Tag: UK staycation

Why you should raise a glass to English Wine Week in Herefordshire

I’m inspecting neat, newly flowering rows on a sun-dappled day in the English countryside.

But I’m not strolling in the gardens of a stately home. Instead, I’ve come to a vineyard in the rural heartland of Herefordshire to witness an unlikely trend: the rise of quality English wines.

No, really. The patchwork-quilt landscape, best known for its autumn cider harvest, is now home to a group of wineries helping to fuel the boom in English wine tourism.

Who would have thought that our home-grown vino could have gone from quirky curiosity to award winner?

But the start of English Wine Week (June 18) is set to confirm the trend with 195 wineries, producing 9m bottles of English wine per year, according to 2021 figures from Wines of Great Britain.

Furthermore, wine tourism increased by 57% in 2020, reflecting a boom in domestic visits to wineries and sales direct from the cellar door.

 The growth reflects the way climate change has enabled some grape varieties to flourish in new parts of England, but also a better understanding generally of techniques,” explains Julia Trustram Eve, Head of Marketing at Wines of Great Britain.

Sparkling wines (64% of the market) still dominate but confidence is growing in still wines — especially linked to food pairing.”

Award winner

The coming of age of English wine means places like the Wye Valley in the Welsh Marches come become our answer to the Route des Grands Crus in Burgundy. Jamie McIntyre, the owner of the Wythall Estate Vineyard, is poised, corkscrew in hand.

“The Wye Valley is the perfect showcase for English wines, driving through the countryside in an open-top car and stopping off at wineries,” he says.

Wythall’s vineyard, set in the grounds of the 16th-century family estate, is just two miles outside the historic market town of Ross-on-Wye. It grows four varieties, based on German stock, across its four acres, producing around 4,000 bottles per year.

The Fruhburgunder grape produces Wythall’s Pinot Noir (£30 per bottle), which won Gold at the Independent English Wine Awards 2022.

Wild rabbits scamper through the vines and fallow deer emerge gingerly into the sunlight in the fields beyond as Jamie takes me on a tour of the vineyard.

He tells me afterwards, as we taste the wines in the wood-paneled dining room, the glasses embossed with the family crest that dates from the 1500s:

“The snobbery around English wine has gone. It’s no longer a blind spot for wine drinkers.”

Jamie’s wines are served alongside pints of local Butty Bach at The Hostelrie gastropub in the nearby village of Goodrich, close to medieval Goodrich Castle.

I match a dinner of monkfish and chorizo, followed by a plum compote with cold custard, with a glass of Jamie’s Sparkling Rose in the garden on a sun-kissed summer evening.

New varieties

The next day, I visit the Coddington Vineyard [pictured above], which along with Wythall and Frome Valley Vineyards, features in a series of new, self-guided wine walks of Herefordshire.

I follow an undulating five-mile route from the Church of St James, located in the village of Colwall, then cross Coddington’s vineyard for lunch before climbing Oyster Hill, the Malvern Hills and the town of Ledbury on the horizon.

Coddington is one of the more mature wineries in the region with three varieties, including two still whites and a sparkling Pinot Gris.

“You only get good wine from good grapes,” explains owner Peter Maiden, showing off his neatly pruned rows of Ortega, grapes derived from German Riesling stock.

“There’s a lot of coordination between sugars and acid.”

 The vines start to bud in May and will be in full flower for English Wine Week with harvest time bringing a frenzy of activity to the tranquil rural site come October.

“It’s a labour of love but very satisfying,” says co-owner Sharon Maiden.

“Given longer summers and milder winters, our wines increasingly benefit from a fruity, floral flavour that make them uniquely English.”

I agree, and having stocked up at the cellar door, I’ll be embracing home-grown wines from now on.

After all, how better to celebrate The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee weekend than raising a glass of new-generation English wine.

How to spend a Roman-heritage weekend in Hadrian’s Wall country

My latest assignment took me to the wide-open spaces of Northumberland.

I was there researching a feature for Discover Britain magazine about events to celebrate the 1900 years since the Romans started building Hadrian’s Wall [pictured above].

The Wall, built over seven years from 122AD, comprised a series of a gates or milecastles every Roman mile (0.92 miles), to control the troublesome frontier of northern England. It used some 800,000 cubic metres of hand-carved stone, gouged laboriously from local quarries.

