Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Sampling the fine wines of the Surrey Hills

The dozen or so Institute members who chose to visit England’s largest vineyard were blessed with one of the rare vibrant summer days this year. In some fields the leaves were just sprouting after state of the art pruning and others were to follow shortly. Obviously, the owners of Denbies Wine Estate would like many more such days to contribute to high quality wines. 265 acres of vines were planted gradually after Adrian White had purchased the historic estate in 1984 from the Cubitt family whose lavish mansion had succumbed to decay and was demolished in 1954.

The ‘terroire’ as the French call it is ideal for wine growing: chalky soil, south sloping fields, protected by a crest of woods which attenuate sharp winds, similar to the Champagne region as Jeanette Simpson pointed out who guided the tour through the estate. Crisscrossed by 7miles of footpaths the estate accounts 650 acres in total, three times larger than any other wine estate in Britain. There remain plenty more south sloping areas designated for future planting. Advised by a neighbour, Professor Selley, of Imperial College, the estate owner Adrian White started experimenting with wine growing on what was an unsustainable pig farm.

Wine growing is a labour of love and commands patience, not least in England’s unpredictable weather and not very favourable climate. Wines need at least five years before they produce commercially viable grapes and may need replanting after a quarter of a century. Initial experiments took place on 30 acres with grapes used by other wine growing pioneers in the region, among them Muller Thurgau, Reichensteiner and Bacchus for white wines and Pinot Noir for red and fizzy wines. The first commercial wines were produced in 1993 under the Surrey Gold label when the chateau-style winery opened as well.

The estate experimented with a number of different grapes planted on the most favourably exposed slopes, including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Auxerrois, Solaris, Ortega and others. The inaugural premium Bacchus/ Sauvignon Blanc blend obtained much acclaim in 2014.

The outlook of the Denbies wine estate is one of a sustainable vision, supported by modern equipment and technologies, visible in the winery as well as in the fields. For example we saw a large fan which is activated when temperatures are falling low to prevent frost damage. Ecological principles are followed by applying well established practices, such as leaving fields untreated to encourage native wildflowers. The 1,600 newly planted oak and hazel trees are attracting wild life and beekeeping is undertaken by volunteers from Surrey Wildlife Trust.

Denbies-2-webBesides wine growing with a slim number of staff, the Wine Estate is also catering for weddings, conferences, dinners and vineyard tourism which together are attracting 350,000 visitors per year. We benefited from these facilities when we were offered an exquisite lunch with local produce after our wine tasting. One of our members learnt a lot for his own wine growing, another was keen to book the facilities for a party, and all of us were impressed by the good quality of the wines, 14 different types of white, rose, red and sparkling wines in total, many of which have earned medals while some have made it onto supermarket shelves. A recently-made video, introduced by Celine Bouteiller, the PR and events manager, showed the history of the estate and its projects for future expansion and experiments. We wish them luck and strongly recommend that other CIoJ members should visit this wonderful vineyard.