LONDON -- We were sipping a dry, lovely glass of bubbly in the cool of a converted 17th-century barn when my wife and I gazed at each other and exhaled a sigh of relief: The term "English wine" may sound like a comical oxymoron, but you really can take a wine-themed vacation in England.
Renowned for its creamy cheeses and frothy ales, the pastoral landscape of rural England has, over the last decade or so, quietly sprouted a few dozen serious vineyards, many of which gladly cater to the few tourists who learn of their existence and visit.
Ranging from manicured estates with oak-paneled tasting rooms, restaurants, and quaint bed-and-breakfasts, to no-frills farms with metal sheds and muddy tractors, most English wineries make an easy day trip from London, and ideal pit stops while touring the historic, mansion-rich terrain of southern England. They also tend to produce a surprisingly sophisticated set of wines that render the stopovers as alluring as the pleasant country rides to find them.
Not that Rachel and I were so confident at the outset. Before heading for the wine region in Kent, Surrey, and Sussex, we spent five nights in London and could not find one soul sipping a glass of the local vintage.
After considerable effort, we finally located a solitary English wine at the famous El Vino Co. store on Fleet Street, one of only a handful of London wine shops that sell English wines. Restaurant, pub, and even wine bar menus all seemed to feature French Bordeaux, Italian Chiantis, Australian merlots -- anything but English wine. In fact, most wine shop owners literally laughed when we asked if they carried English bottles, as if such a proposition were unthinkable.
"Why would we?" said Len Jeffries at The Four Vintners shop near El Vino. "France is just a few miles away."
True enough, but we were in England, intent on sampling local, distinct culinary offeringsSo, with low expectations, we set off in a rental car from Heathrow Airport, and headed into the unknown.
About half an hour later, we arrived in the affluent town of Dorking, home to England's largest vineyard, Denbies. We turned off the main north-south road and entered what, to my eyes, looked like Sonoma County, California.
Rising at the end of a long drive, surrounded on all sides by rows of vines, was a massive, terra-cotta-roofed chateau, the heart of an impressive estate that spreads across 265 acres. Once inside the chateau, we realized how serious the winery's owners are about luring tourists. In addition to the handsome, glass-roofed cafe, the gift shop, and the art gallery, Denbies also offers a quaint, white-stuccoed inn, a 360-degree movie theater, a safari-style vineyard train, conference rooms, catering facilities, and a classy restaurant at the top of the chateau tower. Call it a wine theme park.
On the August morning that we arrived, the cafe, which offers a wide variety of gourmet sandwiches and curries for about $10, was bustling with regulars from nearby corporate campuses. We dived right in, purchasing two sandwiches and two glasses of white wine. Rachel's, called Flint Valley, was lacking in character and flavor, and our fear was palpable. Then I tasted my glass of Surrey Gold, Denbies' most popular wine. It was crisp, spicy, and fruity.
"There's always been a stigma about English wine," said Christopher A. White, 27, the general manager at Denbies who stopped by our table. "People put their nose up at it. Then the locals were the first to fall, and they gave it for Christmas and now it's really moving. This is the first year we've had trouble keeping up with demand. We will run out of Surrey Gold, absolutely."
White said Denbies sends all its wine makers to New Zealand to be trained. It's apparently working. Denbies has about 300,000 visitors a year, a figure that grows by 5 percent annually, he said, and sales have grown consistently.
Our next destination was to the south, the cosmopolitan Victorian beach city of Brighton. There, our friends John Harwood and Jason Dawes until recently owned Burberry House, the city's only five-diamond bed-and-breakfast. Like many Brighton innkeepers, they tend to cater to gay tourists, who have increasingly flocked to the city, but kindly made an exception for us.
As a measure of how invisible England's wine industry is, they had never traveled to any of the vineyards only a few miles to the north, but were eager to do so. After all, Brighton, known locally as "London by the sea," makes an ideal base from which their guests can visit the wine region. Also, because the innkeepers spend considerable sums on French champagne, they were willing to try English sparkling wines costing less than half the French.
That night, Harwood and Dawes took us on a tour of the city's famous Victorian boardwalk and long, iron piers, where tourists can take in the English honky-tonk equivalent of Coney Island. An easy walk from the seaside sits Brighton's most famous attraction, the Royal Pavilion, a magesterial orientalist palace with soaring minarets and onion domes that was built for George IV nearly 200 years ago.
We finally ended up at Terre a Terre, a high-end, ultra-mod vegetarian restaurant frequented by the city's most famous vegetarian resident, Sir Paul McCartney. Harwood had made reservations -- a necessity.
