48 hours at Britain's largest vineyard
Updated: Sep 6, 2020
The Denbies Estate, based in Dorking, Surrey, has a total of 265 acres of vines sprawling across the famous chalky soils of the North Downs, which makes it three times the size of any other vineyard in the United Kingdom. We went along for 48 hours to see whether "biggest" is also "best".
There are few sights as magnificent as approaching an area and seeing row upon row of vines growing in uniform perfection up slopes and across the valley in every direction. This is the first impression of Denbies as you approach, with vines planted right up to its long driveway to the spacious car park in front of its main building.
For a Sunday afternoon, the place is buzzing. There has been a craft fair on in the building and the car park is busy. There are hikers in muddy boots wandering through the public footpaths which trail throughout the vineyard (there are a staggering 7 miles of them, including part of the North Downs Way), and the Farm Shop and Deli is doing a roaring trade selling local produce, plants and refreshments.
We were booked into the Farmhouse BnB accommodation - a 6 bedroomed farmhouse tucked just around the corner from the main building. Over the winter and spring, new accommodation has been built - it looks like it will be ready to open in July 2019, but for now, there are contractors crawling over the plot carrying out last minute decoration and snagging. Our bedroom window overlooked the new building, which was a shame (only a handful of the bedrooms of the farmhouse would have had views over the vines), and presumably the new accommodation will have views of the farmhouse rather than over the sweeping valley of vines. Given the amount of land available, this seems a mysterious decision to build the new block where they did!
The room was clean and comfortable enough, but a little dated in its decor and facilities. To make up for the lack of views, the pictures on the walls were all of the vineyard in various states through the year, which were lovely. Once the new accommodation opens I really hope the farmhouse rooms are in line for a spruce up next.
The garden area is nice, with barrel crafted furniture on the lawn, and once the new accommodation opens, an orangery (posh conservatory) in which to read the papers and enjoy a coffee or glass of something from the vineyard. Sadly for us, the rain started on our arrival and failed to stop until we left, so we were unable to take advantage of this lovely relaxing space. And we were a few weeks too early for the orangery.
Breakfast is taken in the main building, in a corner of the "Conservatory restaurant" - a spacious atrium that serves breakfast, refreshments, lunches and cream teas to the general public. For Farmhouse guests (and we were the only ones on this particular Monday morning!) there was a choice of cereal / yogurt and then a delicious and filling hot breakfast cooked to order with toast. If you happen to stay Sunday to Thursday nights, there are no evening meal options as the Gallery Restaurant (on the third floor with panoramic views of the vines) only opens Friday and Saturday nights.
For other bars and restaurants, Dorking is a 20 minute walk - half of it through the vines. Alternatively the village of Westhumble is just ten minutes walk (again, via public footpath) where the Stepping Stones pub is friendly and serves food in the evenings. The whole area is eerily quiet on Sunday evenings though, with many local restaurants closing at 8pm.
There is nowhere in the evenings at Denbies to have a drink. The only place to try Denbies wines are as part of a tour, or as part of a meal (daytime only - except Friday and Saturday) so this seems a wasted opportunity. There is an Enomatic wine dispensing machine in the lobby of the main building, which is a good idea for trying some of Denbies wines, but there are three problems. One is that the lobby is the most ridiculous place to have the machine. There is a constant stream of visitors milling around, heading for conferences, talks, and meetings, so the space lacks any tranquility or suitable seating. Secondly, the main building closes at 5.30pm, so not accessible in the evenings. Thirdly there were only two types of bottle in the machine. It wouldn't be able to cope with sparkling wine either, so I feel Denbies needs a space that can be a chilled out evening venue in which to sample the range, especially in summer.
Thankfully, given the miserable weather, the indoor tour had been booked. I was surprised that we were the only guests on the tour, which started in the new flat screen cinema room where we sat and enjoyed a 20 minute film ‘The Vineyard Through the Seasons’. The documentary covered the geology and history of the estate, and demonstrated the changes in the vineyard through the seasons. I always learn plenty of new things!
From the cinema room, we joined our less than enthusiastic guide (who shall remain nameless) for a walk through the winery. The guide's commentary is topped up with TV screens en route showing additional clips of footage and facts, as let's be honest, winery equipment itself is not particularly exciting to look at and you can't see much from beyond the glass partition - here's some steel tanks, here's some poor worker doing a monotonously repetitive task of loading bottles into a machine that will freeze the neck of the bottle. I was surprised that there were only two workers on the production line.
The journey ends in Denbies cellars where we were guided through a tasting of 3 of Denbies still wines. There was a white wine, Flint Valley, which has a lively (but not necessarily pleasant) nose of lime and cat pee (reminiscent of a French sauvignon blanc), but tasted of fresh and vibrant citrus with good minerality and well balanced acidity. Next was a rosé, Rose Hill, which was bursting with strawberry, and would make a fantastic summer bar-b-que wine. The third sample, Surrey Gold, was deeper in colour and fuller in body and a touch sweeter with more stone fruit on the palate. A great wine, this one was our favourite.
I was fascinated by the large map on the wall showing all the different grape varieties that are planted on site. Due to the vulnerability of certain vines in the English climate, Denbies have been continually experimental with what grape varieties to grow where. The great array of varieties means there are more blending options, and secondly, having parcels split up across the site means that should one section of pinot noir (for example) get wiped out by frost, there are more parcels that will have survived, potentially saving the sparkling wine from a disastrous vintage.
All the wines (and there are more than just those three) are sold in the gift shop, where the guide said we could have a taste if we asked. We didn't, knowing that we may not want to purchase a bottle. Some people wouldn't care, but I'm too British, and that's where a bar would have been handy!
What is lovely about Denbies is the vast area to wander. The whole estate comprises 627 acres, 200 of which are woodlands, and includes 10 estate houses, and 7 miles of public footpath. The vines seem very content in the protected valley of south facing slopes (in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and beyond Denbies is Box Hill and plenty of other walks and places to explore on foot. For those who haven't got the energy, the outdoor tour is by land train and over 50 minutes, guests are taken around the property with a recorded commentary and stops at photogenic locations. In September, the Bacchus marathon and half marathon sees runners (and I assume walkers!) taking on a route around the vines, many in fancy dress. One year, I vow to sign up!
Overall, I feel I have only scratched Denbies surface and I want to return to sit in the sunshine, wander more of the estate without getting wet socks and eat a fancy dinner in the panoramic restaurant - none of which I had the opportunity to do this time. My only basis for comparison (so far) is Three Choirs Vineyard, which I visited at the same time of year.
I can't say that bigger is better as they are very different places, with alternative approaches....and varying weather! (Read my review of our stay at Three Choirs on an earlier blog post)
For more information about Denbies, visit www.denbies.co.uk