A-Z activities

A-Z countries

What's this blog all about?

Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog begun in 2012 about family travel around the world, without leaving the UK.

I love travel adventures, but to save cash and keep my family's carbon footprint lower, I dreamt up a unique stay-at-home travel experience. So far I've visited 110 countries... without leaving the UK. Join me exploring the next 86! Or have a look at the "countries" you can discover within the UK by scrolling the labels (below right). Here's to happy travel from our doorsteps.

Around 2018 I tried a new way of writing my family's and my own UK travel adventures. Britain is a brilliant place for a staycation, mini-break and day trips. It's also a fantastic place to explore so I've begun to write up reports of places that are easy to reach by public transport. And when they are not that easy to reach I'll offer some tips on how to get there.

See www.nicolabaird.com for info about the seven books I've written, a link to my other blog on thrifty, creative childcare (homemadekids.wordpress.com) or to contact me.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Essex vineyards tour: it's a new wine world out there

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK in order to reduce our impact on climate change. Climate change means that many more entrepreneurs are starting up vineyards in the UK. On a visit to three Essex vineyards you can match locally grown wine with seasonal treats, take a tour of the vines or simply savour the Essex scenery. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Essex wine on sale at New Hall vineyard
"English wine is having a renaissance." This wonderful phrase kept coming up during a day-long whistle-stop tour of Essex which included three vineyards, one brewery and a new entrant to the flavoured gin business, Wilkins & Son, which is already world-renowned for their delicious Tiptree jam and chain of tea rooms around Essex.

Ever since I visited the EU display in Brussels about European grown wine - four years ago - I've been an EU wine convert. This means that I don't buy new world wines in a bid to avoid the considerable carbon-heavy shipping costs. Recently I've become a big fan of Borough Wines' refill bottle option. It's always from Europe and is a good economy, and green, option as my three bottles have been refilled many times rather than just being used once then recycled.

The big question
"Do you have European white wine?" is my question to every pub and restaurant I visit nowadays. But after Visit Essex invited me along to see New Hall vineyard, West Street vineyard and Dedham Vale vineyard I see that it is time to alter my pub challenge to "Do you have any English wine?". And pubs really could because the UK now has around 600 vineyards and 140 wineries.

Crouch Valley wines 
As I was born in Essex - and my husband, Pete May, has written the witty book Joy of Essex - my question should perhaps be even more focussed to "Do you stock Essex wine?", not out of a kill joy instinct, but because it's a fabulous drinking choice.

New Hall vineyard, established in Purleigh in 1969, are the perhaps the stars. At any rate they grow 12 varieties of grape, make around 100,000 bottles of wine a year of which some have been spotted in Waitrose. Manager Lucy Winward  - super lovely and knowledgable - explained that this part of the UK has an historical link to vineyards. She could even point towards New Hall vines growing in the same spot as recorded around the time of the Magna Carta. I don't think she said that deal was celebrated with a glass of New Hall Signature, but perhaps if Brexit actually ever happens (and I say this as a Remain voter) then it could be marked with a glass of Essex-grown Signature (the Signature Reserve 2014 is delicious). It's the mild climate along the River Crouch which helps New Hall vineyard's success. In fact there are now six vineyards in this part of Essex, covering more than 200 acres and turning out 200,000 bottles of Essex wine  - or should we say Crouch Valley wine - annually. Something the Loire Valley or the Beaujolais region may one day really worry about...

The bacchus grape (originally German) seems to thrive in Essex. As someone who spent a childhood of Christmases at Goldhanger, near Maldon (where the salt comes from) and really isn't far from New Hall, my memory of estuary Essex is damp Decembers. For a grape - neither frost nor snow fans - this is a huge plus. In fact for the vineyards hugging the River Crouch, Essex's long coastline makes the area an excellent wine growing site (because the sea helps regulate the temperature avoiding extremes of temperature). Add in the impact of climate change - mentioned by all the vineyard managers - which is simultaneously making wine growing in the UK easier and in the increasingly hotter US and parts of Europe harder (because it is just too hot), it is clear that English wines aren't just having a Renaissance, they're becoming the wine of choice.

