A magical mix of talent, resources, terroirs and an increasingly favorable climate has resulted in an English wine industry that has exploded in recent years. World-class traditional method sparklers and cool-climate table wines are produced by 197 wineries across Britain, from nearly 900 vineyards. Thanks to the industry’s rapid growth (plantings are up 70% in the last five years and hectarage has more than quadrupled since 2000), combined with the COVID pandemic, which saw Brits flocking to wineries in their own backyards, there has been a stratospheric rise in wine tourism on the Isles.
Nearly 70% of Great Britain’s plantings are located in England’s southeast. Unsurprising, then, that it’s a tourist hotspot, too, particularly in the counties of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, where wine lovers can experience the best of Old and New World: the distinctly European charm of postage stamp towns; the winding, narrow, hedgerow-lined roads dotted with pheasants; the historic, cozy gastropubs; But also, the glittering tasting rooms, holistic, farm-to-table restaurants, health and wellness experiences and unique accommodation that rival the best in Napa.
With the paint barely dry on many of these offerings, there’s an overarching feeling of discovery; of getting in early on a wine region at the brink of international renown. The cat is out of the bag, but only barely.
England’s sunniest county rivals Sussex as U.K. wine’s beating heart. Less than two hours from London, Kent vineyards grow at the base of the narrow, chalky ridges of the North Downs, which mirror Champagne’s soils but are equally happy on heavier “Wealden” clay and “greensand” soils. If laying claim to top producers like Biddenden and Simpsons isn’t enough, Kent boasts the first—but certainly not the last—Champagne house to invest in English sparkling, Taittinger. An old apple orchard near Kent’s historic city, Canterbury, was chosen as the place to plant vineyards for Taittinger’s English brand, Domaine Evremond.
Chapel Down, Tenterden
A longer-standing endorsement for the future of English wine comes not from Champagne, but from England’s largest and arguably best-known producer, Chapel Down. Known equally for table wines like single-site Chardonnay and Bacchus, a highly perfumed, cold-hearty German cross variety, as for its approachable sparklers, Chapel Down’s vine plantings and bottle production have rapidly increased in recent years. It’s the only English brand to produce over one million bottles and is on track to two million. Tourism offerings have inevitably grown, too.
From a converted barn with an expansive patio and manicured gardens, Chapel Down offers a variety of packages to cater to every budget, from a walking-with-wine tour of the vineyards to a private lunch at the winery’s Swan Restaurant and a stay in nearby Sissinghurst Castle, which claims one of England’s finest gardens. For spirits lovers, Chapel Down also makes its own gin and vodka.
Balfour, Hush Heath Estate, Staplehurst
Few have taken up the wine tourism mantle with as much dynamism as Balfour. Deep in the Kent countryside, Balfour’s light-filled, wood and stone tasting room, which accommodates 200, is sleek and modern. But, it doesn’t intrude upon the 400-acre property, 300 of which is ancient forest thick with oaks dating back to the 1600s. The vast drinks range focuses almost as much on still wines as sparkling (don’t miss the Brut Rosé or the still Cinque Ports, made from Champagne’s five permitted white varieties), and includes “pink fizz” in a can and a range of Jake’s beers and ciders. They can be tasted from the balcony accompanied by sweeping vineyard views; served patio-side from a vintage red trailer; via a multitude of tour and tasting packages; with lunch or dinner; or while participating in one of Balfour’s many events, like its monthly music sessions. The company also owns the nearby historic Goudhurst Inn, serving up sourdough pizza and a terrific scotch egg at ground level, with accommodation above.
Just six miles from the sea, Gusbourne has, in the span of two decades, risen to become one of England’s most celebrated estates. It’s renowned for intense, elegant Blanc de Blancs, ethereal vintage rosé, and—remarkably, considering where we are—spicy, sappy Pinot Noir. Tourism hasn’t traditionally been at the forefront for this quality-focused producer, but in recent years have rapidly accelerated its cellar door offerings. Today, visitors to England’s third largest estate can book a variety of tours, a masterclass with talented Chief Winemaker Charlie Holland and lunch with its in-house chef. Gusbourne also provides a comprehensive “stay like a local” page on its website with recommendations from cycling the Rye Harbour, to crabbing at the seaside, to dining on lobster at Camber Sands, the UK’s only designated desert.
Note: The Wine Garden of England, a collaboration between eight of the region’s top wineries, is an excellent online resource for touring Kent wine country, whether self-guided, chauffeured or on a bicycle.
If Kent is England’s beating wine heart, then Sussex is its nucleus. It’s technically two counties—West and East. The West boasts Nyetimber, the estate that rocked the world when a pair of American ex-pats, Stuart and Sandy Moss, had the audacity to plant Champagne grapes in England in 1988 and change the course of English wine forever. (Note: Nyetimber is closed to the public, but its exquisite grounds, with 15th and 16th-century buildings, are a must-see if a visit aligns with one of its open days.) East Sussex has Plumpton College, where many local winemakers are alums, as well as longstanding estates like Breaky Bottom, Carr Taylor and Davenport, the latter one of the country’s few organic producers.
