Celebrating 30 years of Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking
- Credit: Archant
It’s hard to imagine now but there was a time when Denbies was nothing more than an ambitious idea hatched while staring out of a study window across the Surrey Hills. Thirty years on, it’s become one of the largest wine producers in the UK and won a host of international awards. Matthew Williams raises a toast
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine June 2016
It may be a cliché, but the old phrase that “it’s not what you know, but who you know” has a habit of ringing true across the generations. For example, if Denbies Wine Estate owner Adrian White hadn’t happened to know Professor Richard Selley, a Dorking resident who just happens to be one of the world’s foremost authorities on geology for oil exploration, then who knows what the former arable farm may have become instead of celebrating its 30th anniversary as an award-winning vineyard this year.
“I’ve lived in Dorking for many years and from my study window I could look out over Box Hill, Ranmore Common and the Denbies Estate and used to think what a fantastic place for a vineyard,” says Richard, in a new cinematic video created by another Dorking local, Martin Cox, in celebration of the anniversary.
“Before Adrian bought the Denbies Estate, I thought, just for a joke, I’ll write a little consulting report, like I might do for an oil company or similar business. Little did I know that Denbies Wine Estate would be the end result.”
These days, it’s almost impossible to imagine anything other than the 265 acres of vines sprawling across the Denbies valley with its chateau-style visitor centre and winery – the scene has become as iconic to Surrey as some of the all-conquering wines produced here (more of which later), but an interesting history precedes all this.
The estate was named after John Denby, whose farm sat at the top of Ashcombe Hill in the 16th century, before eventually passing into the hands of the acclaimed master-builder Thomas Cubitt. Having developed Belgravia, designed Osborne House on the Isle of Wight for Queen Victoria and built the new east front of Buckingham Palace, he set about creating a new 100-room Denbies house to rival the Deepdene (click here for more on that particular estate) across the valley in 1851.
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While, sadly, neither architectural wonder exists today (imagine the tourism potential!), even the ambitious minds that created those grand visions could not have imagined that a successful vineyard would one day find a home at the site.
A grand ambition
“My father, Sir Adrian White, purchased the estate back in 1984, originally as a pig and cattle farm,” says Denbies’ general manager, Christopher White, picking up the story. “It was no longer a sustainable business, however, and so we started to look for a new idea for the land.
“Of course, Professor Richard Selley then suggested the idea of a vineyard and the first vines were planted in 1986. I think many people were a little surprised that Denbies’ arable land was going to be turned into a vineyard, especially because of the ambitious scale of the project.”
It was the mixture of the sunny, south-facing slope, as well as the chalky soil, dry and sheltered valley and the affects of global warming, that made the site such an obvious candidate for a vineyard to the professor. In fact, its geology is actually said to be similar to Reims, at the heart of France’s Champagne region.
“My father obviously had a belief and vision as to what the business could become,” continues Chris. “But the annual production of international award-winning wines, our wine being retailed by nearly all of the major supermarkets and then also attracting around 350,000 visitors to the estate every year has exceeded his aspirations.”
This Surrey success story has been such that The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh saw fit to visit in 2004 (with Prince Charles and The Duchess of Cornwall following up in 2011). Denbies’ wines have also been used to mark key national moments, from the opening of the Channel Tunnel to state visits by American presidents. In 2011, their Chalk Ridge Rosé 2010 was even named as the best rosé in the world at the International Wine Challenge, beating all Provence had to offer.
“We’re obviously very proud of everything that’s been achieved to date and, in 2015, we received 33 international industry drink awards, but we also have some extremely exciting new projects in the pipeline away from wine production,” says Chris.
“While our Denbies Guest House is already extremely popular, we are hoping to develop it into more of a boutique hotel with additional rooms. With its location at the heart of the vineyard, we’re sure it will be hugely popular.”
A true vintage
Of course, the continuing attraction of Denbies’ wine is key to any staycation aspirations and out among the vines is vineyard manager, Duncan McNeil, and his chocolate Labrador, Clive, who keep a careful eye on things.
