view over Denbies winter

Vineyards of the Surrey Hills

Vineyards of the Surrey Hills

Tina Lofthouse goes in search of the best local tipples for the festive season…

Main image: Denbies

As you stock up on your Christmas drinks this year, there’s a wealth of top vineyards on your doorstep where you can buy sparkling wines that rival the best Champagne, and delicious crisp whites that pair perfectly with your smoked salmon. Or how about a Surrey-made dessert wine with Christmas pudding? Surrey Negroni with locally made vermouth and gin – absolutely. Or perhaps a glass of warming glögg made just miles away?

Vineyards of the Surrey Hills is made up of five vineyards, all very different in character, yet sharing the same ethos of sustainability and quality. We started at Denbies, near Dorking. This is the largest in the group, with 265 acres under vine. It has won countless awards and has for the last 20 years been in the hands of Christopher White. An interesting map shows the grape varieties planted, many are Germanic hybrids to cope with cooler climes. But this is evolving with climate change.

Grapes at Denbies include Solaris, Muller Thurgau and more familiar ones such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Tours manager Anne Denny led the tasting, showing us the wide range of wines the estate produces, from Surrey Gold (it goes brilliantly with Chinese and Thai dishes); Bacchus, which is likened to a Loire Sauvignon and is great with goats’ cheese; Solaris – aromatic rather like a Gewürztraminer. It also makes an orange wine, a pale coloured white made in the style of a red: try it with a good cheddar on your Christmas cheese board.

There is a red too, including a WineGB Award winner for Denbies’ 2019 Pinot Noir. English reds are of increasingly good quality but they are not cheap. It can be hard to convince the typical wine consumer to move from their staple favourites to take a chance on an unknown English bottle at £20 to £30. Those that do are rewarded with light, fruity and elegant wines, usually Pinot Noir. There is not yet an English substitute for those who like heavier reds such as Malbec.

It’s the sparklies where English wines really excel. Surrey shares the same chalky geology that runs through Champagne. At Denbies, its prestigious Cubitt Blanc de Noirs from 2015 is your celebratory sparkly. We were also impressed by the dessert wine, Noble Harvest – made via the ‘noble rot’ method, where the grapes are left on the vine to develop the fungus botrytis. Try it with tarte tatin, blue cheese or Christmas pudding.

One of the main aims of the five vineyards is to make the area a top spot for wine and food tourism. At Denbies, there is already a hotel, a vineyard restaurant complete with cute vine-side cabanas, and a café. There’s only 15 miles between the vineyards so you could explore over a long weekend. Denbies has steamed up with RNG Classics so guests can hire a vintage motor to explore the area. We also had a driver at our disposal who took us around the vineyards in a Rolls Royce (our 1971 Silver Shadow was used by Kula Shaker and for scenes in Marvel’s Loki). It certainly got attention as we meandered through the Surrey countryside.

Images: Denbies, RNG Classics car

We headed to the smallest vineyard in the group – High Clandon. Having grown up in the wine regions of South Africa, Sibylla and Bruce Tindale had always wanted to set up a vineyard, and decided later in life to pursue their passion. They note they were perhaps the oldest students on their viticulture course at the esteemed Plumpton College. Their first planting was in 2005. There is only one acre, from which they produce a vintage sparkling wine from typical Champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, aged for at least five years, and made in the traditional Champagne method.

We tried the 2018 – absolutely delicious, creamy, biscuity and with fine bubbles. Sibylla and Bruce talked of the unique terroir of not only the region, but how it is expressed in the wines of each specific vineyard in the Surrey Hills. It’s not just the chalky soils, but the winds, and even the way the rain moves across the slopes.

As a producer of solely vintage wines, with only grapes from one year’s harvest used to make the wine, the results are different each year. They are about to taste 2019’s batch – clearly, it can be a nerve-wracking time. When the wines are released in the summer, there is an art exhibition at the vineyard. Sales of the artworks see 90% go to the artist, and 10% to local charity Cherry Tree for children with disabilities.

The vineyard offers tours to small groups and hosts various events for charity within the stunning setting – you can see London in the distance over the vineyard, and there are jazz nights as well as ‘Fizz & Firelight’ with interior design inspiration in the winter.

They offered us some of their Pinot Noir grapes to try – sweet with a touch of underlying sharpness, and full of flavour, the grapes are so unlike the flabby types you often get in supermarkets. Sibylla explained how the chalky terrain makes the vines struggle more, resulting in an intense flavoured fruit. Before we left High Clandon, we tried to master sabrage – they have a special blunt-edged sword to slice off the cork from the bottle. Fabulous fun.

Images: High Clandon, High Clandon cuvee,

Silent Pool was our next stop. The location is famed for its atmospheric turquoise lake, and has a tale of a mysterious haunting. It’s more famous spirit is its gin. Next door is Albury Organic Vineyard, which was set up by Nick Wenman, who retired early from his career in IT to pursue his love of wine. He has now been joined in the business by his daughter Lucy. Nick recalls winning a school prize when he was 17 where he could choose a book – he chose a world atlas of wine, much to the teacher’s surprise. But it went on to cultivate his life-long love of wine. He still has the book.

