England: Europe's unlikely new wine capital

"English wine", much like "English summer", is an expression normally followed by a punchline. I spent my formative years in England and can't ever recall seeing English wine on a restaurant menu. 

So it was with genuine astonishment that I discovered during a recent visit that England and Wales  are home to 470 wineries. Even more surprising is that a lot of the wine is bloody good. So good it's winning awards and being exported all over the world. 

The majority of vineyards are clustered within the southern counties of Kent and Sussex, creating the intriguing possibility of an English wine tour. Here are six to wet your whistle.

DENBIES WINE ESTATE

Denbies is the Disneyland of English wineries. It's the UK's largest vineyard, with 300,000 vines spread over 107 hectares. Located 40 kilometres south of London, the family-owned business has embraced wine tourism with open vines. 

There are a plethora of tours available, from tastings to train rides to a "vine and dine" grape-picking experience during the annual October harvest. 

Our tasting tour starts with a 20-minute film shown in an impressive 360-degree cinema. We learn that vines were first introduced to the region by the Romans and by 1086 there were around 40 vineyards in operation.

It transpires that the same seam of chalk found in the Champagne region of France pops up again here, lending the area an almost identical geology and topography. 

After a stroll through the winery, we descend into the cellar for a tasting surrounded by sturdy oak barrels. My favourite tipple is Denbies' best-seller, the dangerously quaffable Surrey Gold, a fruity number made from muller-thurgau, bacchus and ortega. Other offerings include Flint Valley, a sharp, zesty blend of seyval blanc and reichensteiner; and Rosehill Rose, a salmon-pink rose with a fragrant strawberry bouquet. 

Being the biggest doesn't mean you can't be up there with the best. Denbies has won multiple awards for its sparkling wines, the first-ever gold award for an English rose and most recently an international gold for its Noble Harvest dessert wine.

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Open daily 9am-5.30pm. Tours from £10. London Road, Dorking, Sussex. See denbies.co.uk.

RIDGEVIEW ESTATE

When husband-and-wife team Mike and Christine Roberts first planted vines in 1994 at the foot of the rolling Sussex Downs, they never dreamt they'd go on to produce the first wine outside of the Champagne region to win the coveted Best Sparkling trophy in the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Ridgeview has the same south-facing slopes and chalky, limestone soil found in Champagne, which is only 141 kilometres to the south. Cool nights make the area ideally suited for growing chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier (Champagne's three constituent varietals), as the grapes retain high levels of natural acidity and low levels of alcohol.

During a comprehensive one-hour tour, we learn about every stage of the winemaking calendar, from bud burst in April through to picking in October. Once harvested the grapes are fermented in tanks before going through a second fermentation in the bottle. It's this additional fermentation, which incidentally was discovered by Englishman Christopher Merret 20 years before French monk Dom Perignon, that creates the fizz as carbon dioxide dissolves into the wine.

Last year the winery received the royal nod of approval when its Bloomsbury sparkling was served at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. If you'd prefer to sample it somewhere closer to home, Sydney's Quay Restaurant has Ridgeview's Fitzrovia Rose 2010 for $130 per bottle.

Open Monday to Saturday 11am-4pm. Tours £15. Fragbarrow Lane, Ditchling Common, Sussex. See ridgeview.co.uk.

BOLNEY WINE ESTATE

Located in the heart of picturesque Sussex countryside, Bolney Wine Estate is one of England's oldest vineyards, having first planted vines in 1972. The small, family-run operation is unusual because it specialises in red wine, which is notoriously difficult to produce given England's cool climate. 

Our tour starts in the warehouse, where we learn how winemaking has changed over the years. They used to add ox blood and sturgeons' swim bladders to purify the wine. Now, thankfully, this is done using synthetic agents.

We stroll among the winery's 16 hectares of vineyards. Bolney has 14,000 vines, all of which are hand-picked during a 3.5-week period in October. They don't feed or water them, the rationale being the harder the vine struggles, the better quality fruit it will produce.

It's an approach that has paid off with multiple awards for its sparkling, reds and roses. The medium-bodied Bolney Pinot Noir is an easy-drinker with subtle hints of cherry and oak. My favourite, though, is the coral pink rose, which is like summer in a glass – a fragrant mix of raspberry and lychee, with a crisp acidity and a smooth finish.

Open Monday to Saturday 9am-5pm; Sundays 10am-3pm. Tours from £16. Foxhole Lane, Bolney, Sussex. See bolneywineestate.com.