I loved seeing the machine at New Hall too because this vineyard, about 7 miles outside Chelmsford, is also a winery, where wine is made. New Hall has a large acreage of vines, but local grape growers can bring over their grapes and get them added to the New Hall wines, or separately bottled. You can even support the business (community supported agriculture) by renting a row of vines for around £400 and then buying back 'your' wine when it is bottled for a peppercorn amount. I bought bottles of New Hall's Signature, Bacchus (2014 Reserve) and Chardonnay. My plan was to host some English wine tasting back home in London, but already one of my feckless teenage daughters has taken the Chardonnay (without my permission!) and drunk it without keeping tasting notes (never mind manners). Thank goodness she is not growing up on a vineyard.

West Street Vineyard has a purpose built restaurant in
a well-designed building modelled on the famous
Crossing Temple barns, which were originally owned by the
Knights Templar.
Touring the wineries
A classic wine-lovers holiday pleasure is to tour the wineries around Perth, Australia or New England, US which might involve a stop and shop of local wines, a self-guided walk around the vines and a fabulous meal. Thanks to Essex-Australian Jane Mohan's vision you can do something similar at West Street Vineyard which is just outside Coggeshall.

Coggeshall has long been a wonderful place to visit - for antiques, pretty street front, historic tythe barn and food offerings. It's famous for Ley lines, murders (back in the day) and monks. Now West Street Vineyard, bought by the Mohan's in 2009, is an obvious stop point. It's an award-winning place to eat, serving really delicious seasonal food (two courses with a glass of West Street wine are around £18 and three around £20). I'm vegetarian and was given the prettiest plate of crispy camembert with all sorts of seasonal trimmings as a delicious starter. There's nothing like eating lovely food looking out over rows of grape vines, so it was no surprise that I loved the main too, a pumpkin risotto topped by a deep-fried boiled egg (never tried something like this ever before and thought it fab, but then I had just done my first wine tasting which involved six glasses of Essex wine, followed by a white Essex wine for lunch). And then there were puddings - again beautifully arranged. It was such a foodie treat, but served in such a relaxed manner just like they do in Australia.

Wine tasting at West Street vineyard
Jane also offers wine school events (around £15 per person) which reveal her absolute passion for wine and help you find out more about how wine is made and the flavours developed. Over six tasting glasses of English wine (see pic) Jane explains how she fell in love with vineyards as a 17-year-old when she was sent by her parents to learn French in France. Back then her newly acquired love for rosé must have seemed a worry, but now she's an Essex vineyard owner - who reckons she's tried 965 of the 3000 grape varieties - it all makes sense. In fact I began to appreciate rosé myself as the strawberry and cream flavours revealed themselves as scent and then taste. Jane now has six acres of vines but to harvest she relies on West End's volunteers who are summoned via Facebook. A day's picking earns you a meal. As Jane is equally passionate about the joys of a delicious meal and a glass of something nice, eaten with friends and family, those post harvest dinners must be a real treat to join.
"The best place to buy wine is the cellar door." JANE MOHAN, WEST END VINEYARD, ESSEX

For the long-suffering - but enthusiastic - Essex wine growers raising their harvest must be incredibly stressful. As Jane from West End Vineyard, who used fires on three intense frosty April nights - eventually unsuccessfully - to try and keep her vines warm pointed out: "You are at the mercy of the vagaries of the climate. You have to be an eternal optimist or a complete nutter because wherever you are (in the world) there's always something that can wipe out the crop." Wiping out the crop has to be built into a vineyard's business plan.

Deham Vale specialises in wine, but it also has an orchard of 460 walnut trees.
Both harvests are late October - followed by a wine and walnut festival.
The smell of fresh walnuts in their shells is delicious.
If West End vineyard was like being in Australia, with its fantastic food; then Dedham Vale vineyard was a nature paradise. It seems miles off the beaten track - even in a county like Essex which is 70 per cent rural. The tasting barn overlooks a pond where kingfishers regularly hunt and every spring the lucky see an otter with her cubs. The whole vineyard is surrounded by woodland and views across the vale. Amazingly this is another Essex spot which has been growing wine since Roman times. Definitely worth asking what have the Romans ever done for us?

