Instead of a “heatwave”, call that spell of searing September sunshine an “autumn cleanse”. Summer was a washout, delivering one of the wettest Julys in history. But now, like the satisfying thump of an apple falling to fertile earth, harvest arrives with its carnival of feasting, festivals and tradition.
And elbowing in among the shin bells and corn dollies comes the domestic wine harvest, a tradition both ancient and in the making. In the southern counties where Champagne-alike chalky soils and long lingering autumns prevail, these mass grape harvests have begun to develop into annual displays of community spirit.
At the appointed hour, teams of volunteer pickers descend on the vineyard from nearby villages. Of course, the anticipated post-pick feasts help shore up enthusiasm, where bottles are uncorked in gratitude and liberally poured at banqueting tables loaded high with sumptuous local produce.
With veraison (grape-ripening) in full swing, it’s time to settle in among the sunset hues of the turning vines and experience this new tradition for yourself. From tasting the juice destined to be Gusbourne’s next award-winning vintage to glamping-out-to-help-out out at a boutique winery in Dorset, here are the best ways to commune with Bacchus in England’s southern counties.
A leading name in English sparkling wine, Kent-based Gusbourne offers a Harvest Estate Tour (£100pp) from the end of September until mid-October. Wander leafy avenues tasting fully-ripened fruit – or sampling their juice straight from the press – before chatting with the winemaker for insights into Gusbourne’s latest vintages.
Afterwards, settle in for a three-course, estate-foraged lunch with pairings served in the pine-clad modernity of its tasting room, The Nest. The Gallivant – only twenty minutes’ drive away – offers sea breezes, a serene adults-only ambiance, and the country’s most comprehensive list of English wine.
Book it: The Gallivant (01797 225057) has doubles from £165 per night based on two guests sharing
Tinwood Estate, Sussex
Slip on your picking gloves for Tinwood Estate’s Harvest Experience (£65pp) taking place on the first week of October. Owners Art and Jody soften you up with home-made cake and a personal welcome, before you disappear with the vineyard team to begin a tutored two-hour pick of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes on the South Downs.
Your reward is a three-course rustic harvest buffet – think whipped goat’s cheese and wine-braised brisket – paired with Tinwood’s sparkling tipples. Sated, retire to one of the vineyard’s luxury lodges and sink into the steam of the oak-barrel sauna or slip beneath the foam of your two-person Jacuzzi bath.
Book it: Tinwood Estate (01243 537372) has lodges for £265 on a weekday, £315 on the weekend. Price includes a continental breakfast for two delivered in a hamper to your door
Sandridge Barton, Devon
Experience the harvest with Sandridge Barton’s Vineyard Safaris on September 29 (£45pp). Safari helmets optional, hop into a seated trailer for a two-hour whizz around this multi-award-winning winery (the source of Sharpham Wines as well as its own label) before a tasting of its sparkling and still vino.
Offering self-catering properties spacious enough to comfortably house 12, a multi-generational break in the Dart Valley beckons. Send the families out to terrorise ‘mini-beasts’ on the new nature trail, while the remainder sip pinot noir anointed the UK’s best, soak up the views of the River Dart, and absent-mindedly neglect to book a table at Sandridge Barton’s locavore Circa restaurant.
Book it: Sandridge Barton (01803 732203) self-catering from £1,375 for four for a minimum of four nights
A sea of vines only a brief country ramble from the actual sea, Rathfinny is on course to become the country’s largest single site vineyard. Within the well-groomed 600 acres of this newly anointed B Corp, gastronomes will be drawn to its fine-dining Tasting Room restaurant while there’s a RIBA-shortlisted, gravity-fed winery for the design lovers.
Its Harvest Experience (available September 26 - October 28) sees you embark on an exploration of its award-winning Sussex Sparkling wines through an exclusive dosage tasting. Afterwards see how the fruity, toasted notes marry up with the three-course menu at the Flints Barn Harvest Restaurant, a short stumble from your overnight abode at the vineyard’s cosy Flint Barns.
Book it: Rathfinny’s Harvest Experience (01323 870 022) costs £256 for two and includes an overnight stay at the Flint Barns, three-course dinner at the Flint Barns Harvest Restaurant (the Tasting Room closes for October), and an exclusive dosage experience.
Melbury Vale, Dorset
Folded into the sublime curvature of the Stirkel Valley, Melbury Vale is a boutique winery started by siblings Clare and Glynn Parker in 2006. Serenaded with the same birdsong as Cranborne Chase AONB, it’s little surprise that the winery is a study in sustainable design. Wildflowers brighten the rooftop, rainwater is harvested for the vines, and two-person timber barrels are available for glamping.
Its Harvest Package (available late September to early October, harvest dependant) includes two-night’s glamping, tutored viticulture and grape pressing, before a cheese-laden Dorset platter is served for a wine-fuelled evening repast. And don’t retire too early – the winery is on the cusp of Dorset’s International Dark-Sky Reserve.
Book it: Melbury Vale’s harvest package (01395 202040) costs from £250 and includes two night’s glamping accommodation for two, plus tour, tastings and a Dorset produce platter
Lympstone Manor, Devon
One for the non-interventionist – for those who wish to celebrate the harvest, but without having to detach a single grape. On October 4, amid its south-facing vineyard overlooking the Exe Estuary, Lympstone Manor will host its own Celebratory Harvest Festival (£130pp).
Be among the first to sample the eagerly awaited Classic Cuvée, as well as Chef and Owner Michael Caines’ award-winning Triassic Pinot Noir (only available on the linen-clothed tables of this Georgian Manor-turned-hotel). If you can’t wait for October, every Wednesday in September sees lunchtime vineyard tours rounded off by a four-course showcase of Chef Caines’ culinary panache (£155pp).
Book it: Lympstone Manor (01395 202040) has doubles starting at £440
Toppesfield Vineyard, Essex
A wine-producing plot since Roman times, it might be that a sense of entitlement to unalloyed bacchanalia while visiting Toppesfield is understandable. Enabling this is the vineyard’s holiday house with its nickel bar, four-person Jacuzzi and private tennis court.
Guests in residence during the harvest (anticipated to be the first or second Sunday of October) are invited to call off a deciding third set and muck in with the community harvest day instead. Home-made cakes and caffeine fuel a tutored grape-picking session before a harvest lunch lubricated with the vineyard’s award-winning wines or real ales from Toppesfield village’s community brewery – the libations free of charge for chipping in.
Book it: Toppesfield Vineyard (07768 817573) self-catering from £1,029 for four for a minimum of two nights