Working for Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours, Emma Pike recently had an opportunity to develop and lead a walking wine tour in the south-east of England. This has now been added to the portfolio of wine holidays that Arblaster & Clarke offer around the world, which range from Italian island wine cruises to wine tours taking in several different countries in South America.
“Sparkling wine has always been my favourite tipple. Despite there now being quite a few vineyards in south-east England, it is only recently that their wines have begun to beat Champagne in competitions and that English sparkling wine has begun to gain popularity. This has been aided by the publicity for English wine, brought about in part by our Olympic and Jubilee year in 2012. The chalk hills of the South Downs are part of the same formation that pops up on the other side of the channel, in Champagne. This means that in places the soil types are identical and the quality potential is unquestionable. So when I was asked to set up a walk of the local vineyards of the South Downs for our small independent wine touring team, it was a great challenge to take on.
We embarked with some trepidation, as although I’ve spent years walking and enjoying the South Downs (the newest of the National Parks and one of the largest too), I’d never encountered a vineyard there before. However, when we started walking the routes to see where we would be able to link wine tasting visits together, we were happily surprised. We encountered not just one or two solitary vines en route.
After much planning, we didn’t doubt that those joining us would enjoy the varying terrains that our specially designed routes took. After the disastrous 2012 harvest (one wine estate that we visit did not pick any fruit at all), our April walking weekend on the South Downs this year would surely be more clement. But no, bring on the snow!
On our first day walking in the South Downs, towards the West Sussex border, small white flakes began to tumble. Only on an English vineyard walk could the focus be forced onto extreme weather, but at least it was a good talking point for the group that I led. We tramped on through the grips of the cold weather and enjoyed soup on the hillside and a special tasting lunch of exceptional standard at Nyetimber Vineyard to keep warm. Everyone wrapped up and the snow was indeed brief, so the walking was not badly affected.
We spent two full days walking on the South Downs Way and the Literary Trail, from vineyard to vineyard. The weather brightened quickly and the views from the top of coombes and valleys of the Downs are spectacular. We walked to the top of Old Winchester Hill in the Meon Valley, a good climb at 197 metres above sea level, and spotted a few braver than us paragliding down over the vines. The chalk downland also provides plenty of flora and fauna of interest too; it’s a great habitat for a number of butterfly species and our group found a small vole amongst the vegetation. We also had great views of some of the best-preserved yew forests in the entire country as we walked past iron-age hilltop barrows.
The star of the whole weekend was a special invitation to a small vineyard based at a family home in the Meon Valley, a truly fantastic visit. The owners George and Clare Bartlett are natural hosts, with an absolutely beautiful home. It is a medieval courthouse, dating from 1389 and believed to be featured on the Bayeux tapestry, with a delightful atmosphere. Considering the weather, a fan heater was brought out to make sure it was cosy too, which was appreciated all round! George is so obviously engaged and enthralled by every detail of winemaking. Although they do not vinify the wine there, the grapes are all grown around the courthouse. George had kindly left some pruning to do on the day, so that everyone could see the methods that were employed.
Our walk of the Meon Valley concluded with a visit in great contrast, at Hambledon Vineyards. The impressive winery buildings are something to behold, being built with attention to every detail and blending nicely in to their situation on the estate. The fully gravity fed winery buildings, the top of the range Coquart press and the expertise of former Champagne Duval-Leroy chef des caves, Herve Jestin, make for outstanding quality sparkling wine. I was extremely impressed by the care that has gone in to reinvigorating this historic wine estate by founder and managing director Ian Kellet, who met us at the house on the estate and showed us round. While tasting the first ever release of their wine (a wine I enjoyed so much I purchased a bottle!), we perused the intriguing records kept of winemaking at the estate since 1952.
On our walking weekend of the South Downs we also included two evening meals accompanied with further tastings. This meant that the range of wines explored could be a lot further afield than anyone’s legs could carry them! Julia Trustram Eve, of English Wine Producers, hosted our first evening tasting and we had many converts to the still wines of southern England as well. My personal favourite of this tasting was the Gamay from Biddenden vineyards. It proved itself worthy of the presentation to HRH The Duchess of Cornwall that it had received. The 2009 vintage that we tasted was so temptingly fruity and light – it beat any Beaujolais I’ve tasted hands down. Tim Clarke, chairman of Arblaster & Clarke Wine Tours, who brought us wines from around the world, hosted our second evening tasting. We tasted unexpected grape varieties of Georgia, interesting Austrian, Greek and South African wines and a vintage port from Taylors that was all rich plum and fig to finish.
There was an option on the final morning to join another short walk from our pub accommodation to the farmers’ market in Petersfield. This was thankfully all downhill in the Ashford Hangers, a nature reserve, and past The Poet’s Stone, a memorial to wartime poet Edward Thomas, who was an avid walker and enjoyed the panoramic view of the Downs seen from the point of the memorial. The group kept a steady pace down the steep hill and enjoyed plenty of lovely local food at the end of the walk from good producers at the market, bringing to a close a wonderful, fascinating weekend exploration of wine from England and further afield. A regular client who has attended our tours in most of the classic wine regions of France, and further afield in California too, wrote afterwards of the South Downs weekend that it was ‘one of the best… inspiring’!”