Piles of logs and heaps of walnuts at the entrance to Dedham Vale Vineyard.
Festivals, weddings & nature walks
Obviously there's wine tasting at Dedham Vale Vineyard too. This 40 acre, mostly wooded estate in Boxted, on the Essex-Suffolk border is stunningly beautiful. It's not far from the place where Constable painted The Haywain or equestrian artist Munnings lived in Dedham (which still has a visitable museum). Deham Vale Vineyard covers 7 acres (plus there are 10 acres of vines at Mersea) is a place to get married, go to a walnut and wine festival or simply drop in to purchase wine at the vineyard. Here I tried their Colchester Oyster, a dry white that one of the vineyard team reckons goes "really well with Thai and has proved very popular". Drunk as an aperitif it was fab too.

"Grapes do well in Essex because it has the best climate in the country. The driest town is Shoeburyness," explains Simon Ward, who is clearly not a fan of rain (though he's not keen on drought either). Of course grapes need some rain, but if there's too much they rot. At the moment Essex vineyards are obliged to follow an EU regulation that toughens up grape vines because once they are three years old, vines cannot be watered. This ruling is intended to encourage the vine root to deepen and take water from lower in the soil which has a long-term benefit.

There's so much to love about local grown food not least the fact that less carbon is needed to ship the product around the world. I also really love that it's grown by people who want to explain what they are doing and share their wine as widely as they can. As you can tell I've become a bit of a fan girl - hopefully you might be encouraged to do so too. So, here are:

10 reasons to try Essex - English - wines

  1. LOCAL Instead of picking up a bottle that's been shipped 12,000 miles around the world you can get it from just down the road, less than 100 miles from London. I've spent the past four years avoiding new world wines because of their carbon footprint - as a result I'm used to drinking wine which is less sugary, less alcoholic and which you need to enjoy its mineral qualities rather than expect gooseberry popping flavours.
  2. FAMILY RUN The three vineyards we visited were family businesses, all run by people passionate to make the best possible wine. Jane at West End Vineyard had sold her house to finance the business. There's nothing like drinking wine - or doing a tasting with someone whose passion is to create the best possible wine.
  3. IN THE PINK If summer is made for rosé and pink fizz then Essex can provide it. And how.
  4. RED ALERT It's still hard to ripen grapes to create the best English reds. Global warming will change this reckons Jane from West End vineyards. It's not something she wishes to think hard about because it signifies so many other world problems. "If we end up with Malbec in Essex - or any heavy red - then climate change is happening."
  5. PARTY TIME New Hall is just about to celebrate it's 50th birthday - in 2019 - something that Rasto, the Slovakian born winemaker at the vineyard is currently trying to find the right wine combination. He's so good at making wine that he's already produced some wonderful tasting elderflower wine.
  6. KNOW HOW There's no need to be a snob about English wine. English winemakers are creating some of the best wines you can buy at vineyards all around the world.
  7. THE ONLY WAY TO GET ESSEX WINES ISN'T JUST IN ESSEX If you are in London then it's easy to find Essex wines, e.g. at Borough Market
  8. VINE RUNS Get to know an Essex vineyard by joining the 5k or 10k Dedham Vale Vine Run along the vines and through the orchards on 2 June 2018, entry info here.
  9. CLIP, PICK, DRINK Have a look at the websites and see how you can get involved. You can just drink English wine, or talk it up (like this blog). Or you could volunteer and pick the grapes during harvest time, or be part of the pruning at West End in January. Yes, you may be thinking what could possibly go wrong - but it might be an amazing way to learn more about vineyards, vines, Essex and the UK.
  10. CELEBRATE English wine week 2018 is Saturday 26 May - Sunday 3 June 2018. What better excuse to get t know English wines better?
Do let me know if this piece has inspired you - either to have a try of Essex (or English) wine, or simply ask for it at your favourite wine stockist. 

  • New Hall Vineyard, near Chelmsford has daily cellar tours and tastings. Plus a rather fab (free) xmas display.
  • West Street Vineyard, in Coggeshall runs bookable tastings (they are really interesting) and serves delicious meals. Totally recommended. During the summer head over from Sunday-Thursday 9am-5pm, and Friday & Saturday from 9am - 11pm. From 1 October 2017 - 1 April 2018 the vineyard is closed on a Monday and Tuesday. 
  • Dedham Vale Vineyard near Boxted.
  • Info: Visit Essex organised the vineyards tour for bloggers.