A short walk down from the commuter-filled Dorking station in Surrey is 265 acres of vineyard. It is not only the largest in the UK but one of the largest privately-owned vineyards in the whole of Northern Europe. The car park is surprisingly full for late on a Friday morning and couples and families mill around the centre, waiting for tours and enjoying the sun pouring through a glass pyramid ceiling, into the cafe.
Denbies' Chief Executive, Chris White, is part of the family who originally turned the land, which was filled with cabbages, into award-winning vines: "1986 we first planted. We did a trial area of about 30 acres and the results were pretty evident early on so we decided to plant all the arable land."
Now, 30 years later, a litany of awards have put Denbies firmly on any sommelier's map. From a time when English wine was the preserve of boutique, small crops, or farmers selling at farmers' markets, Denbies now produces English varieties for a fair portfolio of the major UK supermarkets – and they've just signed up with Lidl.
Make English wine accessible
This is all part of their plan to make English wine more accessible. White doesn't want to keep the label over-premiumised: "A big part of our business model was to ensure that we exposed our wines to all different sorts of demographics."
The vineyard itself seems open to all demographics too – an outdoor tour on the Land Rover train fills up quite easily. Leading the group is Geoff Pharoah, who expertly collects a couple of families and a group of German tourists together in three trailers attached to big, green Land Rover – well used but still happily cobwebbed, the slow, scenic drive not deterring the countryside critters.
On the way up the hill, Pharoah stops to field questions from enthusiastic German retirees while explaining the grapes and lands that are rolling in front of us. There are seven miles of public right-of-way roads criss-crossing the estate, he says, he points out a group of teenagers with large back-packs trudging up the hill, "they're doing their Duke of Edinburgh."
Denbies' CEO, Chris White's red of choice? Denbies' own Redlands, of course. But for those newer to the label, the more easy-drinking Surrey Gold white is England's largest selling still wine.
Denbies' links to the local area are evident from the locals jogging and dog walking through the tracks, but also come from their history. The original idea for the vineyard partly came from Professor Richard Selley, a renowned geologist living locally who says he would stare out onto the hill thinking about how it could be a great vineyard. When the current owners bought the estate in 1984, it had a cattle and pig farm that was losing more and more money – they were interested in moving on and Selley gave them an unsolicited report, explaining his ideas about the land's potential.
As Denbies terroir is the same as that in the champagne region of France, it's maybe little surprise that their sparkling wines are becoming a choice item – this year Denbies Sparkling Greenfields Cuvée NV won the gold medal at the International Wine Challenge.
What makes English wine different?
But is there really anything special about English wine? According to White, it's about knowing what your land can do best: "To produce the sweetest wines in the world or full-bodied red every year is just not possible – we specialise in what we known we can grown well here, which is the aromatic, fruity wines."
"We produce very high quality sparkling wines and we produce aromatic fruity wines like bacchuses, ortegas, things like that."
For English Wine Week, starting Saturday 28 May and going on until Sunday 5 June, Denbies is preparing for more people than usual. The estate runs tours regularly anyway but the special week calls for special tours: a sparkling outdoor train tour on the Saturday and a wine and cheese walk later in the week.
Now producing for huge retailers, the vineyard makes around 500,000 bottles a year – though this can drop, in 2012 it was only around 250,000 after a frost took much of their crop. For White, being an English wine has definitely become a selling-point: "The industry is at an embryonic stage to a certain extent, all the supermarkets want English wine... there's very few people to go to at the moment."
With the sparkling doing so well, White wants there to be more attention on the still wines too, that's a focus for the future. Along with that a B+B on the site, that was once the main farm house, is set to become a boutique wine hotel (planning permission prevailing).
The trend for English wines has done him well but White doesn't pretend he saw it coming: "If you had told me that English wines would be in every supermarket in 30 years time and producing award-winning wines every year at the scale of what we're producing – I would have laughed at you."
With an International Wine Challenge Gold Award for their Rosé in 2011 and sparkling this year, along with leaving last year's industry drinks awards 33 awards heavier, he's laughing for a different reason now.
For English Wine Week, Denbies will run two special events:
Sparkling Outdoor Train Tour & Gallery Restaurant Dinner
Saturday 28 May, 6.30pm & 7.30pm - £55.00 per person / Loyalty Club £49.50
Wine & Cheese Walk
Thursday 26 May & Saturday 4 June, 11am - £19.95 per person / Loyalty Club £9.95