Harriet O'Brien, The Independent (London, England)
Traveller's guide Let Harriet O'Brien be your guide for an autumn journey around the nation's most fruitful locations
The notion of English wine might once have made you gasp and stretch your eyes. However, England's expanding vineyards are now gaining serious plaudits, with quality on an upward curve - and an accompanying tourist industry now emerging. The increasing demand for local produce, coupled with English wine's relatively low alcohol level (often 11.5 per cent) are a big part of the appeal - and these factors mitigate against the relatively high cost of a bottle: typically in the 7 bracket for a still wine, due largely to the high excise taxes.
Wine making in England is hardly a new occupation. The Romans planted vines here - and enjoyed the results. Monasteries continued the tradition, and in 1086, 42 vineyards were recorded in the Domesday Book. But agricultural and climatic change coupled with the effects of the Dissolution of the Monasteries led to the decline of English grape growing.
Fast forward to the 1940s when English vine keeping was revived. The first commercial vineyard of modern times was planted in 1951, by Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones at his estate in Hambledon, Hampshire.
For years, wine production remained something of a retirement hobby. Now, however, the industry has become a great deal more professional. The recent growth in the number of vineyards is much less significant than the increase in their average size, says Julia Trustram Eve of English Wine Producers, the marketing arm of the industry. "Over about the last seven years acreage has more or less doubled," she says.
At 265 acres, Denbies in Surrey, is currently the largest English single-estate vineyard. But earlier this year planting began on an estate more than twice that size on a chunk of the Sussex Downs. When fully planted Rathfinny Vineyard will cover 600 acres, a substantially larger area than many wine estates on the Continent.
There are also vineyards over the white cliffs of Dover - or almost: the 3.5 acres of little Terlingham Vineyard, for example, are set just back from the North Downs coast near Folkestone.
Recently the big success story has been in the South-east. Kent and Sussex are home to some of the most highly regarded producers, especially in areas of chalky soil. Similar to that of the Champagne region in France, this yields particularly good crops of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes that are made into sparkling wine.
Across England, from the Isles of Scilly to the Yorkshire Dales, there are now more than 400 vineyards. Last year, they collectively produced four million bottles. Most were aromatic whites made from Germanic vines, but there were also increasing quantities of sparkling wines, some ross and latterly some reasonably successful reds. Yet this, of course, is the merest fraction of the quantity made in rather sunnier places - in France, Languedoc-Roussillon alone produces more than 400 times as much.
Just look at the medals, though, starting with last September's Decanter World Wine Awards. Ridgeview's Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2006 - grown and made in Sussex - won the trophy for best sparkling wine in the world, beating competitors from Champagne. At this year's International Wine Challenge, one of the world's biggest wine competitions, Chapel Down in Kent won a gold medal for its sparkling Ros Brut while Denbies in Surrey picked up gold for its still Chalk Ridge Ros 2010.
Other events this year have given a boost to English winemakers. The royal wedding generated a patriotic swathe of English sparkling wine sales. A few weeks later, it was trumpeted that Ridgeview's Cuvee Fitzrovia Ros was on the wine list of the Buckingham Palace banquet for President Obama. And 7.5 acres of Windsor Great Park are to be planted with vines (Windsor Grape Park anyone?).
So where can you buy English wine? …