Saturday, 1 September 2018

A trip to Surrey's gold - Denbies

As someone who has come to know a little bit about the wine world, I am well aware of the excitement around the progress that English Sparkling Wine has made over the last fifteen years. However, I am constantly surprised by how little this message has spread both around the world, but also (and perhaps more alarmingly) amongst people who live in the UK itself. Those of you who have been following my posts for a while will know that I periodically pressgang (not that they need much encouraging!) a ragtag ensemble of musicians from my amateur orchestra into doing a wine tasting event around London. Over previous years this has even extended to taking a tour around one of the many fantastic English vineyards that one can get to within an hour’s travel from London (our last trip was to the magnificent Hush Heath, where I learned the delights of their sublime Balfour Brut - see post here). This year I sought to organise another event and was thrilled to find us romping our way through the not-quite-so-lush (owing to recent dry weather) Surrey countryside and heading towards Dorking. On the train I was still being caught off-guard how many people were only discovering now for the first time that the UK even has vineyards, let alone that it was some award-winning sparkling wine!

We arrived at Dorking and made our way over to the Denbies winery, which is about a 15 minute walk from the station. One of the first things that you notice is that the area is teeming with cyclists - particularly over the summer. Box Hill is not far away at all, a notorious climb that featured in the London 2012 road cycling event (as a new cyclist myself, it is something that I am hoping to be attempting in the not-too-distant future). We arrived into the extremely impressive Visitors’ Centre at Denbies and were greeted by Anne who was going to be our guide for the day. There is a rather impressive looking “Wine Train” that takes visitors through the winery’s vineyards, but we opted for a slightly different tour - a walking tour through the vineyards themselves, where we would try some of the wines as we wended our way through them.

The Denbies estate was originally a large pig farm, but it was acquired by the White family in 1984. A nearby Professor of Geology and wine enthusiast, Richard Selley, spoke with the owners and told him that his knowledge of geology and local climactic conditions suggested that the site had excellent potential for winemaking. It possesses those familiar chalky soils that link the south-east of England to the Champagne region of France, and make it perfect for growing the traditional champagne varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Furthermore, the relief of the Denbies estate offered those much sought-after southerly facing slopes that create the best growing conditions for those noble grapes.

As we started our trip with Anne we were given a map of the estate and the first thing that you noticed was that the estate carries a lot more varieties than the three that make the traditional champagne blend. There were varietals that I was well aware and expecting to see such as Müller-Thurgau, Ortega and Sylvaner - all Germanic grapes that tend to grow well in English conditions; but there were also some rather surprising varietals too, including some that were completely new for me such as Reichensteiner, Solaris, Seyval Blanc and Auxerrois. Anne explained that given winemaking is still in its relative infancy in the UK a lot of experimentation is taking place; additionally due to climate change factors varietals that were previously discounted are now showing as having a real potential. We are starting to see more and more reds being experimented with; how long before we see good quality English Cabernet Franc to rival that of the Loire, or even start to see some luscious Merlot or some racy Syrah?

The vineyards themselves were extremely well looked after and Anne was on hand to give us many useful bits of information that helped us to understand the challenges of wine production, but also its rewards. What was also impressive was the volume of people who were visiting - admittedly this was a relatively sunny Saturday in August which is the peakiest of peak times, but we saw a number of people exploring the vineyard and making use of the public rights of way that run through the estate giving glorious views over the surrounding countryside and across to the aforementioned Box Hill. The Visitors’ Centre is a large and rather lovely looking building with plenty of information about the estate and its history, with an attractive café on site and a slightly fancier restaurant for nicer meals. They have the ability to host and cater weddings on site as well. After our tour we made our way to the wine shop and tasting room to try a few more wines and make our purchases and they were exceedingly accommodating with our seemingly-insatiable curiosity!

The Wines

So, with all this being said; “what wines did you try?” I hear you cry! (OK, I don’t, but I’m allowing myself some writer’s licence…) We tried four different wines on our tour around, plus a couple of notable wines in the shop.

NV Denbies Cellermaster’s Choice Whitedowns Brut (Seyval Blanc and Reichensteiner). Wonderfully fresh and vibrant; crisp, red apple notes with a zesty lemon flavour to it too. Although this is a NV wine, all the grapes were from 2014 and I think this slight bit of age gave the wine a little bit of a bready aroma. A very pleasant mid-afternoon sparkler to sip whilst watching the cricket (other sports are available, but not as good...).

NV Denbies Rose Hill (Dornfelder and Rondo). Nice and light with some subtle peach flavours. A nice, salmon-pink in the glass; this is a bargain alternative to a more-pricey Provence-style rosé.

NV Denbies Surrey Gold (Müller-Thurgau, Ortega and Bacchus). Slightly too sweet for me, in between an off-dry and a sweet wine. Perhaps at a demi-sec level. Pleasant green apple flavours to the wine nonetheless. Interestingly, Anne told it that this was one of the vineyards first wines and is a firm favourite (and indeed, bestseller) amongst their regular, local visitors.

2015 Denbies Redlands (Dornfelder and Pinot Noir). Low tannins, but with very pleasing red fruit notes of cherries and strawberries. We all concluded that serving this wine chilled with a summer’s BBQ would be rather splendid.

2016 Noble Harvest (Ortega). A wine that has been allowed to develop a botrytis note to it, giving it that glorious marmalade-profile, whilst still in great balance from the grapes’ naturally-high acidity. This wine would make for a wonderful accompaniment to any dessert course.

NV Denbies Greenfields (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay). Has those classic hallmarks of good Champagne on the nose with a sort of bready, apple-compote note. The wine itself is very balanced and elegant with dominant flavours being of citrus fruits (in particular, some rather lush lemons). A great aperitif wine or a toasting wine at a wedding.

2013 Cubitt Blanc de Blancs (Chardonnay). Somewhat steelier and more precise nose than the Greenfields, with citrus and green apple notes coming through very clearly. Here the mouth of the wine is where it reveals its structure and class, with a broad spectrum of flavours starting with insistent citrus fruit notes, before more complex, richer and deeper notes take over. Evolves nicely through the finish. A thinker of a wine.

Almost all of these wines are available at Waitrose for purchase and many other outlets.

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