But this trip wasn’t just about Roman heritage. I was interested in the way that two icons of British history hail from the Northeast.

As well the 1900 Festival this year along the length of Hadrian’s Wall, there’s also a major art exhibition coming to a gallery in travel-hub Newcastle.

The Lindisfarne Gospels, the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts on loan from The British Library, will return to the Northeast for the first time in many years.

Julie Milne, Chief Curator of Art Galleries, including the Laing Art Gallery, says:

“The shiver-down-spine moment for me was when I first saw The Gospels close up. I’m fascinated by the intricacy of the artwork, especially given the hard conditions under which they were produced.”

Back on the Roman-heritage trail, I later visited the Great North Museum, where the Hadrian’s Wall Gallery includes an evocative set of Roman tombstones [pictured below] amongst the exhibits.

Most of all, I learnt how, far from a remote outpost of a dwindling empire, the Northeast of England is a hotbed of historical interest.

The events that connect the Wall and the Gospels this year offer living testimony to Northeast England’s crucial part in British history.

Read my feature in the August/September issue of Discover Britain.

The Lindisfarne Gospels are at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, from September 17. 

More travel information here.

How to get a taste for autumn on a cider-tasting trip to Herefordshire

James Marsden is keen to introduce me to Big Mama.

She stands tall in the middle of a restored orchard, looking good for her 300 years, with her mother-tree branches heaving under the bounty of late-harvest perry pears.

I’ve joined James to gather the harvest by hand in Gregg’s Pit orchard, located near Ledbury.

The harvest [pictured above] starts in late September and, depending on the weather, lasts four to six weeks.

Herefordshire is the historical centre of Britain’s cider-making industry — and is in rude health given the renaissance of cider as a premium, organic product.

UK cider represents 45 per cent of the global cider market with orchards generating over £33m annually, according to The National Association of Cider Makers (NACM).

‘It’s labour-intensive work,’ says James, ‘but I work with nature, using the sun to influence the sugars.’

Historic connections 

Cider has been produced in Herefordshire since the medieval period with references to ‘sidir’, meaning ‘a strong drink’ found in the 1420 Wycliff Bible at Hereford Cathedral.

As cider challenged wine in fashionable circles during the 17th century, most Herefordshire farmhouses installed grindstones to press the Herefordshire Redstreak apples popularised by the area’s cider pioneer, Lord Scudamore.

Today the region remains the largest cider-producing county in the UK with around 20,000 acres under orchard, growing high-quality cider apples and perry pears.

I set out on an autumnal morning, the countryside dappled with spotlight sunbeams and bursting with ripe fruit, to explore the southern Redstreak Cider Circuit, a self-guided tour of the region’s apple-harvest heritage between Ledbury and Ross-on-Wye.

There’s also a Newton Wonder trail, a northern loop around Hereford, with both 45-mile circuits making for a gentle weekend exploring by bike or car.

The southern circuit pivots around the village of Much Marcle, with its 14th-century church dedicated to Saint Bartholomew.

It’s also home to both Gregg’s Pit and Westons Cider, the latter selling brands like Stowford Press and exporting to 40 countries.

Westons is the new face of the cider business: modern, large-scale and based around a visitor centre with a family restaurant.

I join the tour, poking my head into the distillery where huge wooden vats groan under the weight of fermenting fruit, and the visitors’ centre, which explains the history of British cider through historic cider bottles and labels.

Country roads

I later drive on along the country B-roads, the circuit leading me through villages made up of black-and-white buildings.

Many of the cider and perry producers on the circuit welcome visitors for orchard tours followed by an al-fresco or farm-barn tasting. Local cafes, restaurants and hotels, meanwhile, offer apple-themed menus throughout the harvest season.

Orchards have been part of Herefordshire’s landscape throughout history but while some producers have scaled up for the mass market, there are plenty of small-scale operators rediscovering the region’s organic cider-making origins.

Back at nearby Gregg’s Pit, I find James on his hands and knees, collecting pears with a headtorch as the light fades.

He makes a small volume of single-variety and blended ciders and perry drinks each year, using pure fruit juice and traditional methods, including a stone press in his garden.

When I pop my head around the door of the Vat House, the heady waft means the fermentation process is in full swing.

