Oz Clarke's pick of the best British vineyards

It's going to be a lovely summer. How can it not be, after the last two shockers? I mean, we Brits don't ask for special treatment, just a fair deal. It's our turn. Please, oh please, give us a sunny summer.

Well, my optimistic alter ego believes this summer will glow with warmth and seasonal joy. My pessimistic id has seen yet another gloomy metereological computer model that predicts a third miserable summer in a row, followed, from 2010, by a string of broilers. A string of broilers? Who are they kidding? Climate change is about chaos and unpredictability rather than the prospect of barbecues on Bridlington beach and being burnt to bits in Bognor.

But I spent last summer touring Britain. It poured with rain, the caravan leaked, the tent blew down and I never even opened my tube of factor 30. Yet I was stunned and thrilled by the beauty of our precious land. Even under glowering skies, it is a blissful place, frequently made more beautiful by the efforts of the hardworking men and women who make their living off the land. Upland meadows, willow copses, carpets of golden wheat, streams, dams, rivers and mills. All man-made. All adding immeasurably to the sheer joy of Britain's countryside.

But there's a newcomer, an intruder, a fancy dan outsider sneaking onto protected patches of south-facing chalk downland, onto the shoulder of a river's oxbow bend, into the folds of forgotten hills, onto meadows, potato fields and orchards shorn of their trees, and planted with … the vine.

Breaky Bottom
Lewes, East Sussex
Tel: 01273 476427 FIND OUT MORE 
There’s no more beautiful vineyard in Britain than Breaky Bottom. The world has grander sites, more opulent spreads, more dramatic escarpments trailed with vines, but this is about heart and soul. You take a glorious but bumpy ride across the crest of the downs, with Beachy Head jutting far off to your left, and suddenly, way below you in a tiny valley so tight it’s more of a cleat than a fold in the hills, you see two patches of vines – one small, one even smaller – and a flint-faced cottage so tranquil that hard-eyed bankers would weep to possess it. They’ll never get their hands on it. Peter Hall, whose face radiates calm and generosity, has fought for these precious acres since 1974. He has been felled by money, bureaucracy and nature, but has always struggled back to his feet and continued to make one of England’s greatest sparkling wines, which he’ll share with you if you make the pilgrimage.
Leventhorpe Woodlesford
Leeds, West Yorkshire
Tel: 0113 288 9088
I got used to the blind tastings. Every time I went to a radio or television studio in Leeds there’d be giggles, sly glances and the furtive rustle of a bottle being wrapped in paper to obscure its identity. Then they’d place the glass in front of me and say: “What is it?”
Why did they always expect me to fail? Leventhorpe is a once-tasted-always-remembered kind of wine. Raw, ferrous, stained by Pennine rain and scarred by the sooty crust of industry. I always got it right, but owner George Bowden was never much amused by the reasons I gave.
Last year he sidled up to me and said: “Taste this, you southern softie.” And it was the delicious Leventhorpe Madeleine Angevine 2005. Pale, sharp, citrous, scented with lemon blossom and wonderfully refreshing.
Camel Valley
Nanstallion, Cornwall
Tel: 01208 77959 FIND OUT MORE 
Head-on mid-air collisions when you’re the pilot of a jet plane are rarely recommended, but as a spur to a career change it can’t be beaten. It worked for Bob Lindo, who dealt with his post-traumatic shock by heading for the Camel Valley near Bodmin.
Last time I visited, the sun was evenly matched by the wind and the lashing rain – but it was 2008. In less mournful seasons, these steep slopes are well protected from the rough coastal weather and the worst of the gales get cut off by the twists and turns in the valley. When the sun does shine, the slopes harvest enough warmth to make surprisingly good red wines, but the white Bacchus is more my style, bristling with the freshness of elderflower and English hedgerow scent. The white sparkler shares the same breezy English optimism.
Three Choirs
Newent, Gloucestershire 01
Tel: 01531 890223 FIND OUT MORE 
I first got to know the parish of Newent in Gloucestershire because it appeared to be home to more ancient perry pear varieties than anywhere else in Britain. But with perry pears being notoriously inedible and perry itself being a delicious but erratic drink, I found Three Choirs Vineyard offered me more reliable pleasures.
This is a substantial operation, featuring 100 acres of rolling vines, a good restaurant, a decent hotel and a winery that is well set up for visits. They swear they are in a rain shadow, so you might even get good weather for a visit.
They’re well known for soft, gluggable reds but, as so often in England, my favourite is the light, fragrant Bacchus or the surprisingly exotic Siegerrebe.
Totnes, Devon
Tel: 01803 732203 FIND OUT MORE 
You really ought to see Sharpham for the first time from the air. Its grand 18th-century manor house surveys the vines tumbling down a great shoulder of land to the Dart Estuary. Or you could come by boat; numerous craft travel between Totnes and Dartmouth on a summer evening. In fact, even the drive is lovely. This is a heavenly part of Devon and you get majestic views over the river and its sprawling expanse of water meadow.
Sharpham is a very steep vineyard that is well protected and beautifully exposed to the sun. Steep slopes garner much more warmth in the late summer and autumn than flat ones do, and this allows Sharpham to make a speciality of reds and pinks, though I still prefer their vibrant, refreshing whites, ideally drunk by the banks of the Dart with chunks of Sharpham cheese from the farm shop.
Ditchling Common, Sussex
Tel: 0845 345 7292 FIND OUT MORE
The beauty of Ridgeview is more in the bottle than the winery, which is functional and business-like. In fact, I think Ridgeview is quite possibly the most focused and clear-headed winery in Britain. Mike Roberts got out of the computer game to start the winery, but he hasn’t lost that beady eye for the bottom line.
That by itself wouldn’t be enough to make a success out of English wine. What marks him out is that he has a vision of flavour coursing through his mind, and a total belief that England can make sparkling wine to match that of Champagne. And he’s right. I’ve often served Ridgeview blind to friends and every time they all thought it was a really classy glass of Champagne.
Ridgeview isn’t a pretty winery. But as the sun sets and the vines stretch towards the South Downs, the view, at least, is lovely. 

This is an extended version of an article that appears in issue 21 of Countryfile Magazine. Never miss an issue by subscribing today.



Comments: 2

The Ridgeview bottle is

Fri, 21/08/2009 - 15:34

The Ridgeview bottle is really something different than others. But I prefer camel valley as the best. What do you people think?

Well are these six the best?

Thu, 20/08/2009 - 18:29

Well are these six the best? What the others are thinking? Let me know, and I am also thinking. 

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