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Simon Alper, managing director of Chilford Hall Vineyard, explains the processes involved in the making of a high quality wine to a visitor.
Simon Alper, managing director of Chilford Hall Vineyard, explains the processes involved in the making of a high quality wine to a visitor. (Richard Moverley / Special to S&S)
Simon Alper, managing director of Chilford Hall Vineyard, explains the processes involved in the making of a high quality wine to a visitor.
Simon Alper, managing director of Chilford Hall Vineyard, explains the processes involved in the making of a high quality wine to a visitor. (Richard Moverley / Special to S&S)
Bottles of wine available from the Chilford Hall Vineyard, including the award-winning pink sparkling, at right.
Bottles of wine available from the Chilford Hall Vineyard, including the award-winning pink sparkling, at right. (Richard Moverley / Special to S&S)

“England is the new area for top-quality sparkling wines,” says Simon Alper, managing director of Chilford Hall, a small vineyard just south of Cambridge.

While that may seem an odd claim, English wine producers are celebrating an excellent quality vintage and high yields from 2003, and are feeling bullish about prospects for the future.

Fraser Thompson, managing director of New Wave Wines — far and away England’s largest producer — agrees.

“A lot of English sparkling wines are right up there with the great houses of Champagne,” he says. “And it’s no wonder: The geology and climate in southeast England is almost identical to that of Champagne.

“What with global warming, the Champagne area will probably move to England in the future …. A great advantage for us is the mild climate and lack of frost. Some of the big Champagne houses are already interested in moving into England.”

English wineries are slowly becoming better known and a tour of these generally small, and often idiosyncratic, wineries makes for an interesting journey.

Although English wine production is seen as a recent development, vines have been grown there since Roman times.

“The only time that there were no vineyards in England was between the two World Wars,” Alper says. “But it’s true that there has been a major revival since the 1960s.”

The small Chilford Hall Vineyard was established in 1972 and now produces around 20,000 bottles per year from 18 acres. The vineyard is situated on a southwest facing slope, growing Muller-Thurgau, Ortega, Huxelrebe, Schoenburger, Reichensteiner and Siegerrege vines for a mix of intense flavors.

Tours of the vineyard run three times a day in season. These allow visitors to learn about the various processes such as crushing and pressing, fermentation, clarification, barrel aging, bottling and labeling.

Like all good wine tours, the session finishes with a tasting. Chilford Hall produces four or five different wines at any one time with prices ranging from 5.75 pounds — about $11 — to 14.99 pounds.

“Most popular is the pink sparkling wine,” says Alper. Like many successes, it was actually the result of an accident.

“Red wine was poured into the wrong vat,” he says. “But we found that this gave the wine structure and backbone. Since then it has won many awards — including the President’s Trophy UK Wine of the Year, and bronze and silver medals in international competitions.”

Only 1,500 bottles of the pink sparkling wine are produced each year and quickly sell out. And the bottles of white wine also sell well straight from the vineyard. Those I tasted were clean and fresh with a fragrant bouquet and delicate, fruity flavor.

Pressed on the economics of winegrowing, Alper falls back on the adage “To make a small fortune in wine, you need to already have made a large fortune from something else.”

But winegrowing in England is definitely on the upswing.

“There are plenty of vineyards about,” Alper says, “and a range of different personalities running them. They’re often unusual characters, if I say so myself.”

The main problem for English producers is volume. “Here at Chilford Hall we don’t produce enough bottles to satisfy the demands of supermarkets,” Alper says. “And, in general, there are not enough vineyards in England to meet the demand for high turnover. But it’s getting easier to sell our wines and most are sold here straight from the vineyard.”

New Wave wines tried to surmount this problem of supply and demand by merging two of the biggest wineries (Lamberhurst and Chapeldown) in 2001. Now, it produces around half the wine made in England.

“We source from growers across the Southeast of England,” says Fraser Thompson. “This enables us to spread the risk and provide a full range of wines.

“Scale is important and we’re by far and away the largest producer in England. We can also offer blended wines at the right price for supermarkets.”

And it’s true that the the company’s Bacchus and Chapeldown labels are some of the few English wines featured on supermarket shelves.

“Our output is 500,000 bottles per year,” says Thompson. “That makes us a medium-size producer by French standards. We market 12-13 still wines and four sparkling.