James, who is fond of cooking up an autumnal bean stew using Toulouse sausages and cider:

‘I’m trying to create a complex, distinctive drink and see it primarily as a food-pairing product.’

‘Herefordshire feels deep rural and that’s why I’ve made it my home,’ he adds as we sit in the back garden, the sun setting over the fields overlooking May Hill and the Cotswolds, with a glass of méthode champenoise bottle-fermented perry.

Cheers.

* This story first appeared in the Daily Mail.

How to drink to English Wine Week at the Carden Park Hotel in Cheshire

Cheers! It’s English Wine Week.

I went to raise a glass at my nearest vineyard, nestled in the Cheshire countryside at the Carden Park Hotel and Spa estate [pictured above], for a national newspaper feature.

* The edited article was published yesterday in the Sun on Sunday. This is my original version.

The vines stretch out across the estate, the grapes ripening in the sunshine. By late October, they should plump and ripe to pick for the wine-making harvest.

But we’re not in Bordeaux or the Barossa Valley. With English Wine Week starting today, we have given up on the amber-list lottery in favour of a grape British staycation in rural Cheshire.

Wandering through the three-acre vineyard at Carden Park, the Cheshire country-estate hotel around 30 minutes from the city of Chester, feels like a walk in the Napa Valley wine country — without the airport scramble.

Carden Park is home to one of the more northerly of the 770-odd vineyards in England. The majority are found in the Southeast but there are also over 30 vineyards in Wales and nearly 90 across the Midlands and the North.

The vineyard produces on average 7,000 bottles of sparkling Carden Park Estate Reserve wine each year from its two grape varieties, Seyval Blanc and Pinot Noir.

“The sandy soil and microclimate in this part of Cheshire suit those grape varieties to produce the best yield,” says Estates Manager Peter Pattenden.

WINE TRAIL

English wine travel is also booming with an average of 4,449 monthly visits to vineyards according to Wine GB, the national association for the English and Welsh wine industry.

Some larger wineries, such as Chapel Down in Kent and Llanerch in South Wales, have championed wine weekends away, combining meals and accommodation with winery tours.

Carden Park currently offers a more informal, self-guided stroll through the vineyard. There are plenty of options, however, for a wine-pairing weekend of Great British food and drink with wide-screen Cheshire countryside views.

After we had explored the estate, we headed into nearby Chester to meet local wine expert Richard J. Smith. He founded the Wine School of Cheshire and recently opened The Tasting Room in Chester, offering tasting events and wine-appreciation classes.

English wines are, he says, finally give the French and new-world winemakers a run for their money at international tastings.

Traditionally, English wines were sparkling but Richard champions still wines, favouring new grape varieties, such as white-wine Bacchus, that grow well in cooler UK climates.

“The Romans brought vineyards to England but, when I tried my first English wine around 1990, I simply poured it down the sink,” says Richard.

“English wine has transformed in recent years with new winemakers, technology and, of course, the effects of climate change,” he adds, opening a bottle of Pinot Noir with hints of burnt raspberry from the Gusbourne Estate winery in Kent.

We also taste a glass of Atlantic Dry from the Camel Valley winery in Cornwall. It’s fruity and fragrant — perfect with white fish or goat’s cheese.

“Our wineries are often family owned and the grapes are hand-picked,” adds Richard, who has four tastings planned for English Wine Week, and runs regular summer-evening wine cruises on Chester’s River Dee with the local boat company, Chester Boat.

“I love the sense of personality this brings to the new generation of English and Welsh wines.”

FINE DINING

Back at Carden Park, it’s time for dinner at The Vines, Carden Park’s new fine-dining restaurant inspired by the estate’s vineyard. The plush-green decor and starched tablecloths create a genteel atmosphere, complemented by a fine collection of wines from around the world.

The hotel also recently opened Vertigo at Carden, new aerial adventure course, while the Spa at Carden is ideal for some next-day recovery after a glass of vino too many.

But, for now, we tuck into lemon sole with local asparagus and roast beef, all washed down with a bottle of Carden Park Estate Reserve Rosé, priced at £47 in the restaurant.

The speciality coffee-bean ice-cream, served with amoretti biscuit, is our new favourite desert.

As the sun sets over the vineyard, we finish our stay by raising a glass to the new breed of English winemakers taking home-grown wines to the world.

Read the story at Sun Travel.