As it turns out, our waiter for the evening, Mark Parlaki, was a student at Plumpton College, an agricultural school in the countryside north of Brighton that features England's premier vintner training program. Excited that we had even heard of English wines, let alone were intent on tasting them, Mark gleefully pointed us to the bottle of Breaky Bottom dry sparkling wine, a permanent fixture on the wine list.
After we all drank and remarked on how well it held up to many a French champagne, Mark brought out a precious bottle, not on the wine list, of 2000 Hidden Spring Darkfields, a glorious and light pinot noir reminiscent of top market wines from California's Russian River valley.
The next morning, our first stop, about 30 minutes from Brighton, was the English Wine Centre, a 17th-century farm in the quaint village of Alfriston that the proprietor, Christopher Ann, has turned into something of a clearinghouse of English wines. The centre is an ideal first stop on the wine trail because Ann has assembled case after case of wines from throughout England, giving the curious tourist a chance to sample several vintages and focus on the favorites.
Ann, who fancies himself the chief booster and historian of English wines, escorted us to the barn, now a wine shop and tasting center, and fielded our questions while uncorking about a dozen wines that ranged from mediocre to splendid, rose to white to red, sparkling to still.
According to "The Vineyards of England," a locally printed tome written by Stephen Skelton and quoted frequently by Ann, the Romans brought wine making to England after their invasion in AD 43, even though Tacitus declared the climate "objectionable" and unfit for wine production. The industry managed to hang on for a while after the fall of the Empire, but the death knell rang in 1066, when a French king, William the Conqueror, took control of the nation after the Battle of Hastings and promptly began importing wine for his new court from his homeland. According to the famous Domesday Book -- a national survey commissioned by William -- England had about 40 vineyards in 1086, and that number barely budged for centuries.
Things began looking up in the late 1960s, with the founding of the English Vineyards Association, a trade group that established quality controls similar to those in force in France and Italy. Today, about 400 winemakers farm more than 2,000 acres on about 400 vineyards in England.
Ann insists England's wines stand up to any in the world. In recent years, he said, some high-profile wine drinkers have been persuaded of the quality.
"The queen's favorite is the Nyetimber chardonnay sparkling brut," said Ann, referring to a surprisingly affordable choice for a monarch, at about $30 a bottle.
Even French vintners have taken note of the fast-rising quality of English wines, especially the sparkling products. According to the Times of London, Yves Bernard, chairman of the French Union of Champagne Producers, called the English sparkling wines "a challenge that keeps us on our toes."
Earlier this year, the French magazine L'Express devoted an article to English wines under the headline "Vineyards in England? No, it's not a hoax. Nectars on the other side of the Channel, old and ignored, gain little by little in notoriety and come to titillate our palates."
The good feelings seemed to be a direct result of the surprise gold medal won by the 1995 Nyetimber blancs de blancs sparkling wine at last year's vaunted Vinalies wine tournament in France. It wasn't the first respectable finish for English bottles, however. At the 2003 Wine International Challenge in London, one of the world's biggest competitions, three English wines won bronze medals and one took a silver. (The silver winner was a 2000 Cuvee Merret Fitzrovia Rose Brut, which we couldn't find.)
In East Chiltington, our next destination, the vineyard is tilled and managed by students at Plumpton College. We met with Chris Foss, head of wine studies at the college, where the vast majority of England's wine producers have been trained. We had two questions: Why was English wine as good as it was, and why doesn't anyone seem to know about it?
Foss, who grew up in France's Bordeaux region, said the chief reason for the high quality of English sparkling wines, in particular, is the island's climate, which is extremely similar to that in the Champagne region of France. Both regions also tend to have chalky soil. Thanks to the crippling heat wave that blanketed Europe last summer, 2003 was likely go down as a banner year for English winemakers, he said.
"There's certainly big potential," said Foss, whose students sell about 10,000 bottles of wine a year, including several cases to Ann, who slaps on his own label. "I envisage a time when English wines will rival Champagne, though not on the shelves."
After visiting a few more local wineries that day, the four of us went back to Burberry House, laden with bottles of sparkling and dessert wines, reds and whites. The goal for the evening was simple: Put the English sparkling wines to a blind taste test.
Harwoodinvited two vinophile friends, and printed up forms for all of us to fill out, on which we were to rate two English sparkling wines, a $150 bottle of French Krug, and a typical bottle of Moet Chandon. The results were shocking. Three out of six of us chose the English Chapeldown, which cost about $20, as our favorite, the other three preferring the Krug above all others.
"Sparkling wine is one thing," said Steve Wheeler, the most skeptical of the lot. "The English will never make a good red wine."
Raphael Lewis covers state politics for the Globe.