Ridgeview, Ditchling Common
East Sussex’s best-known winery is Ridgeview. Planted in 1995 by industry pioneers Mike and Chris Roberts, the second generation of Roberts now steer the ship. Ridgeview’s uncompromising approach to quality for its traditional method sparklers (try the NV Cavendish, the Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs) is rivaled only by the romantic views of the chalky South Downs slopes from its tasting room, or from its brand-new restaurant, The Row and Vines, where guests can enjoy “al fresco hospitality” amidst the original vines from a heated pavilion. Tours of Ridgeview’s underground cellar and various events are also ongoing. Of all visits, this B-corp-certified, sustainable winery won’t be the most glamorous, but it will be authentic and memorable, especially considering Ridgeview’s outsized impact on the English wine industry.
Tillingham may be small in size, but like Ridgeview, it is soaringly high on authenticity. Nestled amidst woodlands and rolling hills on the far eastern edge of East Sussex just 10 miles from the sea, Tillingham’s founder and winemaker, Ben Walgate, restored a derelict 13th-century mixed farm in 2018, carrying the tradition of polyculture into the 21st century in a way that feels both modern and pre-industrial. Beside a regeneratively and biodynamically farmed hill planted with 21 grape varieties, a beautifully designed, converted Dutch hop barn houses a stellar farm-to-table restaurant, tasting room, shop and eleven rooms. There are tours, regular yoga classes and vineyard-side bell tents available for rent. Tillingham leads Britain’s natural wine charge, and the bottles reflect this (think: pink Pet Nat, NV “Flor” bubbles reminiscent of Manzanilla Sherry and a Qvevri White, made from traditional Georgian amphorae buried on the property). But it also leads a new wave of holistic wine tourism that draws a young, social media-savvy crowd to wine country from London and beyond.
“We wanted a place where we could welcome people,” is what CEO and second-generation family member Richard Goring says about Wiston. The winery’s traditional method bubbles are wonderful—elegant, age-worthy and pristine. It’s surpassed only by the winery’s tourism experiences, designed to connect guests with the land the Goring family has occupied since 1743. There’s a “look under the Wiston’s bonnet” Nature and Wildlife tour in which guests meet at Chalk, the winery’s excellent, light-filled, farm-to-fork restaurant for coffee and pastries, pile into Goring’s jeep or tractor and rumble through the ancient woodlands in search of butterflies and birds; an off-road bicycle and lunch tour; a “Sundowner Safari” tasting, tour and dinner; and a Foraging Tour with Head Chef Bradley Adams. Wiston is quintessentially English in all the best ways and it’s not-to-miss.
Note: Sussex Modern is the county’s tourism agency and it’s a wonderful resource for listings of local wine and non-wine happenings, from the South Downs Dark Skies Festival in February to English Wine Week in June.
England’s chalk-filled wine spine runes throughout pastoral Hampshire, west of Sussex. The county sweeps down to The Solent strait of the English Channel and the Isle of Wight. But the majority of quality wineries are focused around the cathedral city of Winchester. Hampshire boasts Exton Park, which makes some of the country’s most complex sparklers from impeccably farmed vineyards on a beautiful hillside. But, although it rents its luxurious Exton Hall for private events, it’s closed to the public. Thankfully others, like the UK’s oldest commercial winery—and the first vineyards to be planted since 1875—Hambledon, are open to all.
Hambledon Vineyard, Hambledon
In a protected pocket of the chalky, wind-swept South Downs, just north of Portsmouth, Hambledon’s tidy rows of Chardonnay vines sweep dramatically up to a picturesque manor house. First planted in 1952 by Major-General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones, Hambledon was, for nearly two decades, the UK’s only commercial wine producer. To add to all this Englishness, consider the fact that another national icon was created in the same small village of Hambledon: the game of cricket.
Hambledon today is growing at lightning speed, having quadrupled plantings not once but twice in the past five years. Tourism offerings are also expanding, with a new restaurant and visitor center to be finished by May 2023. For now, guests can tour the historic vineyards, gravity flow winery and subterranean cellar, or dine with Michelin-starred Chef Nick Edgar in a pop-up restaurant tent, all while tasting Hambledon’s distinctive, opulent, salt-flecked style of non-vintage bubbles. The winery also hosts an annual Jazz and Fizz Fest in July.
Hattingley Valley, Alresford
20 miles north of Hambledon, Hattingley’s vines are also situated on deep chalky soil. The winery has, for the past decade, been a contract facility for dozens of local labels—and its new facility can process a million bottles. But Hattingley’s own label bubbles are delicious in their own right; delicate but with weight and richness derived from the oak aging that a portion of the base wine receives. Tourism hasn’t traditionally been Hattingley’s focus, but the winery opens to the public on weekends for tours, with tastings from a charming stone and brick cellar door. Save room in the suitcase for some bottles from the shop. The cleverly designed “unapologetically British” wine boxes make perfect souvenirs.
Note: Vineyards of Hampshire lists events and happenings from ten of the region’s main wineries.