CHAPEL DOWN

Denbies might be England's largest vineyard but Chapel Down is England's biggest wine producer, churning out 700,000 bottles a year. It's a slick operation with a well-stocked gift shop selling everything from chutneys to chocolate plus an excellent onsite restaurant, The Swan, which serves a mean Sunday roast.

Tours are a bargain at £10 and our enthusiastic guide provides one of the most detailed, down-to-earth explanations of the winemaking process I've heard. After strolling through the vineyard, we enter the pressing shed to admire England's largest grape press, an 11-tonne monster that uses an inflatable membrane to squeeze juice from the grapes. 

Back inside, we work our way through six of Chapel Down's offerings including a fresh, citrusy chardonnay, a biscuity pinot blanc and a strawberry-infused rose. I particularly enjoy the jammy-nosed sparkling rose brut (as did Kate and Wills – they served it at their wedding).

The winery has ambitious plans. It's hoping to hit a million bottles in the next few years and our guide confidently predicts that "England will become the premier chardonnay producer in the world".

Open daily 10am-5pm with tours from April to November. Cost £10. Small Hythe, Tenterden, Kent. See chapeldown.com.

BIDDENDEN VINEYARDS

Biddenden is Kent's oldest vineyard, having been established in 1969 after the owner's mother heard a radio program about growing vines. It's only 10 minutes from Chapel Down, and produces just 60,000 bottles a year from nine hectares of vineyards. 

Access to the winery is via the delightfully Harry Potter-esque Gribble Bridge Lane. It's a low-key operation with a small shop and tasting area next to a row of weathered storage tanks. 

There are free guided tours on Saturdays which include a tasting. Alternatively, you can grab a map and take a self-guided ramble through the vineyard. Look out for lesser-known German varietals such as huxelrebe, schonburger and reichensteiner.

Proving that size isn't everything, Biddenden has won Best Kent Wine in the annual Taste of Kent awards three years in a row. The most recent accolade was for its  Biddenden Ortega, a fruity, well-balanced white with a heady floral fragrance. 

Biddenden also makes cider and I'd recommend sampling the spicy, mulled wine-like Monk's Delight and the velvety port-like Special Reserve. Who knew you could age cider in oak whiskey casks?

Open Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm; Sundays 11am-5pm. Gribble Bridge Lane, Biddenden, Kent. See biddendenvineyards.com

HUSH HEATH ESTATE

Richard Balfour-Lynn is the Steve Jobs of English wine. "It's all about attention to detail," he enthuses. "Everything has to be perfect to make a great brand." The bottling area of most wineries is a messy, industrial space; Hush Heath's state-of-the-art facility gleams like an Apple store.

After building up a successful hospitaility business, Balfour-Lynn turned his attention to wine in the early 2000s. His aim was to create sparkling wines that rivalled the best Champagnes. The first vines were planted in 2002 and the first vintage of Balfour Brut Rose was produced in 2004. Four years later it won a gold medal at the International Wine Challenge. 

Today, you'll find Balfour Brut Rose on the Orient Express and in the first class cabin of British Airways. Attention to detail clearly pays off.

The winery only offers tours for groups but you can drop in anytime for a free tasting or to take a self-guided walk through the estate's immaculate vineyards. 

In 2012 Hush Heath's winemakers turned their hands to cider and they now produce an upmarket range of still and sparkling ciders from apples grown on the estate. 

For Balfour-Lynn, the venture is clearly a labour of love. "Who knows," he says, with a wry smile, "one day it may even break even."

Open daily 11am-5pm. Five Oak Lane, Staplehurst, Kent, see hushheath.com.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

visitbritain.com; englishwineproducers.co.uk 

GETTING THERE

British Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to London via Singapore. See britishairways.com.

TOURING THERE

Hop on a vintage Routemaster bus for an entertaining tour of two Sussex wineries including lunch. Regular departures between April and October from Old Steine, Brighton. Cost £75  ($148) see brightonfoodfestival.com.

The writer travelled as a guest of British Airways, Visit Britain and the six wineries. 

A POTTED GUIDE TO POMMY DROPS

SPARKLING

They can't call it Champagne, but the best English sparkling wines can hold their own against the finest from France.

BACCHUS

The third most widely planted grape variety in the UK, bacchus produces wines ranging from fruity New World-like sauvignons to aromatic sancerres. 

ORTEGA

Introduced to the UK in 1971, this grape produces zesty, well-balanced whites and late-harvest stickies.

PINOT NOIR

As well as being an essential ingredient for Champagne-style sparkling whites, it's also used to produce easy-drinking, lighter reds.

DORNFELDER

This grape was introduced from Germany in the 1980s and creates fresh, fruity gamay-style reds.

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