Raising the Bar: The Best British Vineyards to Visit

Words by
Nina Caplan

5th July 2022

Enterprising British winemakers are drawing on imagination alongside expertise to enhance the vineyard experience for visitors

denbies wine

Over the past few decades, ever-increasing portions of England’s green and pleasant lands have been turning golden and red in summer, as more would-be winemakers, encouraged by their neighbours’ success and the ever warmer climate, plant vines on their acres. Some are content to keep things simple: harvest grapes, make wines, sell wines, repeat. But several are equally determined to harvest the public’s blossoming interest in homegrown wines and are offering tours, restaurants or overnight stays on their premises. 

Curiosity about the landscape where the wine is made and about the process used to make it go together, and the more adventurous English winemakers are responding to both, in unusual and interesting ways. The effects of a thriving and innovative industry ripple outwards, as local wines win their place on the lists of surrounding restaurants and hotels, and events spring up to celebrate their success. Vineyards of Hampshire Fizz Fest will be doing just that on 24 July, with wine tastings, food stalls and live entertainment (booking is essential). The venue for Fizz Fest is one of the county’s best vineyards, Black Chalk, on the banks of the River Test, and when they aren’t holding festivals, brothers-in-law Jacob Leadley and Andrew Seden have plenty going on.


wine harvest

They offer vineyard tours with tastings, sparkling afternoon teas — and treehouse tastings, made possible by their unconventional accommodation option: four luxury treetop cabins, sustainably built with local materials. The views from six metres up are lovely, and there’s indoor plumbing — and an outdoor bath. 

The treehouses, run in conjunction with Wild Escapes, have proved so popular they are building more; in the meantime, they have just opened a new tasting room and terrace, which should prove a little easier to get into. These may be among the wackiest wine-related accommodations, but there are plenty of other options.

Farther west in Dorset, near the beautiful Jurassic Coast, Simon and Karen Priestman have installed a shepherd’s hut called The Hide in the corner of their Little Waddon Vineyard, along with a wood-fired hot tub and a barbecue; at Tillingham Winery, Ben Walgate has two bell tents, open in summer, and 11 bedrooms in a former hop barn. Walgate has a longstanding obsession with sustainability that has led him to experiment with regenerative farming and put in place a field-to-fork policy that means “the farm now provides [the restaurant with] cows, goats, sheep and vegetables as well as wine.” 


He is kegging an increasing amount of wine to reduce glass waste. “Our 2021 rosé will be majoring on tap. It’s an ongoing journey, much like our regenerative farming: we are learning as we go!” They are also having a lot of fun. As well as more conventional still and sparkling wines, both Tillingham and Little Waddon produce a Col Fondo — a fizz that ferments for the second time on its lees, giving an interesting depth and texture to the wine. 

The style comes from the Prosecco region in Italy: one of the advantages of being a young wine region is that England can pick what it likes from all the older places, benefitting from their experience as a child learns painlessly from its older siblings’ trials. This is one reason that most of England’s wineries are clustered in the southern counties, where climate and soil have similarities to those across the Channel in a little place called Champagne.

There are no grand châteaux built by centuries of winemaking in Sussex or Kent — but that means that there are opportunities to play with modern design, and several estates have taken full advantage. In Sussex, at family winery Busi Jacobsohn, Susanna and Douglas Jacobsohn have drawn inspiration from their Swedish background for their pared-back pine tasting room and from current sustainability initiatives for their solar energy and biomass heating. 

The 600-acre Rathfinny Estate, within the South Downs national park, also uses sustainable technology — both the winery and the Flint Barns, old farm buildings repurposed as luxury accommodation, are solar-powered. Designed by a local architect, winner of a Sussex Heritage award and shortlisted for a RIBA prize, the winery (which also houses a restaurant) has a living roof of wild flowers that insulates the building as well as helping it blend into its bucolic surroundings. 


Wine team

There is certainly no Fruit Chute in northern France, but Simpsons near Canterbury — a young winery whose wines have found their way onto lists at, for instance, the superb Fordwich Arms, which gained a Michelin star within a year of opening — has a helter-skelter that allows guests to slide from tasting room to winery. Gusbourne Wine Estate, also in Kent, has occasional Michelin-starred restaurant pop-ups and a smart tasting room, The Nest, which was finished just before the pandemic took hold. Banking on a good summer, the estate offers picnics or pizzas in the vineyards, accompanied by a glass of wine that wouldn’t exist if that English bet on decent weather didn’t pay off, more often than not.

One interesting innovation at Gusbourne is its still wines. Several wineries are trying this but the results, so far, are patchy: cool climates mean the grapes have more acidity than sugar, which works beautifully in sparkling wines but can be standard service is getting an adventurous spin at Denbies. Its Vineyard Hotel was partly repurposed from an 1850s farmhouse built by Thomas Cubitt, the master builder responsible for much of central London; only when his family sold up, in the 1980s, did it become a wine estate. Hotel guests have the option to take a three or four-mile stroll down the Secret Vineyard Tasting Trail, through different parts of their vineyards on the North Downs, via a tasting of their own honey and local cheeses, paired — naturally! — with Denbies wines.

For those with hardy livers, there’s also a Gin and Vine Experience, which involves learning to concoct your own blend in the local gin distillery, lunch, a guided winery tour and a tasting of the estate’s wines. Denbies is part of an association of Surrey wineries that, as with Fizz Fest in Hampshire, announces the region’s confidence. It’s back to siblings again: the well-balanced ones know how to share. And in that sense, the owners of England’s best wineries have great equilibrium: they are putting skill and imagination into finding ever-cleverer ways to make great wines and share their beautiful birthplaces with the rest of us. 

Fizz Fest: