Given that the British rather selfishly consume 95 percent of their acclaimed sparkling wines themselves, the surest way to sample the product is to visit the vineyards and buy direct. Although there are 195 wineries across England—and two in Wales—the best-known (and best-prepared to welcome wine tourists) are found mostly in the warmer southerly counties of Hampshire, Kent and East and West Sussex. A road trip to see them is hardly a chore, as many are in the achingly lovely South Downs National Park or Kent’s High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. You may want to mix some of the big names in English wine, among them Nyetimber and Chapel Down, with smaller wineries such as Sussex’s Artelium, which doubles as an art gallery.
Last year, 38 percent of English wine was sold at the cellar door, and these high-margin sales, along with the additional revenue from tours, tastings and fine dining—plus the brand loyalty that often results from a visit—are part of the vineyards’ strategy. Napa Valley, in particular, has been the role model. “For a long time, the best wines from Napa Valley never made it to the UK because they were all consumed locally,” notes Simon Thorpe, a master of wine and CEO of Wines of Great Britain, the industry body for English winemakers.
“Ninety-eight percent of passengers arriving at London Gatwick airport turn north and head into the city,” says Sarah Driver, cofounder of the Rathfinny wine estate. “We’re on a mission to make them head south.” So, in addition to the usual tours and tastings, Rathfinny offers dining of exceptional quality and value in a restaurant with panoramic views of the vineyard, as well as accommodations in the 10-room Flint Barns, a beautifully restored ancient structure deep in the heart of the estate, once used to house the vineyard’s “pickers and pruners.” If you stay here, ensconced within its thick, centuries-old walls, miles from the nearest village or even public road, the loudest sound you’re likely to hear is that of the grapes growing around you. It’s eerie but magical.
If you’re determined to sleep amidst the vines, the Oxney and Oastbrook wine estates farther east both feature accommodations and easy access to big-name Kentish vineyards, including Gusbourne and Chapel Down, which don’t yet have guest rooms of their own.
West of Rathfinny, in the central Sussex region, Ridgeview and Bolney also offer new restaurants of a standard you’re always slightly surprised to discover at the end of the rustic tracks that lead you to the winery, along with the chance to try some of their lesser-known still wines by the glass. Bolney’s Bacchus, the creation of its young South African winemaker, Cara Lee Dely, was a particular revelation: crisp, complex, utterly distinctive but, sadly, made only in small quantities. (Had I not visited, I likely never would have encountered it.)
Because neither has guest quarters, book the nearby Ockenden Manor, a pleasing juxtaposition of Elizabethan manor-house hotel and modernist spa. In the west of the region, both the Tinwood and Ashling Park vineyards offer simple but stylish lodges. For something more luxurious and dramatic, stay within the 60-foot-high, 900-year-old walls of Amberley Castle, as Henry VIII once did, and strike out for the renowned winery at Nyetimber.
As if to prove the appeal of a tour of English wine country, as I was leaving Rathfinny a long, shiny black Mercedes “chauffeur jet” luxury bus pulled up and disgorged the president of one of the world’s largest companies—with a market capitalization deep into the hundreds of billions of dollars—and his retinue for lunch. Your arrival may be more subtle, but the welcome and the wine will be the same.