“Traditionally there have been too many small vineyards in England selling substandard wines at a high price. Our wines are priced from 5 pounds to 14.99 pounds and I would challenge anybody to say that any of them aren’t worth it.”

New Wave’s Brut Rosé was voted wine of the year for 2003 and, according to Thompson, sales are growing 40 percent a year. “We’re actually profitable for the first time!” he says.

Like many English vineyards, Tenterden boasts a spectacular setting in the heart of the Kent countryside. But even that is probably eclipsed by the Camel Valley vineyard near Bodmin, in southern Cornwall.

It was started in 1989 by former Royal Air Force member Bob Lindo after a midair collision caused him to eject from his plane, and left him with a broken spine. Camel Valley now produces 10,000-25,000 bottles per year including sparkling, some dry whites and a red.

Sam Lindo, Bob’s son, also agrees that this is a bumper time for English wine.

“Conditions are very good and wineries seem to be making the right style of wine for the climate,” he says. “In particular they are making crisp, clean whites with a delicate flavor which go extremely well with fish and seafood. Here in Cornwall a lot of restaurants serve fish, and English wines are filling a gap in the market.”

Camel Valley provides wines for Rick Stein’s famous seafood restaurant in the Cornwall harbor town of Padstow and its Seyvel Blanc was formerly stocked by a casino in Las Vegas.

“We win a lot of prizes for our wines,” says Lindo. “In particular, we were voted Waitrose Small Drinks Producer in 2002. This enabled us to purchase a disgorging machine to help make our sparkling wines.”

“Incidentally,” he adds mischievously, “you know what we call our sparkling wines, don’t you? We call them Cornwall — for the same reason that Champagne is called Champagne. Nobody else is allowed to call their sparkling wine Champagne — and we don't let anyone else call theirs Cornwall.”

Richard Moverley is a freelance writer living in England.

If you go ...

The English wine Web site www.english-wine.com claims there are more than 400 wineries in England and Wales, and lists more than 30 of them. Among them:

¶ Camel Valley Vineyard, near Bodmin, Cornwall PL30 5LG, off the A389 Bodmin-Wadebridge road, or 10 minutes from the A30 via Nanstallon. Telephone: (+44) (0) 1208-77959; e-mail: info@camelvalley.com; Web site: www.camelvalley.com

Camel Valley produces crisp, clean white wines, fresh and fruity red wines and sparkling wines. Its shop is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. year round. Guided tours are at 2.30 p.m. April 1 to Sept. 30, and cost 3.50 pounds (about $6.75) There are also grand tours of the winery on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. Tickets are 5 pounds and reservations are advised.

Camel Valley Vineyard also owns two holiday cottages. Packages include a free bottle of wine, a tour of the winery and salmon/trout fishing rights.

¶ Chilford Hall Vineyard, Balsham Road, Linton, Cambridge CB1 6LE, on the B1052 road, between Linton and Balsham, close to the M11, A11 and A1307. Telephone: (+44) (0)1223-895600; e-mail: info@chilfordhall.co.uk; Web site address: www.chilfordhall.co.uk.

Chilford Hall specializes in dry and medium-dry white wines and pink sparkling wine. The winery and shop are open 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. March 1 through Oct. 31, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 1 to Dec. 23. Guided tours at 11:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. are 4.50 pounds for adults, free for children.

Chilford also has a conference and banquet center licensed for marriage ceremonies.

¶ New Wave Wines, Tenterden Vineyard, Small Hythe, Tenterden, Kent, TN30 7NG; on B2082. From Tenterden High Street (A28 road) turn left onto the B2082 towards Rye. Vineyard is two miles on the right in village of Small Hythe. Telephone: (+44) (0) 1580-763033; e-mail address: tourism@englishwinesgroup.com; Web site: www.newwavewines.com.

New Wave Wines produces about 12 still and four sparkling wines. Specialities include the unusual white Bacchus, the red Pinot Noir and its sparkling wines. Guided tours cost 4 pounds for adults, 3.50 for concessions, 1 pound for children over 12 (apple juice provided).

Tenterden also offers the full-day Vineyard Gift Experience (30 pounds per person), which includes coffee, guided tour, wine tasting, lunch and a bottle of Brut to take home.

— Richard Moverley

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