines. Their shop stocks English bacchus, pinot noir sparkling rose and even cherry wine.
Details: Melton Road, Hickling Pastures, Nottinghamshire, LE14 3QG; hanwellwine.co.uk
Established in 1985, Leventhorpe was responsible for re-introducing commercial wine-growing to Yorkshire and is the only vineyard in the world that sits within the boundary of a large city. They make a range of white wines, including a Yorkshire Brut.
Details: Newsam Green Road, off Bullerthorpe Lane, Woodlesford, Leeds, Yorkshire, LS26 8AF; leventhorpevineyard.co.uk
White Castle Vineyard
Last but by no means least on our list is a Welsh vineyard. White Castle in Monmouthshire near Abergavenny is home to a five-acre vineyard and makes everything from a very affordable rose to a sparkling white with with hints of elderflower and gooseberry.
Details: Croft Farm, Abergavenny, NP7 8RA; whitecastlevineyard.com