4 fabulous vineyards in Derbyshire

Amber Valley Vineyards owner Barry Lewis

Amber Valley Vineyards owner Barry Lewis at the entrance to one of his vineyards on the outskirts of Wessington - Credit: Amber Valley Vineyards

Words by Viv Micklefield

We stand in a circle around a small patch of grass. It’s not perhaps an obvious start to a vineyard tour. However, on closer inspection, the wildflowers growing within the sward are attracting an insect life that lives in perfect harmony with the Amber Valley’s award-winning wines. 

As vineyard owner Barry Lewis explains, his adjoining ancient meadow has provided both the donor plants and the natural pollinators that enable a more organic approach to cultivation to be employed.  

Together with the wind and solar-power harnessed, it’s another example of how this gently sloping site has been sustainably developed during the past decade, as a casual interest became a commercial business.  

‘The idea of owning my own vineyard started out as a dream,’ recalls Barry. ‘I’d visited the Languedoc and the Bordeaux regions in France, and spent some time in Australia’s Hunter Valley. But never did I think I’d go ahead and set one up in Derbyshire.’ 

Yet ten years ago, with the taste for English wines still in its infancy, serendipity saw Barry forge a partnership with Duncan Mercer, who’d sniffed-out the Amber Valley’s vine growing potential.  

Sealed over a few pints at Wessington’s Plough Inn, the conversion of Barry’s local smallholding accelerated into more ambitious plans, when a larger plot came up for sale at nearby Doehole.  

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It provided, he says, a microclimate containing ‘the perfect set of ingredients’ for successful wine production, based on growing several different grape varieties. 

‘When I saw the site up the road which is south facing, sheltered by the surrounding woods, and has even got water in the reservoirs below it to help to extend the ripening season, I bought it. And Duncan bought the vines and trellis work. 

Grapes ripening on the vine at Amber Valley Vineyard

Grapes ripening on the vine at Amber Valley Vineyard - Credit: Amber Valley Vineyard

‘We’d already started selling English wines online to stimulate interest and ordered our vines to arrive in April 2012. With a team of volunteers, we were all set for planting. But opening the curtains on the designated morning, the Amber Valley was under three-and-a-half foot of snow!’ 

Not that this deterred these budding viticulturists. Instead, the temporary setback became a PR opportunity, and by the time a thaw had set-in their vine growing attempt had gone viral, with even more volunteers offering to pitch-in. 

The rest, as they say, is history. Duncan has since moved to pastures new, leaving Barry, his wife Katherine, and trusted employee Bob to create both a boutique selection of quality wines and a charming visitor attraction.  

The two vineyards – we walked around what’s affectionately called the ‘little vineyard’ which at 140 meters above sea level is slightly warmer compared with Doehole – are now home to almost 3,000 vines across a hectare of land.  

Although, despite the first vintage of a white wine and a dry rosé having been having been successfully produced in 2014, in these climes, it’s a volatile business. One that takes patience and is at the mercy of the weather.   

‘For a vine to get fully established takes about eight years,’ explains Barry. ‘These come in bundles of 25 from nurseries in France and Germany, and feature an American, parasite resistant rootstock grafted with a European variety vine. The vines do well on clay soils and can tolerate being waterlogged, suiting Derbyshire’s damp conditions.  

Rows of vines containing varieties of red and white grapes

Rows of vines containing varieties of red and white grapes - Credit: Amber Valley Vineyard

‘In northern Europe however, we do get spring frosts which can cause us problems to the young buds and only 25% of vines may crop.’ 

And if this wasn’t enough, dry conditions are needed after flowering for the fruit to set, meaning a heightened degree of weather-watching. 

‘This year we expected to be four to six weeks behind due to the late spring, but flowering was over by end of first week of Wimbledon, and up at the big vineyard soon afterwards. Something is definitely going on with the climate.’  

The workload he says is intense with ‘a lot to think about when it comes to maintaining a vineyard’, particularly during the growing season.  

This includes: tying-in the vines to their supporting wires; removing unwanted side-shoots and immature bunches of grapes; stripping-off leaves to introduce more light and air around the plants which keeps mildew at bay; and mowing the grass beneath the vines to reduce the build-up of humidity, and deter destructive pests such as slugs.   

Assisted however by a liberal mulching of locally sourced alpaca poo, apparently packed with potassium and phosphorous which works as a brilliant organic fertiliser, fingers remain crossed for another vintage year. The frequent testing of grape sugars and acidity dictating the earliest harvest date for each variety.  

This autumn, the floral and tropically fruited Solaris grapes were among the first pickings. A second harvest, a few weeks on, included the red Rondo, which will be blended with Phoenix grapes to produce the ‘strawberries and cream’ flavour packed Elsa Pink rosé.  

The third, and final harvest, includes a late crop of Seyval Blanc grapes, a key component of their limited edition Lindway Brook sparkling wine, named after the watercourse bisecting the big vineyard.  

Australia's Hunter Valley, one of many regions that Barry sourced inspiration

Australia's Hunter Valley, one of many regions that Barry sourced inspiration - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

‘We released our first sparkling wine in 2020, and won an International Wine Challenge bronze medal – the furthest north vineyard in the UK to win a medal in that competition,’ Barry proudly announces, adding temptingly that a sparkling rosé is soon set to be launched. 

So with the first decade under their belts, what else are they looking forward too? 

‘Originally, rather than sending our grapes away, we planned to build a fully sustainable winery in Wessington,’ he says.  

‘Now, whilst our sparkling wines will soon be disgorged here and our other wines stored onsite, the idea is to find a small high street unit where the wine production equipment can be installed.   

‘This would give us the prospect of reaching a different audience with tours and perhaps a food offering. People could still come out here to see the vineyard. 

‘The orchard below our little vineyard holds more than 50 trees, including all the county’s known varieties of apple trees, plus a number of other apple varieties with local connections. One day soon we hope to offer another uniquely Derbyshire product.’  

Vineyard tours are proving increasingly popular

Vineyard tours are proving increasingly popular - Credit: Amber Valley Vineyards

Meanwhile, with sales of English wine soaring to record highs, for an Amber Valley business that lives by the motto Bene tenax or ‘rightly tenacious’, there’s little cause to doubt a fruitful future lies ahead. 

Three more vintage Derbyshire vineyards:

Hope Valley 

Despite being 900ft above sea level, this family-run vineyard produces red, white and rosé, still and sparkling wines. Best be quick though as sales from the farm gate can quickly run dry. hopevalleyvineyard.co.uk 

Renishaw Hall, Eckington 

Planted by the late Sir Reresby Sitwell in 1972, until the 80’s this was certified as the most northern vineyard in the world. Wines are on the menu in the Renishaw café and online. renishaw-hall.co.uk/vineyard 

Scaddows, Ticknall 

This successful diversification of the family’s well-established soft fruit farm allows customers to mix and match award-winning wines, with home-produced jams and honeys. The Scaddows Facebook page has more details. 

 Did you know? 

Across Great Britain, around 3,800 hectares are currently under vine, more than double the area in 2012, with 98% of these vines are planted in England. 

Last year 800 vineyards produced approximately 8.7 million bottles of wine. 

The British wine sector employs around 5,000 people. 

Source: Wine GB and Wine Standards Branch (Food Standards Agency)