Our final instalment of our 2012 English wine adventure concludes:
We still had much to do and see before our travels were over. We were now heading back to Kent and what better way to start than at The Bluebell Railway.
At the time of our visit, this railway was undergoing something of a transformation. Not only had there been a sighting of a diesel locomotive at this once very pro-steam railway (gasps of horror could be heard from the old-school fraternity!) but it was close to realising its long-held ambition of reconnecting with the main line at East Grinstead.
This connection has involved removing 90,000 tonnes of landfill and was still in progress on our visit with a projected completion date of March 2013 (something that the railway achieved on target and on budget – the big railway please take note!).
The Bluebell Railway is used in many film and TV period dramas and it is easy to see why.
Close by is a small railway that goes by the name of The Lavender Line. It is often in the news as it is part of the missing link between Uckfield and Lewes with an active local pressure group trying to get this bit of line reinstated between the two towns so as to once again create a through route between London and Brighton due to its importance as a commuter route. For the time being, it retains a tranquil atmosphere with its lovingly restored station at Isfield and many nature walks in the surrounding area.
Right then, let’s get back to wine…
We found ourselves in the Kent village of Marden, which once farmed apples and hops as its main commodity but has since replaced much of this with the cultivation of grapes due to it now being home to two important English sparkling wine producers – Herbert Hall and Hush Heath.
Both these producers were happy to show us around via prior appointment and it was great for us to see at first hand how two of the region’s leading fizz makers produced their lovely wines.
Up until this point we had not come across Herbert Hall. In fact, there wasn’t much clue to them being here as our initial search had simply come across a vineyard by the name of Marden. It wasn’t until we made an enquiry to see if we could visit that we discovered this to be Herbert Hall and what a wonderful discovery this was!
We met Nick Hall (who shares a partnership with his brother Peter) early one morning. He was happy to show us around the vineyard as well as his compact, very clean and well-kitted out winery, where we were given the opportunity to taste his fizz.
Herbert Hall concentrates on just two wines, a Sparkling white: Herbert Hall Brut and a rose: Herbert Hall Brut Rose, using a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. The white is Chardonnay dominated whereas the rose is Pinot Noir dominated. Both are fantastic examples of well made English sparkling wine and should be sought out. They can be obtained from major high street retailers such as Harvey Nichols. What a find!
Read more about Herbert Hall in our 2013 blog.
Hush Heath Estate
Just a matter of minutes walk up the road is the estate of Hush Heath. Here, we were met by Owen Elias, previously the winemaker at Chapel Down who has since decided to concentrate his efforts making sparkling and still wines at Hush Heath.
There is a state of the art, brand new, compact winery and production area of which Owen was happy to show us around and take us on a tour, explaining the evolution of wine from vineyard to the finished bottle. It was impressive to see the bottling process in action.
Afterwards, we were taken to the nicely laid out tasting room to try for ourselves the wines that he produces and are sold to many restaurants around the country. This tasting included the estate’s: Balfour Brut Rose and Balfour Blanc de Blanc both of which are definitely worth trying and can be bought direct from their online store.
A surprise for us was that they were also experimenting with a still cider, keeping with the tradition of the locality. A trial with some London restaurants was taking place at the time of our visit and this has obviously been successful as you can now purchase it from the online shop and very nice it is indeed!
Having had two great English producers fizz, we did not want to spoil the day by trying to visit anymore wineries. However, our experience of ‘great wine finds’ was not entirely over as calling into a local store in the village of Horsmonden we stumbled upon a bottle of Horsmonden Limney White, that we later discovered was made by Will Davenport, of which we write about in our 2013 English vineyard adventures.
Now it was off to do something completely different. Not only did this include a nature reserve and a place close to the sea resembling a strange and distant land but it also had a narrow gauge railway running through it! Well lets go!
The sun was shining and the heat was on, so what better way to indulge than with a walk around the RSPB Reserve at Dungeness. Apart from the many waterfowl that come here to swim in the lakes and ponds, and the many song birds, it also plays host to an array of butterflies and Damson Flies, we even caught site of our first English Lizard!
Dungeness is a very unique place and what better way to travel through its extraordinary countryside than by taking the narrow gauge train of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway.
The line was constructed in the 1920’s on the site of the closed standard gauge railway by the race drivers Captain J.E.P. Howey and Count Louis Zborowski.
Artefacts from the previous railway such as old railway carriages can still be seen, previously abandoned they have been reused and converted into homes and are a unique site in the village of Dymchurch. Here, the old line used to connect with various narrow gauge lines working along the coast, of which, this particular one is actually expanding rather than eroding and can be evidenced by how far away from the sea the light houses have become.
So are we going to get back to wine??? We hear you cry! Yes, we could not end our journey without calling in on two more important English wine producers. Important due to their production of sizeable quantities of English wine and both are household names.
So it was back to Tenterden and the chance to go and explore Chapel Down.
We had booked onto one of their vineyard and winery tours and decided that we would also try out their new stylish restaurant.
The tour took us on an A to Z of wine production and enabled us to see this on a much bigger scale, which ended in a tasting that included most of their range. Anything that was not included in the tasting that we would like to try, we found that we could ask for at the counter and our request would be obliged.
Chapel Down also produce an excellent beer that goes under the name of: Curious Brew – a lager made from Champagne yeast and well worth a try!
The food in the restaurant was excellent. Kel had his with the: Chapel Down Union Red: Pinot Noir, Rondo, Pinot Noir Precoce – Dark purple in colour and had a lot of dark fruity aromas on the nose, he did find that on the palate, as with so many English reds, this soon dissipated and the finish was a tad short as there didn’t feel to be enough tannin to keep the structure going.
An enjoyable day indeed!
Denbies Wine Estate
After leaving Kent and homewards bound, we crossed the border into Surrey for our final wine visit to Denbies Wine Estate. Situated in Dorking, literally just off the M25, its history lies in a farm that once stood there in the 18th century but now lays claim to being the country’s biggest single vineyard at 265 acres.
Denbies produces quite a wide range of wines – still, sparkling and dessert at reasonable prices.
We must say that the estate is more in line with a large farm shop and function venue than a typical winery. However, don’t let this deter you from paying a visit and trying some of their wines.
We took home with us a bottle of their: Surrey Gold: A blend of Müller-Thurgau, Ortega and Bacchus – herbal, fruity, citric with elderflower aromas.
And so our 2012 English vineyard tour comes to an end. We were now convinced that English wine has an important role to play in the world of wine, something that we felt needed sharing.