The wine you drink this Christmas could be from just about any part of the world - Chile or the Cape, Chianti or Champagne. But it is unlikely to be from Dorking. Which is a shame, because Dorking is the home of the Denbies Wine Estate, one of a number of successful vineyards in this country.
As the number of acres under wine production rises and the value of the crop increases, so does the reputation of Britain's vineyards - from Three Choirs in Gloucestershire to Barkham Manor in East Sussex. It may not be long before your Christmas tipple is made from home-grown grapes.
There are an estimated 500 vineyards in Britain, mainly in southern England, ranging in size from an acre or two, to Denbies, by far the largest with 265 acres in production. In 1994 around 2,555 acres were producing 1.75 million litres of wine, enough to see that every staff Christmas party up and down the British Isles goes with a swing, from now until the millennium.
But you don't have to drink to be interested in British wine; the industry is an exciting subject for schools to study or visit.
The industry has a long history. It flourished in the Roman era; archaeologists have found evidence of vineyards near excavated Roman villas. It almost disappeared after the dissolution of the monasteries (1536-1539), until a gradual revival began after the Second World War. In the past decade the revival has been literally fruitful, with vintage years underpinning hopes of substantial growth.
The revival of British viticulture is being backed by vocational courses at colleges of further education. Plumpton College near Lewes, East Sussex, which specialises in courses for land-based industries, has developed a range of part-time courses in wine studies, and has just launched the first BTEC higher national diploma in wine studies. The new facilities in its Wine Studies Centre can be seen on open days, together with the college's vineyard. Details from Chris Foss (01273 890454). Visits might be particularly appropriate for teachers with a special interest in wine making and in careers.
Denbies Wine Estate, near Dorking, Surrey, is on the chalky North Downs. Nineteen varieties of vine are grown here, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Mueller-Thurgau (with French and German origins). School visits can be arranged and pupils will meet some of the 150 staff involved in wine production on a tour that includes an introductory film and another with 3D effects charting the growth of a vine through the seasons. Part of the tour is on a travelator, or people-mover, from which visitors can watch production processes before arriving at the basement area where sparkling wines are rotated in racks. Lessons can be based on curriculum demands, from geology and soil types to yields, processes and blending. Educational notes also cover licensing laws, marketing and running an expanding business. Contact group bookings on 01306 742224.
Three Choirs Vineyard, near Newent, Gloucestershire, offers tailor-made tours which include wine appreciation, business studies, tourism, marketing and wine-making and the environment. A recent school project began with research on the resources needed to produce wine. Details from Thomas Shaw on 01531 890223.
Barkham Manor Vineyard, at Piltdown, near Uckfield, East Sussex, claims to be the most modern winery in Europe. It was set up, complete with pneumatic press, stainless steel vats and laboratory, in the mid-1980s, and has won international gold and silver medals for its wines. Tours explain the uses of different grape varieties (Pinot Noir, for example, is used for a "bubbly") and the processes involved, from picking grapes to putting grape "must" (juice) into fermentation vats. A medieval thatched barn, duck ponds and gardens can be included as part of the tour. Details from owners Mark and Lynn Lambert on 01825 722103.
The English Wine Centre, at Alfriston, East Sussex, has a small English wine museum, a shop with a large wine list, and its own demonstration vineyard. Entry is free for booked parties and educational material is in preparation. A visit could be combined with one to the famed animal centre, Drusillas, which is next door. Details from Christopher Ann on 01323 870164.
Lurgashall Winery, near Petworth, West Sussex, links tours to a wide range of interests, from rebuilding and using historic farm buildings to business methods and exporting overseas. Students can learn how produce is gathered and used and how fermenting and bottling have become year-round activities. Science lessons can examine the use of modern technology in wine production, or how traditional additives, such as wine sulphur and bentonite (a form of powdered clay used to remove haze and sediment), are also used. Details from Lindsey Brinded on 01428 707292.
A new publication, A Guide to English Winemaking (including a selection of vineyards to visit in the south-east) by John Guy and Ann Hopley, costs Pounds 2.50 from Bredhurst Publishing. It is a useful starting point with illustrated historical and technical notes, plus descriptions of more than a dozen vineyards, some of which are open all year. The final section has instructions on making your own wines.
All school visits to vineyards must be made by appointment. Children can be offered non-alcoholic tastings to explain features such as acidity and fermentation. For adults, there is always the opportunity to try the real thing. Cheers.
SOME FACTS ABOUT VINEYARDS
A 20-acre vineyard planted with choice infant vines (which are still imported, usually from Germany or France), plus the machinery - from de-stalker and grape-crusher to vats and bottling plant - involves a capital investment of around Pounds 250,000 with no income for the first four or five years as the plants mature.
* In this country, vines tend to grow to about six feet, having rooted to a depth of 24 feet, and are not fussy about soil types. However, they do need south-facing slopes with low frost levels and adequate drainage.
* Vineyards tend to plant several "varietals" such as Riesling, an old German variety which produces a fragrant and fruity wine; Bacchus, a fairly new strain to this country; and Pinot Noir, which is used for red and rose wine.
* In addition to wines, some vineyards are trying to produce different drinks to maximise the use of their expensive machinery. Three Choirs is making a couple of spritzers, adding imported wine to elderflower cordial or lemon juice. Jerome Schooler, an American, has created an impressive reputation for country wines, meads and liqueurs made with natural ingredients from the countryside and using traditional fermentation methods. His Lurgashall Winery (at the village of the same name near Petworth in West Sussex) uses plum and parsnip, apple and gooseberry, and even the sap from silver birch.