Nestling between the North and South Downs of Surrey’s wonderfully verdant countryside I find myself in the Weald, close to Dorking. Here lies Denbies – Northern Europe’s largest privately owned vineyard covering 650 acres, of which 265 acres are under vine. The Weald, I learn, is the expression for that piece of land that lies between two protective hilly landscapes. As such, the ground, and our climate – surprisingly – is perfect for the vineyards that have grown and developed here since 1986.
A south-facing escarpment protected from winds the terrain, and its topography – chalky and porous – is similar to that of the Champagne region of France. Wine has been produced here since 1993 under the guidance of owner Adrian White. Thirteen different white wines and five reds are their staples and a quarter of a million bottles per annum find their way to appreciative customers and other discerning outlets.
Contained within an extensive barn style building, I take the tour of the vineyard process. Outer tours exist, via train, through the 7 miles that cover the vines and their progress. Today, however, it is pouring with rain so the latter will have to wait.
The indoor tour starts with a very informative film which screens through 360 degrees and shows the development of grape to wine from harvesting to bottling. Our beautiful English countryside is depicted throughout the seasons – as work here never stops – and the accompanying background music from Ralph Vaughan Williams, once a Dorking resident himself, lends a wonderful sense of rural romanticism. The first vines were planted in 1986 and today there are more than 300,000. The devastating storms of 1987 saw some 10,000 trees felled here but the owner put the lost oak to good use by having seven vast barrels made to contain the wine and to reflect the seven different stages of winemaking. Each barrel can hold 225 litres of wine.
Our very knowledgable guide, Mona, leads us on to the fermenting rooms where the smell of yeast is palpable. Here, the wine rests for three weeks in enormous stainless steel vats – bought from Cape Town, South Africa. Mona tells us that one ton of fruit will produce 650 litres of wine. After clarification the wines are ready to move on to the packing and despatch departments. 40% of the produce from Denbies is of the sparkling variety and, here, we can see how this is achieved by freezing the bottle necks in a Glycol solution for 15 minutes. After freezing, these racks of wines are turned 84 times over a period of some weeks before they are deemed ready for the market. As well as selling on site, Denbies supplies Waitrose, Sainsburys, Tesco ,and Marks and Spencer. Quite a market!
And now – on to the tasting. In the very atmospheric cellars – subdued lighting, oak barrels and casks, all above a wonderfully cool tiled floor which I feel sure must have come from Italy given their red, distressed appearance (but, no, they’re from Leicester) we sample first a white wine of 2013, Juniper Hill. It’s light and refreshing and, to my palate, with a sense of grapefruit about it. On to a sparkling Flint Valley, and we learn that this is what the Queen was sipping as she sailed along the Thames on the Royal Barge at the occasion of her Royal Jubilee. Next, a Chalk Ridge Rose – a wonderful blend of four red grapes, and highly likely to convert anyone to the taste of rose. Finally, the Demi-Sec NV which, in Denbies’ words, “has an enticing aroma of brioche and pear, complimented by an underlying honeysuckle quality”. This is quite delicious and everyone makes a mental note to purchase some later.
Our taste buds suitably tantalised we reach the end of the tour and wander out into the Conservatory Restaurant. A light and spacious area with a very good choice of menu. Upstairs is the Gallery Restaurant where one can dine a la carte – perhaps after admiring the various photographic displays of local sights and scenes which adorn the walls of the Minstrel’s Gallery.
It’s very hard to pass through the shop here without making some purchases. The car suitably stocked with a selection of wines I leave Denbies with a burgeoning knowledge of how the humble grape is turned into an adventure of taste and discovery. I have brochures and leaflets on how to become a member here, its availability for parties, conferences, weddings and special events.
A little gem in the midst of Surrey. I feel lucky to have found it.
For more information about Denbies, including details of their wines, tours and events, visit www.denbies.co.uk.