With the advice of Stephen Skelton, known as the godfather of viticulture in the UK, he chose the Albury site – south facing with its clay on chalk soil. The first vine was planted in 2009. There are 20 acres, producing around 30,000 bottles a year. Silent Pool Rose was served on the royal barge in 2012 for the late Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Nick decided he wanted to go organic from the off, many restaurants are requesting it but he wanted to do the right thing for the planet too. Disease-resistant grapes have been planted. The vines are the traditional Champagne varietals of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, as well as some Seyval and Pinot Gris. But it is not easy. Nick says that you have to see organic wine-making as a 10-year-plan to allow for variability of yields.

Nick, who is on the board of WineGB, the national association for English and Welsh wine, notes how sustainability is a real focus for the UK industry. Vines sequester carbon but WineGB is looking at what can be done to be as green as possible such as reducing the carbon footprint of glass bottles with thinner glass or alternative containers.

All the vineyards of the Surrey Hills have signed up to a sustainability initiative, which covers the environment, as well as social responsibility and governance. Restoring natural habitats is part of the plan. You can take a wildlife walk around Albury, for example, and at High Clandon there is wildlife meadow – the areas are havens for butterflies.

You can drop in to visit Albury. Local cheese and charcuterie are offered, along with tasting flights – in the summer, it is an idyllic spot where you can grab a table among the vines. There are guided tours, and they have teamed up with their neighbours, Silent Pool Gin and Mandira’s Kitchen, to offer artisan tasting experiences.

We tried the delicious British charcuterie plate, with meats from Tempus in Weybridge. We also tried the excellent local cheeses – Lucy advised we taste the blue with Albury’s rosso vermouth, and it really does work. Albury offers a popular brandy too.

We talked about whether we could see a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status for Surrey Hills’ vineyards, protecting them in the same way as Champagne, and indeed Sussex wines are, but for now it is about establishing the area for great quality, sustainability, and as a top tourism experience: looking out across the vineyards on a sunny day to the glorious vistas beyond, you could easily be in California’s Napa Valley.

Images: Albury wine tasting and brandy

Heading further in to the hills is Chilworth Manor, owned by entrepreneur and philanthropist Graham Wrigley and his wife Mia. Graham was inspired to start a vineyard after being given vines for his 50th birthday. The stunning grounds used to be a part of a monastery going way back to the 11th century. Grapes from the 10-acre vineyard produce rosé, a classic cuvée and a sparkling rosé. Its glögg, a Swedish version of mulled wine, is made from subsequent pressings of its Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes and mixed with a blend of spices by Silent Pool’s distillers – just the thing for the festive season.

Charity is a big part of the ethos: sales of Chilworth wines help to support Mary’s Meals who provide one good meal each school day to some of the poorest children in Malawi.

Chilworth is a founding member of the Sustainable Wines of Great Britain, a scheme which calls upon vineyards across the country to establish environmental sustainability as a cornerstone of the UK wine industry. For Chilworth, that has included reducing the use of herbicides and it has introduced a mechanical hoe to help keep the weeds down under the vines. It also maintain grass cover between the rows and around the headlands to minimise soil erosion and encourage beneficial insects.

The beautiful vineyard will have a tasting barn next year with views over the vines, and will be a perfect spot to try their fabulous wines.

Images: Chilworth Manor and its glögg (c) Julie Skelton

Our final stop was Greyfriars in Puttenham, near Guildford. It was originally set up in 1989 and, in 2011, Mike and Hilary Wagstaff took over, expanding the vineyard to its current size of 40 acres. This is a casual spot where you can book a ‘bottle and a blanket’ to enjoy among the vines, stop by the cellar door shop and take part in tastings. Events include vineyard yoga, there’s a foodtruck at weekends, and they host supper clubs.

We met Sarah Strangeway, one of the small team of nine that work on the estate. The community plays a big part in the harvest each year and volunteers are rewarded with a hog roast, the wine flows, and they are invited back to taste the fruits of their labours during the wine-making process.

Everything is done on site. A wine cave has been carved out of the side of the hill, a natural way to keep the bottled wines cool. Greyfriars predominantly grows the grapes used in Champagne, but its aim is not to produce a Champagne copy but to create wines that evoke the flavours of the English countryside. Its wines run from a still white ‘Pearl’ through to its prestige collection featuring 2016 Cuvée Royale. All the wines we tasted were delicious, with the Rose Reserve on our festive entertaining list.

It also makes a sparkling wine for Searcys and has a partnership with Wimbledon Brewery for its Wimbledon Pink rosé wine. You can also stock up on some beers for Christmas – it has a collab with London-based Hiver, which uses Greyfriars’ honey in its beers.

Images: Greyfriars’ collection

It’s an exciting time, both for wines made in Surrey and the UK generally. 2023 has been a good year for grape growing and the vines have loved the crazy weather. Climate change is altering the world wine map: top Champagne houses Taittinger and Pommery have vineyards in the south east of England. For English vineyards, rather than seeing it as a threat, there is a feeling that it can be beneficial in terms of shared learning.

There are around 950 vineyards in the UK, a huge increase from 300 at the turn of the century, although most are tiny operations. All the jokes about English wine have been long forgotten as they rack up the accolades in international competitions. Price is still a factor per bottle if you’re comparing them with mass produced supermarket wines: boutique wineries don’t benefit from economies of scale, there are higher production values and lower yields. You’re paying for quality and most of the sparkling wines are on a par pricewise with their Champagne counterparts. And it’s all the more appealing to know that you are supporting local – and sustainable. While the UK wine industry is perhaps the only beneficiary of climate change, it is doing what it can to give back to the planet.