27 October 1995

Biggest vineyard in

Britain, snug in the

Surrey landscape…

Denbies is the largest vineyard in Britain. As the farm has changed from pigs to vines with a state-of-the-art winery and visitor centre, it has changed the scenery in Surrey. Tessa Gates visited the vineyard just as it prepared for harvest, to get a flavour of whats on offer

A CHATEAU style winery in the Surrey hills? A decade ago people would have laughed at the idea, and probably did when importer/exporter Adrian White first proposed the idea of turning part of his 257ha (635-acre) estate into a vineyard.

But now the flowing lines of vines, all 101ha (250 acres) of them, look surprisingly at home on the slopes bordering the London road, Dorking. The magnificent winery and visitor centre, tucked down where the former piggeries, beef unit and slurry lagoon once were, so as not to impinge on the landscape, draws visitors seven days a week.

Vineyard manager is Bert Martyn, who was employed by the estates former owner and has worked there for 23 years.

"I have been pigman, beef stockman then manager. Then, in 1986, we started to put in the vines and I had to change my philosophy on farming or change my job. I am glad I stayed," says Bert.

"It is a nice light soil here that keeps the heat and is ideal for viticulture. Everything is looking good for the harvest this year."

There are 250 miles of vines at Denbies. Casual labour is hired for the harvest but Bert also has machinery that is probably unique in English vineyards.

A Braud 1214 grape harvester, made in France but supplied by a German company, picks at 5-10 miles/hour and even de-stalks. It does the work of 150 hand pickers a day.

"You would have to run to keep up with it," he says.

The four-wheel-steer machine can crab-steer to get between the rows and is self levelling for work on the slopes.

"This is used to pick the grapes for the more popular blends of wine. We hand pick the Chardonnay and Pinot grapes as they need to be pristine to make sparkling wines."

Once picked the grapes are in the presses within an hour. Vine planting is also done by machine and there is an experimental leaf sucker that is used to take off leaves to reduce mould if the weather turns overcast and wet.

"We are pretty well the flagship for English wines," he says.

Nineteen varieties of grapes are grown and these are picked from October to mid-November.

"We sample grapes once a week at this time of year (Sept) and analyse sugar, acidity and pH, and then we can plot how the grapes are ripening and plan the harvest," says Keith Bown, Denbies winemaker.

Keith is a "flying winemaker" who works on contract to Denbies for six months of the year. This is his third season at the estate. He had just arrived from New Zealand and his next stop is Brazil for the wine harvest there.

"We hold back, hold back, hold back from harvesting to allow for natural ripeness. The longer we can leave it the better the wine," Keith explains.

"In 93 we had a severe frost the second week into the harvest. There was not a leaf left out there and you could see a line across the hill where the frost got in. We had to pick night and day.

"It was a very wet autumn in 94; it was the same in New Zealand. You cant pick while the grapes are wet or you get a wishy-washy wine. You must hold off picking for at least two hours after the rain stops."

This year a frost in April ran down one area, the Dell, like a river, just as the buds had burst. The second growth has almost caught up thanks to the wonderful summer but it could have been disastrous. The extra sun this year should make for more mellow and less acidic wine.

"We have 19 varieties of grape but some of the more ordinary we are re-grafting with Chardonnay," says Keith who learned his craft in Australia. "The Pinot Noir also does very well here.

"There is no formula for winemaking, it lets me express my artistic talents. Take two winemakers each with a tonne of the same grapes and they could make totally different wines," he explains.

Denbies has a range of 15 wines. Surrey Gold (£4.99/bottle) is the most popular and is served on the QE2 and on P&O ferries. The 92 Pinot Gris (£5.99) was the only English wine served at the inaugural opening of the Channel Tunnel.

Denbies Red (£6.99) is made from Dornfelder grapes and is a light wine. The vineyard is too northerly for a full-bodied red. Pinot Noir Rose is £6.99, Chardonnay £7.99. Most alcoholic and most expensive (£17.50/375ml bottle) is the 92 Special Reserve Noble Harvest Dessert Wine.

"This is late harvest wine made when the grapes are botrytis-affected – the noble rot. In Australia, they call them sweet stickies," explains Keith. "The botrytis mould grows on the outside of the berry and extracts water like a hypodermic needle, so instead of getting a potential alcohol level of 9-11%, you get 17-19%.

"You have to make a decision on when to stop fermentation – this is slow in dessert wines, between 25 and 45 days – to the level you want. In a lot of situations it will stop fermenting naturally as the sugar rises."

One of Keiths favourite wines at Denbies is the Chardonnay – a barrel fermented white. His 93 Chardonnay won a bronze medal in the International Wine Challenge, the only English one ever to get this. "We are in there with the French and hopefully the 94 will be even better," he says enthusiastically.

The vineyard sits on the same chalk as the Champagne region of France and Keith feels the sparkling wines maturing in the cellars will prove to be something special. "We want to bring one out in 97 and they are potentially very proud little babies," he says knowingly.

Most of the wine is sold through supermarkets, wholesalers and wine merchants. Denbies visitor centre accounts for 25% of sales. A tour here (£4) includes two films, one in 3D, a ride in the "people-mover" train through the winery, and an informative wine tasting.

There is viewing tower and a superb atrium makes the servery a very pleasant place to eat. The centre has a well stocked shop for wine and quality goods. Visitors can walk the vineyards at leisure.

Denbies is likely to stay Englands biggest wine estate for some considerable time. Its annual promotion budget alone is bigger than the income from many vineyards – £30,000 for the vineyard and winery, £50,000 for the visitor centre. It employs around 70 staff and produced 450,000 bottles of wine last year. Many of the vines have still to mature and there is potential to produce a 1m bottles a year.

"In the past our wines have been one to two years old before going on sale but this year we are hoping to bring out a nouveau white – depending on the quality of the wines. It will be very fruity, floral, in Muscat style, with a lot of gooseberry and violet aromas," confides Keith Bown. "I am always looking for something else new, there is no point in churning out the same old thing. It could be a popular seller."

Keith is optimistic about the future. "English wine is like English strawberries; there is an intensity of fruit flavour. It is the newest of the New World wines and we are learning that we have to have the right people working on it. I think we have them here," he says.

*Denbies (01306-876616).