Devon’s vineyards and excellent wines have been winning awards for a number of years now, meaning those in the know try to build in a visit a vineyard whilst they’re here – and opening a bottle of wine from a Devon vineyard is a great way to recreate the holiday feeling once you’re back home.
We spoke to Andy Benham from South Devon Wine Tours, who told us all about Devon wines and vineyards, and how he came up with a way to solve the argument over who’s going to drive …
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What inspired you to start South Devon Wine Tours?
Last year we bought a camper van and drove around Australia and New Zealand. While we were out there we ended up taking wine tours as we went through some of the world’s great wine producing areas, and it got us wondering if the same idea would work in Devon when we got home. The idea’s a simple one: provide a knowledgeable driver who gives you information while you go from vineyard to vineyard, and the opportunity for everyone on the tour to sample the wines, bypassing the usual argument about who gets to drink and who has to drive!
When we started to look at the idea when we got home to Devon, even we were surprised by both the number of vineyards in the area, and perhaps more importantly, the quality of the wines they were producing.
Is there much wine produced in Devon?
Oh yes, and it goes back a long way – Romans established vineyards on Haldon Hill, just outside Exeter around 70AD, but it fell out of fashion and nothing was really produced here again until the Seventies.
One of the real pioneers of English grape growing was Gillian Pearkes, who in 1976 started Yearlstone Vineyard, just outside Tiverton. Gillian’s vineyard was soon joined by both Sharpham and Manstree, the latter having the oldest surviving commercial vines in Devon after the last of Gillian’s original plants came to the end of their productive life.
From this promising start, more and more vineyards have started to spring up across our county, mostly around Exeter, but some further afield, with one, Eastcott, right up on the edge of Dartmoor. The South West in general, and Devon in particular, has started to build up an international reputation as a wine growing region, with several of Devon’s wines winning awards in international competitions, and though we tend to do best with our sparkling wines, our still wines are also now starting to attract attention.
Most of Devon’s sparkling wines are still made using traditional methods, and you’ll find many wineries in the area overflowing with sparkling wines ageing on special racks. Indeed many winery tours include demonstrations of the fascinating process used to produce sparkling wine. Nearly all our vineyards are small scale producers, with grapes being hand-picked, and lovingly crafted to produce a range of wines which really capture the spirit of our county.
Which grapes and styles of wine are we likely to see in Devon?
Devon grapes can really be split into two groups: old fashioned favourites, usually French, which are used to make both traditional wine and sparkling wine, which often uses one or more of the same three grapes used to make Champagne, particularly Pinot Noir.
But the problem with these traditional grapes is that though the quality can be excellent, the yields are often not quite so good, and they can be a little fickle in our climate, sometimes sulking and not producing many grapes.
Many vineyards tend to hedge their bets, and combine the traditional varieties with some of the new hybrids, which are happier in our slightly cooler climate and tend to produce bigger crops. As a further plus, they also tend to be more resistant to diseases, so fewer chemicals and sprays are needed. Probably the most widely grown of these new hybrids is Rondo, and nearly every vineyard will have some of these vines, which make an excellent rose and can also be used for making a light red. Other hybrids to look out for include Seyval Blanc, which is used to produce a dry white wine, and Bacchus, which is also used to make a dry white, and is rapidly gaining in popularity.
While some of the Devon vineyards produce wines based on a single variety in the new world style (such as Sharpham Bacchus and various vineyards’ Rondo roses), others are moving towards trying to create a recognisable brand more in the old world style with wines named more after their place of origin, such as Pebblebed and Yearlstone.
While sparkling wines can be based on the traditional Champagne grapes, some Devon wineries have been experimenting with sparkling wines made from ‘non Champagne’ grapes. Two fine examples of such sparkling wines are the award winning Lily Farm Sparkling Rose, which won a silver medal in the International Wine Challenge 2014, and Eastcott’s lovely Brut 2009, made from Seyval Blanc.
Whatever your taste there’s a Devon wine to suite, from Sharpham’s ballsy Pinot Noir red, all the way through to Froiginwell’s bone dry Seyval Blanc, with some excellent Roses filling the gap in between. And if sparkling wine floats your boat then you’re in for a real treat, with a very wide range of both white and rose wines, which have competed – and won awards – at the very highest levels.
Andy’s guide to Devon vineyards
Go there for: Its simply stunning location on a bend in the river Dart, the great vineyard walks, good range of wines, on-site diary and fabulous cheese, and the great café.
Our favourite wine: The Pinot Noir, an award winning wine which shows that Devonian reds can hold their heads up in any company.
More about: Sharpham
Go there for: The chance to see all three Champagne grapes growing in the Devon countryside, and its stunning location on the edge of Dartmoor.
Our favourite wine: Brut 2009, a crisp, fruity and dry sparkling wine with great depth of flavour.
Go there for: Its lovely ‘micro winery’, superb café with amazing scones, and great ciders. It also makes a perfect wedding venue.
Our favourite wine: Seyval Blanc: dry as the Sahara, and one of the best-selling wines on our tours.
Go there for: The experience of seeing a rapidly developing vineyard, and the amazing Lilys.
Our favourite wine: The Sparkling Rose which won a silver medal in the International Wine Challenge 2014
Go there for: The oldest vines in Devon, and great soft fruit in the summer.
Our favourite wine: The 2010 Mayval Dry, which won a bronze award in the 2011 SWVA competition.
Go there for: The amazing sea views from the café, and Ken’s legendary talk on wine production.
Our favourite wine: Its Bacchus, a dry white which can hold its head up in any company.
Go there for: The experience of seeing a rapidly expanding vineyard with vines at all stages of production, and to hear owner Geoff talk about his time on Dragon’s Den.
Our favourite wine: The Pink Sparkling, a stunning bubbly that will make any occasion extra special.
More about: Pebblebed Vineyard
Go there for: Lovely views out over the Exe valley, the great café, and the state of the art winery.
Our favourite wine: Yearlstone Number 4 2013 – a light, fruity mix of Rondo and Regent, which typifies a good English red.
More about: Yearlestone Vineyard
Each vineyard has different opening times, so contact them before visiting. Booking in advance is strongly recommended, or go with a local wine tour company such as South Devon Wine Tours.