“There are plenty of challenges to growing wine in Surrey,” he says. “Due to the high altitude of the vineyard, there can be cooler temperatures. There is a strong correlation between the yield (amount of grapes grown) and quality, which is accentuated in cooler climates. This means that it is not possible to achieve high yields and high quality in the same season, so we have to regulate how many grapes are grown to ensure we get the very best.”
The original vine-planting at Denbies was an experimental mix of French and German varieties, as they sought to discover what would work best in the climate – and their wine range continues to develop as lessons are learned season-to-season.
“There are obvious pockets of different microclimates and soil types within the vineyard, and this is evident in the complexity of our wines,” says Duncan.” We now produce four different types of sparkling wine, for instance, each one with different grape varieties, or a different ratio of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.
“We also produce a range of white single-varietal wines, such as Bacchus, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and there has been some innovative blending of certain grape varieties to create aromatic wines that are unique to Denbies too. One example of this is the blending of Ortega (an early-ripening German white variety) with Pinot Noir to create our Ranmore wine.”
It’s not just changing climates and conditions that affect wine production, however; the taste of the people whose glasses you’re looking to fill also tends to nudge things in certain directions.
“Wines now tend to be drier, with less residual sugar, to cater for the modern preference for drier wines,” explains Duncan. “We must make wines that we know there is a demand for, but also we need to work within the limits of what the UK climate will allow. For example, a single varietal Pinot Noir (red Burgundy) will only be made here in the very best years when fruit quality is at its absolute finest for still red wine production.
“It was originally thought that Sauvignon Blanc would be difficult for English vineyards to grow, but its popularity encouraged us to push the envelope and plant it here. The first bottles were released in 2014.”
Another sign of the times is the increasing efforts to ‘go green’, which recently helped the vineyard pick up the Business of the Year and Green Business of the Year titles at the eighth Gatwick Diamond Business Awards.
“This year, we aim to stop using any chemical herbicides to control weeds in the vineyard,” says Duncan. “These herbicides kill off the naturally occurring organisms in the soil – many of which are highly beneficial to the vines and their roots. Soil is a living entity and it is our responsibility to preserve it for future generations and their food security.”
While changes such as soil cultivation, composted chicken manure instead of chemical fertilisers and grape varieties that have been developed to be resistant to fungal mildew infections are all being implemented, this doesn’t mean Denbies’ wine will be classed as ‘organic’ immediately, but it is certainly a first step in that direction. Indeed, if all goes to plan, they are hoping to add a range of organic wines to their award-winning collection in the near future.
Meanwhile, the Denbies story has already inspired a number of new or expanding vineyards to spring up throughout our county’s Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a taste of Surrey wine is no longer the rarity that it once was. Let’s raise a glass of Denbies’ Cubitt Reserve to an enthusiastic professor and a family with the ambition and resources to make that the case. Cheers! w
• Denbies Wine Estate, London Road, Dorking RH5 6AA. Tel: 01306 876616. Web: denbies.co.uk
Pick of the wines
Christopher White, general manager
My current favourite is our Redlands, which is an easy drinking red that can be served with food or is perfect to drink on its own.
Duncan McNeil, vineyard manager
A soon-to-be-released still Chardonnay, grown on our steep slopes in 2013. It was harvested late in November, when the vines had no leaves but the fruit had matured wonderfully. It’s amazing!
Richard Selley, professor of geology at Imperial College
My favourite is Bacchus white wine, closely followed by the 2014 Redlands, which has matured nicely now.
Jeremy Blood, Surrey Wine School and Dorking resident
The Vineyard Select Bacchus is a seriously refreshing white with lovely peach and melon aromas. Lovely ripe fruits and a smooth texture from less ageing mean the wine is a versatile drink on its own or paired with some nice cream cheese at the end of the meal. • Share your own favourite wines with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dining among the vines?
Did you know, that as well as the sprawling vineyard, the visitor centre with its gift and wine shop, the conservatory restaurant and cinematic experience, tours of the vineyard and winery, and the art gallery, there’s also the hidden gem, The Gallery Restaurant, which offers fine dining with panoramic views across the estate? You’ll also find Surrey Hills Brewery and Village Greens Farm Shop on site too! A truly one-stop, love-local shop, if ever there was one!