Forget France: these days, to find fantastic wine you don't have to leave Cambridgeshire, writes Siobhan Godwood
There is currently something of a boom going on in the world of British winemaking. UK wine is now seen on the menus of some of the best restaurants, and it’s not difficult to get hold of a bottle in independent shops and delis across the country. Luckily for us, Cambridge has its own stake in this flourishing trend in the shape of Chilford Hall Vineyard, between the villages of Linton and Balsham, 20 minutes outside the city centre.
“Things have definitely changed a lot on the British wine scene in the last few years,” says Mark Barnes from Chilford Hall. “The UK now has its own dedicated college where you can do an undergraduate degree or a Masters in wine production. Today's winemakers understand the process a lot better than when vineyards first started cropping up here in the 1970s. Winemaking isn’t just about growing a few grapes, trampling on them and seeing what you get – there’s a huge amount of science involved, and having the resources to train our own winemakers is making a huge difference to the UK industry.”
Chilford Hall started out as a farm, and was bought in the 1960s by a man called Sam Alper, a famous entrepreneur who also brought Little Chef to the UK. He planted the first vines there in 1972 and produced the first wine in 1974. “There weren’t many vines to start off with,” explains Mark, “but things progressed gradually from there; we’re up to a 20-acre vineyard now, and our wines are sold across Cambridgeshire, in shops, cafes and pubs.”
The Chilford Hall range of wine – which includes white, red, rosé and sparkling wines – is made using German varieties of grapes. “When English vineyards were being re-established in the late 60s and early 70s, these were the grapes that were considered to be most compatible with our climate and soil,” explains Mark. “The grapes need to be able to ripen properly, so you find a lot of older, more established vineyards across the UK using German grapes. Those vineyards that have been established more recently, though, tend to veer towards sparkling grape varieties; English sparkling wine from those vineyards is comparable with some of the best French champagnes, and it’s a really thriving area of winemaking.” Chilford Hall is actually finding that its own pink fizz is becoming its signature wine: “A lot of people who have been here on wine tours come back and ask if we’ve got any of the sparkling rosé in particular; they remember it and are keen to give it another go!”
Chilford Hall Vineyard is proud to be a part of the UK wine scene. After some of the buildings burnt down in a fire in 2012, the owners decided to shift away from weddings and events to focus solely on the vineyard side of the business. Now, they have a thriving winery, with every part of the production process done on site. “We don’t have to outsource any part of the process,” says Mark. “We do everything here, from growing the grapes in our vineyards to producing the wine, bottling it and even labelling it. All our equipment is modern and state-of-the-art; all stainless steel, all temperature controlled and regulated, and we have a brand new bottling line and degorging equipment on site.”
"Chilford Hall is finding its pink fizz is becoming its signature wine"
As well as selling wine in their shop and café, Chilford Hall specialises in tours of their vineyards and wine tastings. Available as a tour, tasting and either lunch or afternoon tea, it’s a very popular experience. “The summer is our best time for tours,” says Mark. “From now until October we run them on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and also bank holidays, and they are always busy. We do a morning one, which is a tour and tasting plus lunch, then a later one that includes afternoon tea, although visitors can just do the tour and tasting if they prefer.”
Guests are taken for a tour of the vineyards, with a talk on how the fruit is grown and matured. Then they come into the winery and find out about the winemaking process, and the differences between making still and sparkling wine. Next, they visit the wine shop, and have a tutored wine tasting on five of Chilford Hall’s wines. After that, it’s either lunch or afternoon tea.
“The wine tours and tastings can be bought through ‘experience’ specialists such as Virgin Experiences and Red Letter Days,” explains Mark, “so Chilford Hall attracts visitors from all over the country who may never have heard of us before, as well as local people who are familiar with the business. We get all kinds of visitors, from wine buffs who have bought a tour for themselves to those who’ve been bought the experience as a gift, and fancy a relaxing lunch or afternoon tea with a nice tour of a vineyard as an added bonus!”
A stroll through a vineyard, a small tipple and a delicious lunch or afternoon tea? We can’t think of a better way to spend a few hours in the beautiful Cambridgeshire countryside. Particularly if pink fizz is involved!
Chilford Hall Vineyard, Balsham Road, Linton, Cambridgeshire CB21 4LE, 01223 895600