British wines are scooping awards, beating blends from France, Italy and Spain. And, as the industry thrives and quality improves, our dreams of days strolling among the vines in our own vineyards are becoming a reality.
In 2005, Damian and Fiona Walsh planted vines in their two-acre small holding near Saffron Walden in Essex.
Their crops yielded enough grapes, four years later, to make 1,750 bottles of fine wine. They’re not alone; the area under vine in the UK has grown by 175 per cent in the past ten years.
Top pick: Willow House – a grade II-listed 17th-century home in Fressingfield, Suffolk, with six bedrooms and a vineyard – is on sale for £1.25 million
‘A lot of overseas buyers and investors are developing commercial vineyards in the South-East of England, while hobby vineyards make wonderful retirement projects,’ says Ed Dixon, head of rural asset management at Knight Frank.
Damian and Fiona first became fascinated with wine-making when they holidayed in the Chianti-belt of Tuscany in the early days of their marriage. I
It was years later that they decided to try wine-growing themselves.
Fiona signed up for a course at Plumpton College, East Sussex, they hired a consultant to do soil checks, then planted the grapes that grew into their first vintage of rosé, red and white wines.
‘It’s so satisfying,’ says Damian, ‘like creating a piece of art that is living and growing.’
The Walshes take the grapes to an organic vineyard near Colchester to be crushed into wine and juice. It is purely a hobby, not a commercial venture, so they do not harvest their grapes every year.
However, the thousands of bottles they lay down make them popular hosts.
It’s so satisfying – like creating a piece of art that is living and growing
Damian Walsh, vineyard owner
‘Our Pinot Noir 2007 vintage was the best,’ says Damian, who is now selling The Russetts, with its six-bedroom house, for £1.395 million via Cheffins.
‘Mix it with prosecco and put a raspberry on top to make the party go with a bang.’
Vine growing, however, is far from straightforward.
‘It is vital that you get expert advice,’ says Jo Cowderoy, editor of Vineyard magazine. ‘You need to make a business plan and understand all about costs and stock holding, which is quite complicated.’
Choice of site is vital — ones that have good drainage, south-facing slopes and are no more than 330ft above sea level are the most suitable.
The unreliable British weather can cause problems. Grapes need sunshine from April and May onwards and a late frost can spell disaster.
As a rule, the best weather conditions are found to the east of a line drawn between Salisbury and the Isle of Wight. Yet this is not to say that vine growing is impossible in other parts of Britain.
‘The mild micro-climate climate and rich soil in West Wales is good for vine growing, too,’ says Carol Peett, of West Wales Property Finders. ‘Several small vineyards such as the Jabajak and the Velfrey have prospered already and I’m sure more will follow.’
Penarth House, Newtown, Mid Wales, grows the classic Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. Created in 1999, their sparkling wine grapes were nominated for a Bronze Medal by wine experts Decanter in 2019.
The vineyard produces, on average, four tonnes of grapes a year, but in a good year the yield has reached 12 tonnes.
The main house, a grand Jacobean grade II-listed pile dating back to 1685, with six bedrooms and a large library, stands in eight acres. It’s on sale with Balfours for £1.25 million.
Opening a vineyard is a pricey pursuit
Creating a vineyard is eye-wateringly expensive. The capital outlay is steep; it takes about three or four years before grapes can be picked and another two before they make drinkable wine.
It makes sense to diversify. Many vineyards have shops and a cafe on site, and they nearly all run guided tours of the vines.
Tasting time: Many vineyards have shops and a cafe on site
Woodchester Valley in Stroud offers wine tours and tastings from £18 pp, while the small, family-run Parva Farm vineyard in Tintern, in the Wye Valley, do a self-guided tour for just £2.50 pp. And it comes with a free tasting.
Willow House, meanwhile, is a grade II-listed 17th-century home in Fressingfield, Suffolk, with six bedrooms, a vineyard and an annexe. It’s on sale for £1.25 million.
The chances of finding a vineyard for sale for less than £1 million in Britain are slim. Not so in France, where Jo Cowderoy is selling her seven-bedroom Maison de Maitre and eight-acre vineyard in Puicheric, an hour’s drive from the Mediterranean.
The house is for sale for £270,000, while the vineyards are expected to make about £200,000 at auction.
Although no wine has been produced here recently, the vineyard’s Chateau La Bouscade sold worldwide until 2010.
Investing in a vineyard is a risky business, so why plant grapes instead of, say, vegetables?
‘It is a celebratory thing,’ says Cowderoy. ‘It feels so good to raise a glass and know the blood and tears that went into creating it.’