“See, swirl, sniff, swirl, sip, suck, and savor.”
These were the words of Victor, the Tours and Facilities Manager at Denbies Wine Estate. I had just spent a few hours with him learning about the Vine and Dine tour that takes place here during the month of October. And apparently, if I wanted to increase my appreciation of wine by 50%, this simple process was the best way to do it.
As a well established wine fan, although definitely not what you’d call a connoisseur, I was curious to find out why Denbies had started this particular tour.
Getting under the skin of the grapes
Victor began by explaining that appreciating wine is not just about consuming the final product. It’s about understanding the wine making process as a whole. It’s why getting under the skin of the grapes is what the Vine and Dine tour is all about.
This is not a sit back and be a passive observer kind of tour. It’s a roll your sleeves up, get ready to do some work, and don’t be shy kind of tour. It’s a day in the life of a vineyard during one of their busiest seasons: the harvest. And by the end of my day here there were three key highlights that, for me, defined what the Vine and Dine experience is all about:
- The act of grape picking
- Relationships and socializing
- The inevitable tasting and a surprising trick
The act of grape picking
It was Rob, another staff member, who introduced me to the vines at Denbies. As a Vine and Dine participant you join the 20 or so professional grape pickers who regularly work during this busy time. And it is, weather permitting, the main morning activity of the tour.
Working in small groups of four or five, you pick the grapes in a designated row. And it’s not, as I expected, solo work. In fact, you team up with a partner on the other side of the vines, and work together to collect the fruit.
Unfortunately, as my visit had to take place before the actual harvest in order to get this article written in time, I did not get to experience the grape picking itself. But I asked Rob about what kind of people, in his experience, get the most enjoyment out of the day. His reply? People who like to learn by doing and who enjoy working with others.
Relationships and socializing
And it wasn’t just Rob who mentioned socializing as being an important element of the day. I learned from Victor that after the grape picking session, lunchtime is a chance to relax and get to know everyone else in the group a little bit better. It’s also the chance to pick Victor’s brains with any questions you’ve got about the wine making process.
Having spent several hours one-on-one with Victor, I can happily vouch for his sincerity and undoubted passion for his topic. He is down to earth, unpretentious, and easy to talk to, so if you’ve got questions about wine, he’s a bit like the Father Christmas of grapes. For the non professional wine drinkers out there like me, Victor is a breath of fresh air.
And after lunch, it’s back to the grapes and their journey to the final product.
Processing the grapes
Before the actual wine tasting, it’s time to see what happens to the grapes after they’ve been picked. First stop is the wine presses where you get a chance to taste the freshly squeezed grape juice. It’s surprisingly sweet. Apparently four times sweeter than any ordinary grape juice. And it’s all down to the vines that are needed to produce the right kind of grapes for wine.
Moving on from the presses, Victor shows you the various steps the grape juice goes through as its transformed into the wine you’ll eventually drink. It’s a time for more questions as well as a time to watch where you’re going! The winery is a busy place and there are hoses and various other tools that need to be avoided.
And then its on to the final highlight of the day.
The inevitable tasting and a surprising trick
This was my favorite part of the day! It was time to head downstairs, enter the tasting halls, and try out Victor’s recommended process of, “See, swirl, sniff, swirl, sip, suck, and savor.”
Most of these steps were familiar. But the “suck” step definitely got a raised eyebrow from me, and as taught by Victor, isn’t that easy the first time you try it. Here’s how it goes:
When you take your first sip of wine, you roll it around inside your mouth. But in the past, after doing this, I’ve gone straight to spit or swallow. And it’s here that Victor added his extra step. Instead of swallowing, he taught me to hold the wine in my mouth and breathe in over the top of it. It sounds simple but it’s very easy to end up coughing manically in the corner if you don’t get it right. That’s when you need those friends you’ve made during the day to give you a pat on the back and make you feel better.
So is it worth giving the suck step a go? Did it add 50% to my wine tasting experience? The truth is I was amazed at the extra flavor that suddenly hit my senses by using that one trick. All I can say is try it for yourself and see what you think. And if you get some practice in before you go on the tour, you can avoid any beginners coughing fits. Unlike me!
So what are the wines you’ll be trying?
The two most famous wines that are on the tasting list are Rose Hill and Surrey Gold. Rose Hill, as the name implies, is a rosé made from a blend of Dornfelder and Pinot Noir grapes. It’s a fruity wine with hints of cherries and red berry fruits.
The Surrey Gold is a white wine which is, in fact, the biggest selling English wine. It is made from a blend of Müller-Thurgau, Bacchus, and Ortega grapes, and is a fresh and light wine, easy to enjoy!
There will usually be two other wines that Victor will add to the tasting cast.
Overall thoughts on the Vine and Dine tour
Vine and Dine offers an excellent experience that only a limited number of people will have the opportunity to enjoy. After all, it’s only available for just one month of each year in October, as this is when the harvest occurs. And it’s an action packed day which is interactive and delivered by people who clearly love what they do, and are eager to share their hospitality with you.
The price point is not only modest, but for an entire day with everything that is included in the price, it’s a real value.
Rules and need to knows
The Vine and Dine tour is an active day out for adults only (18 and over), and before you are able to participate, Denbies requires that you sign a health and safety disclaimer. In addition, the harvest goes ahead regardless of the weather conditions so it’s recommended that you dress in warm layers of clothing and bring hats, gardening gloves and waterproof boots (no heels please). That way, whatever the weather, you’ll be able to join in and be comfortable.
Location: Denbies is located just to the south of London in Dorking, Surrey, close to the M25 motorway or the A3. It can be accessed easily on the Southwest Trains network and is just a 15 minute walk from Dorking station.
Reservations: Reserve your place on any of the tours offered by Denbies by phone or email.
Price: £49.50 per person.
Hours: 8:30 am until approximately 3:15 pm
For more information on the tour, see the Vine and Dine sectionon Denbies website. Remember this particular tour is only available in October, however, Denbies does offer other seasonal tours throughout the year if you can’t make it for the harvest.
Photo credits: All photos courtesy of Honor Dargan
NOTE: The author received a complimentary visit and tour for the purposes of this review.
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Honor has lived in Japan for 10 years and traveled extensively in Asia, South America and Europe, as well as some areas in the USA. Her favorite reasons for travel are to get a peek inside a culture through visits to local events and festivals, and learning more about the history and people of a place. Then there’s always food. Of course! And the journey itself is just as important a part of her adventures. Honor’s top three travel destinations are Japan, Uruguay, and Jordan.