Wine Rides: a cycle tour of English vineyards

An account of my Wine Rides holiday. Most photos courtesy of Tom Chance, to whom I’m grateful.

Wine Rides Day I

I start the morning with a cycle from Sutton to Orpington which involves pedalling along A-roads and navigating around Croydon. This isn’t a relaxing start to a holiday but I am glad to be out and feel anticipation running through my calves as I embark on a weekend of cycling through beautiful countryside. From Orpington I take the train out to Wadhurst, a small market town in East Sussex where I meet the rest of my weekend troupe.

Wine Rides is a cycle touring holiday around English vineyards. It’s a novel idea, started by friends Hayley and her husband Alex. As someone who can easily get bored on beach holidays and city breaks, the idea of a cycle holiday with a purpose is perfect. My friends Tom and Rachel are here too and I’m happy to be able to enjoy some quality time with them.

There’s 11 of us on the tour. Three couples, four ladies and then me. At Wadhurst Station we offloaded our bags into a van that would go ahead to our first campsite. It’s great not to be weighed down with heavy loads. On Wine Rides, tents and food are all provided.

After a brief introduction to the trip, we were on the road, heading towards Carr Taylor vineyard, just north of Hastings. It’s a 23 mile ride and although it was fairly hilly, I loved the freedom of being out in the country, and felt surprise at how fit and energetic I felt. I could feel the endorphins whizzing around my body while the sun soaked into my arms and the back on my neck. We stopped at a pub for a picnic lunch, and later on, we passed by the town of Battle for an ice cream, before making it to our destination vineyard at 5pm.

Carr Taylor Vineyard

The Carr Taylor vineyard is 37 acres in size, and like many English vineyards, they grow a German grape variety which is suitable for our cool climate. They are one of the first commercial vineyards in England and their vines are 40 years old. We had a tour of the vines and equipment before heading in for a wine tasting.

It seems so simple but I didn’t make the connection that Cava, Champagne, Prosecco and Sparkling wine are really all the same thing; we’re just talking about place. Champagne has a protected georgraphical status under EU law. So Cava refers to “champagne” made in Spain (mostly Catalonia), prosecco is that made in Italy. For “champagne” made in England, we simply call it sparkling wine.

Carr Taylor does both sparkling and still wines. In recent years, they have been planting grape varieties suited to sparkling: Bacchus, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. It seems to be the current trend for English vineyards.

David, tour guide, Carr Taylor Vineyard

David, our tour guide proudly explained to us that champagne was actually invented by an Englishman named Christopher Merret. However it was the work of French Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon who made the important contributions to the development of champagne as we know it. As David explained all this, I recalled a quote attributed to Pérignon, in which he said —”Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”— when tasting the first sparkling champagne. Wikipedia sadly spoils this story for me, as it informs me that this quote first appeared in a print advertisement in the late 19th century, so we don’t really know if Pérignon said these words in that magical moment.

2012 was a very tough year for farmers in the UK and our vineyards suffered too. Our tour guide David explained that the harvest was around a tenth of what they expected and as a result, the wine available now is very limited. Yet we still had various tastings, including white and rose sparklings, still white, and some of their meads, including ginger, cherry and prune.

The rules of wine tasting (according to David)

David taught us how to taste wine with three S’s: see, smell and slurp. He dismissed all the language associated with describing aromas as a load of codswallop. Why bother musing over the wine as having hints of burnt match, yoghurt or oak? In David’s opinion: “It’s either nice or nasty and you should stick with what you like. It’s as simple as that”. I get his point, but while I’m on a wine tasting tour, I quite fancied exploring the subtleties of taste and adding animation to my vocabulary of flavours. Even if I am talking complete codswallop.

Fine dining, fine views

Hayley and Alex had pitched our tents at the tops of the rows of vines. It was a beautiful position and in the evening we were treated to a delicious three course dinner, including local lamb and veg, and crumble. As the sunset, we gathered around the fire and finished our sparkling wines. I’ve never camped with such sophistication. A great day.

great-day

Day II – 25 miles to Sedlescombe Vineyard

Next morning, after porridge and bacon rolls we were back on the bikes, heading towards the cobbled streets of Rye. The route took us along the sea, where my pal Tom harvested from the abundant kale that grows out the rocks:

kale

sea-ride

Rye is a quaint old town with plenty of antique shops, galleries and cafes. I would love to come back here again and spend some more time strolling around. The site of the old grammar school is now a fantastic record shop, which I spent far too little time in, given my love of records.

grammar-school

Sedlescombe Vineyard

After a good lunch in Rye, we continued onwards to our final destination, Sedlescombe, a biodynamic vineyard. With it’s woodland trail and a quiet walk into the nearby fields before dinner, I felt more tranquil here. The biodynamic aspect is worth mentioning. When I describe biodynamic agriculture to people, I usually say it’s like organic growing, with a few extra bits thrown in. Some of the quirkier practices include filling cow horns with manure, burying them for a year, and then spreading them onto the field with such sparsity that it’s “like homeopathic medicine”. This is a bit too wacky for me but I am down with the composting and emphasis biodynamic practice places on encouraging microbiological activity in the soil to improve fertility. As an advocate of organic agriculture, understanding that the wine I am drinking is grown without the use of synthetic fertilisers and herbicides makes me much more comfortable, allowing me to enjoy the taste and experience even more.

Roy & Irma Cook started out in 1979 and have expanded the vineyard to 23 acres. We spent an enjoyable time with Irma tasting the wines. It was exciting to try their red wine (most English vineyards concentrate on making white) however I did prefer the white and sparkling. Another thing I liked about Seddlecombe was the tasting room.

tom-taste

The last leg

That evening we were treated to another superb homemade meal that included beetroot soup, fish pie and asparagus, followed by chocolate brownies. As the full moon peaked out from the clouds, the vineyard illuminated, and a bag of marshmallows were passed around. We’re in a good place now.

moon-vinyard

The following morning was a light 17 mile cycle, with few hills back to Wadhurst. We took rest along the way in a pub where we said goodbyes to our fellow cyclists. I’ve had a absolutely wonderful weekend, with lots of space to think and good conversations. Now, I’m ready to return home and get some Sunday night rest before embracing the week to come.

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