Taking a luxury wine tour of Suffolk's many fantastic vineyards
PUBLISHED: 13:49 13 November 2019 | UPDATED: 13:49 13 November 2019
Sarah Lucy Brown
Forget the Napa Valley in California, Australia's Hunter Valley or France's Bordeaux region, it's time Suffolk had its own wine tour | Words: Naomi Gornall - Photos: Sarah Lucy Brown
Many people may be unaware that Suffolk has a rich viticulture, thanks to our largely dry climate and good soil.
There are six vineyards in the county. Some are wineries, which make their wine on site, others are growers, some welcome large tour groups and others are private.
East Anglia is one of the premier vine growing regions of the UK, its vineyards producing over half the Bacchus grapes grown in Britain and a large proportion of the Pinot Noir.
My photographer friend Sarah Lucy Brown and I have 'sampled' a lot of wine together over the years, but it was about time we found out what was available on our doorstep.
We decided to spend the day exploring the length and breadth of the county in search of the best wines and the fascinating stories behind the growers.
With wine tasting firmly on the agenda, we needed a designated driver. What could be better than travelling in style with local business Evo's Chauffeurs, who agreed to take us on our very own wine tour (journalism can be hard work at times).
Our friendly driver, Maxine, arrived smartly dressed at my door and led me to the impressively large Mercedes S-Class. Sarah had been picked up first and was positively brimming with excitement as we marvelled at our surroundings.
With black leather seats, cushion headrests, individual air con fans and plenty of leg room, it felt like we were flying first class and was the perfect start to the day. We sat back and relished the incredibly smooth journey through the beautiful Suffolk countryside.
Within minutes of arriving at Giffords Hall Vineyards in Hartest, owner Linda Howard sat us down with a cuppa and proceeded to tell us all about their incredible rise to success.
Fifteen years ago Linda and her husband, Guy, a former hedge fund manager, were looking for a change in career when they came across the vineyard.
"I didn't think I would get a vineyard but it was honestly like falling in love when I saw it. I couldn't eat or sleep."
Since then their business has gone from strength to strength, with their wines now gracing the shelves of Waitrose, selling at the Chelsea Flower Show and regularly exported to countries such as Holland and Japan.
"We've concentrated on quality. We let the wine do what it wants to do. We try not to fiddle with it too much." As Linda led us on a tour of the 30-acre vineyard, she explained they crop about three tonnes per acre in a good year, Bacchus being the most prolific grape variety.
The grapes are harvested in October, and go through various processes to become wine which is stored in either steel drums or barrels until it is bottled.
A flock of Hebridean sheep is directed to the vineyard after harvest to mow and weed it, all part their sustainability and minimal intervention ethos.
Back at the tasting room, it was time to try the wines. Three glasses, a tasting card, some water and nibbles were laid out for us both, as we were given a sample of the 2018 Bacchus, Rose, the St Edmundsbury (made from Pinot Noir and Rondo) and three different liqueurs.
There was definitely a different depth to these wines and the flavours were superbly delicate.
"There has been a rise in agritourism," says Linda. "I think people are feeling quite partisan. They feel they should be supporting English products and businesses. You can grow beautiful grapes and make lovely wine but it means nothing until you can go out and sell it. We really believe in our product."
It made sense for our lunch stop to be at a vineyard so we headed to Wyken Vineyards near Bury St Edmunds and enjoyed a tasty lunch (as well as a glass of their Bacchus) at the beautiful restaurant on site, The Leaping Hare.
There are self-guided tours around the seven-acre site but the wine is actually produced at Shawsgate Vineyard in Framlingham. Shawsgate, a vineyard and a winery, makes and bottles wine for growers in the region, as well as producing their own label from 10 grape varieties on the 20-acre site.
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Our next stop was Valley Farm near Halesworth. Like Linda and Guy, owners Elaine Heeler and Vanessa Tucker also came into the vineyard business as novices from completely different backgrounds.
They had worked in the public sector and wanted to relocate from Manchester to be near the sea. The opportunity arose to buy the eight-acre, mature vineyard.
They started pruning in 2014, but with no buildings on site or mains water, it was a steep learning curve. Now, the vineyard has been reinvigorated, and they harvest around 10 tonnes of grapes every year, which is then made into wine at their partner winery in Cornwall.
As well as selling award-winning wines in farm shops locally (their signature wine is the Madeleine Angevine, which won a prestigious UKVA Gold medal in 2015), they also have formed partnerships with local hotels and restaurants, and have been shortlisted in the region for the Rural Business Awards.
The business continues to expand, thanks to the launch of their eco lodge cabin this summer, which was funded by a European grant supporting rural tourism.
Nestled among the Pinot Gris vines, the cabin, which sleeps two and has a separate kitchen and bathroom, has solar panels and is stocked entirely with eco products. It was made by local builders, using four types of Welsh wood and is insulated with sheep wool.
"It's all about sustainability and innovation," says Elaine. "And we like to think there is a touch of luxury about it for visitors too."
When I asked about the work it takes to run a vineyard, they both conceded it is tough, with long hours and early starts but that it has been "a breath of fresh air that has evolved into a passion".
"All the vineyards in Suffolk are very different," says Vanessa. "It's worth visiting more than one as there is great variety here."
We were certainly discovering this for ourselves. Our final stop was Shotley Vineyard. Unlike the other vineyard owners we met, Charlotte and Craig Mills are at the start of their journey.
They bought some overgrown land near their home in 2017 but when it was cut back, they discovered the vines were in good condition. They took on another site across the road and it is already flourishing, with 20 tonnes of grapes harvested last year.
The wine is produced at a winery in Essex, which also manages the vineyard for them. They have big plans for next year, including creating a storage barn, tasting room and a glamping site.
"We are focused on being growers," says Charlotte, who juggles looking after their toddler Henry and running the business. "It has been a baptism of fire but it is great because I am learning so much."
As Sarah and I headed for home, we reflected on all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to produce wine, right here in Suffolk.
It's another of rural success story for the county. Clutching a bottle of Valley Farm's 2015 vintage sparkling wine (to be saved for a special occasion), we vowed to try to remember this as we enjoy drinking it together.
Travel in style
Evo's Chauffeurs can be hired for a range of events, including weddings, airport transfers and special occasions. For more information call 07883 300524 or evoschauffeurs.co.uk
If you know of any secret spots in Suffolk or think we should try an exciting new activity, drop us a line at email@example.com, we'd love to hear from you. Also tag us on Instagram (@twogirlsgowildinsuffolk) if you are out and about being wild in Suffolk.