If the British economy had taken an alternative turn in the 1980s, the Denbies estate would have looked very different today. Instead of 265 acres of sprawling vineyards, the North Downs land near Dorking would have been populated by fat, contented pigs.
“My father bought the estate as a pig and cattle farm,” explained Denbies’ general manager, Chris White. “But the UK had recently joined the Common Market and the farm was losing lots of money, so Dad got rid of the animals. A friend told him that the estate was perfect for growing vines because many years ago, the land would have been joined to the Champagne region of the continent – it had the same soil and climate. So my father planted 30 acres as vineyards and the results were so good that he decided to plant the rest.”
Today the vineyard – part of an estate that totals over 600 acres – is one of the largest privately owned wineries in northern Europe. Denbies’ Surrey Gold is the country’s bestselling English wine and the estate produces 100,000 bottles of that alone each year, alongside other acclaimed whites, reds, rosé and sparkling wines. This year’s various drinks industry awards have netted Denbies more than 30 accolades, even as the estate anticipates a second consecutive record-breaking harvest.
Having begun the project with no experience of wine-producing, Adrian White clearly learned quickly and learned well.
“We do have bad years, but that’s par for the course,” his son explained. “You don’t go into agriculture expecting it all to be plain sailing. But the important thing for us, and for all English vineyards as a whole, is to not try to be all things to all people; it’s about understanding what you can grow well in this climate. We brought in clones of the vines that we could grow well here – aromatic fruity wines, rosé and a lot of sparkling wine. Any vineyard trying to produce big reds here every year is going to fail. You wouldn’t produce heavy reds in Champagne, just as you wouldn’t grow Champagne-style grapes in southern France because there isn’t the weather for that.”
With their wine being stocked in major supermarkets such as Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Asda, as well as Marks & Spencer, there can be little doubt that Denbies’ wine is an enduring hit. Growing vines in this part of the world is not without its difficulties, however.
“Frost is a challenge, which we can mitigate somewhat, but we’re very much in the lap of the gods so we need to have a strategy for the whole year,” Chris said. “If we miss one frost, we could be hit by another issue, and so it’s just about managing the vineyard well and taking it as it comes. If the year is not looking as good as we hoped, we can do a ‘green harvest’, which means we can remove some of the bunches so that the excess goodness will nourish the remaining bunches.”
But as the family-run vineyard approaches its 30th anniversary next year, it is clear that the owners have not taken their significant success for granted. Far from relying on the continued performance of their top wines, the Whites have branched out into many different revenue streams in order to secure the estate’s future.
“Diversification has been a huge part of our business,” said Chris, who joined the family firm 12 years ago. “So much of what we do is weather dependent, we’ve had to diversify. At the moment we host 80 weddings a year, plus we have two restaurants, a pretty big wine and gift shop, an art gallery, a farm shop and a garden centre. We also have the Surrey Hills Brewery onsite; our strategy has been to work with them on joint ventures, and we offer tours and tastings.”
The tours have proved immensely popular, with Denbies now attracting 300,000 visitors per year. But the family is still looking to enhance and improve the estate’s offering.
“Reaching our 30th anniversary is a testament to how robust our business is,” Chris said. “We see ourselves as a centre of excellence – we bought state of the art equipment and we assist other vineyards in making their wine. We also have top staff to make sure that we maintain that quality, but importantly, we don’t have all our eggs in one basket.”
As well as opening a variety of enterprises on the estate, the family are also mindful of diversification when it comes to the grapes they produce.
“English wines tend to be known for the sparkling varieties but the still wine is just as good,” Chris said. “The benefit of sparkling wines is that the realisation and profitability is very high, but the cash flow is pretty eye-watering. It takes four years to produce the grapes and then you’ve got at least three years until the release, so it could be seven years before you see any return. The beauty is you can have a mixed balance of sparkling and still wines to improve cash flow.”
For anyone thinking of starting their own vineyard, Chris has another key piece of advice – try to cut out the middlemen.
“Our wine is sold in-house. Rather than handing over all your produce to wholesalers, you can sell it direct, which is useful for optimisation. English wine was very expensive in the past because it was sold to wholesalers who took their cut, so we have a balance of how much we sell to wholesalers and direct to customers.”
Looking forward to the next 30 years, Denbies has big plans in the pipeline to keep ahead of the growing competition.
“We’re looking to launch a Blanc de Blanc, a 100% white sparkling wine,” Chris said. “Also, we’re going into developing a boutique wine hotel. Currently we have a modest seven-bedroom B&B, but we’re looking to double that. Really we’re saying a big ‘thank you’ to everyone who has supported us – we’ve seen 10% to 20% growth year on year. It’s an exciting business to be in.”