Experience grape picking at Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking
PUBLISHED: 15:57 08 November 2013 | UPDATED: 17:11 08 July 2014
Andy Newbold Photography
As they get ready for the harvest at England's largest vineyard, Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking, you too could be joining in. Andy Newbold rolls up his sleeves and discovers what it is that brings hundreds of wine lovers to this beautiful corner of Surrey every autumn
The spectacular drive up to Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking is akin to arriving in Provence, and the vineyard has long been my place to escape to when I need time out. As a result, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what it was all about, but there was one aspect of life there that I was yet to experience.
Every autumn, the vineyard hosts its Vine & Dine grape picking days. Billed as the only experience of its kind in the UK, I wondered what might encourage paying and eminently sensible members of the public to step into the shoes of a harvest more normally associated with weary travellers in other countries. It was time to find out.
Grape to bottle
And so it is that on a bright early morning, the first chill of autumn in the air, I find myself gathered together with a motley crew of other enthusiastic oenophiles, tucking into bacon butties (well, you need sustenance for grape picking, you know).
In actual fact, the Vine & Dine experience days offer far more than just grape picking. Started in 2006, they allow members of the public the chance to experience the whole process of winemaking – from the grape to the bottle (now you’re talking...).
First up, though, we begin by meeting some of the regular pickers from the vineyard team who explain what to look for when selecting the bunches (the better the grapes, the better the wine). Lessons hopefully learned, the group heads off into the vines for two hours of grape picking, and we’re on our way!
It’s not until you start wandering through the trails that you start to grasp the size of the UK’s largest single estate vineyard. It’s huge and it needs to be – there are 14 different wines in production here with a turnover of over 450,000 bottles per year from 265 acres of vines! That’s a lot of grapes!
These are also vines that have placed Denbies on a pedestal among the best of British and, in fact, the world.
Earlier this year, their Noble Harvest 2011 won gold at the International Wine Challenge in the dessert wine category and the Chalk Ridge Rosé 2010 was named best rosé in the world at the same competition in 2011. In fact, Denbies’ wines have even been enjoyed by royalty (Prince Charles has walked these fields) and also at 10 Downing Street.
This knowledge certainly adds to the excitement of the Vine & Dine experience: you could well be picking grapes that prove to be future award-winners.
Getting a taste
Once the hard work is out of the way, the soon-to-be seasoned oenologists leave the fields to watch their harvest being loaded into the presses. Then, it’s time for the first taste of the ‘must’ – grape juice that is going or about to go through fermentation, to you and me.
At this point, we’re still a long way from the finished bottle that ends up so perfectly complementing your meals though. Fortunately, a walking tour of the winery takes us through the next stages of the process before visitors settle down for a typical workers’ lunch – a good old ploughman’s accompanied with a glass of Denbies’ finest, of course.
Stomachs full, it’s on to many people’s favourite part of the experience: the tasting of the various Denbies’ wines on offer in the cellars – ranging, on this occasion, from the country’s best-selling English wine, Surrey Gold, to the elegant notes of their Chalk Hill rosé and the mouthwatering Redlands.
At the end of the day, as the grape pickers leave, they are presented with an estate- grown vine to take away and plant at home – I wonder how many of them go away with dreams of replicating the achievements of Adrian White and his family, who created the vineyard after purchasing the Denbies Estate back in 1984.
With a particularly fine yield predicted for this year, thanks to the warm and sunny conditions this summer, which are expected to lead to an exceptionally high quality of wine, there’s perhaps never been a better time to get hands-on among the vines.
Vine & Dine Grape Picking Experiences are available at Denbies Wine Estate, London Road, Dorking RH5 6AA from Monday to Saturday throughout October. The cost is £53 per person with a group rate available on request. For more information, call 01306 876616 or visit their website at denbiesvineyard.co.uk
A bluffer’s guide
to wine terminology
Bacchus: The Roman god of wine, known as Dionysus in ancient Greece; a hybrid white grape from Germany. A Denbies favourite.
Fermentation: The process by which sugar is transformed into alcohol; how grape juice interacts with yeast to become wine.
Maceration: The process of allowing grape juice and skins to ferment together, thereby imparting colour, tannins and aromas.
Must: Crushed grapes about to go or going through fermentation.
Oenology: The science of wine production; an oenologist is a professional winemaker; an oenophile is someone who enjoys wine.
Press: The process by which grape juice is extracted prior to fermentation; a machine that extracts juice from grapes.
Pruning: The annual vineyard chore of trimming back all the plants from the previous harvest.
Sommelier: Technically a wine steward, but one potentially with a great degree of wine knowledge as well as a diploma of sorts in wine studies.
Vintage: A particular year in the wine business; a specific harvest.