In a slight departure from the norm, I’ve decided to blog about a non-restaurant experience that Mr W and I had over the weekend – but one which will hopefully still appeal to fellow lovers of all things tasty!
Mr W received a voucher for a tour and tasting at Wickham Vineyard, near Southampton, as a Christmas present, but there was a handwritten note on there (from the vineyard staff) saying that it was at its best during the summer months, so we decided to wait before planning our visit. Our weekends often follow the same pattern, revolving mostly around wining and dining with friends or on our own, but at least once a month we make the effort to do something a bit different, and a vineyard visit certainly fitted the bill. When Saturday dawned surprisingly bright and sunny, we thought it was an ideal opportunity to do it, and headed for Southampton.
The Vineyard is fairly easy to find from the directions on their website/promotional leaflet, and the postcode given presented no satnav issues either (I am sure we’ve all found ourselves at a delivery entrance or even at the local sorting office when following a postally correct but personally incorrect postcode!) As we approached, there were a couple of brown tourist signs to guide the way, and there was a car park with plenty of space available.
Our tour started in the shop, where we were issued with headsets and iPod-esque audio players. The lady behind the counter gave us a brief overview of how to use them, but they were fairly self-explanatory, and the audio commentary started with a quick run through of the controls and what to do if you needed to pause or lost your place somewhere in the tour.
We synchronised button pushes and started on our tour, which took us past the winery production facility and into the vineyard itself. For some reason, I had assumed that the main part of the tour would be the production facilities, so it was a surprise when the audio routed us past the winery, into the vineyard itself and in amongst the vines, but a very pleasant surprise, as it was absolutely beautiful, and on a lovely sunny day, as you can see from the photos, it was a really nice place to be.
The tour commentary lasted about 35 minutes and was fascinating – giving some general history about the origins of wine as a drink, the techniques used for planting and training the vines, and some specifics around the background to Wickham Vineyard and the differences between grape growing in England compared with France and Germany. It also points out some scenic landmarks in the vineyard and suggests other areas to explore, such as the nearby nature reserve that is part of the vineyard too. We were really glad we’d chosen a nice day to visit, as the grass in the vineyard was quite long, and it wouldn’t have been very pleasant to walk there if it had been wet underfoot.
The final part of the tour does take you to the winery, but it was surprisingly small – and fairly cramped with equipment and barrels, so really we were only able to stand outside and look in, although there was a man working there who said we could squeeze in and have a closer look at the equipment if we wanted to. Again, I was pleasantly surprised by how close you could get to everything, and there was no ‘DO NOT TOUCH’ signage or barriers keeping you away from things – although admittedly it’s unlikely to be an attraction that appeals to children, so perhaps that’s why! Really, at this point, although it was interesting to see the equipment and some of the barrels up close, it was the commentary that was most interesting as it talked through how the wine was produced. I would imagine that at different times of year you can probably see different stages of the production taking place – but on our visit it all seemed fairly quiet.
On finishing the tour, we made our way back to the shop to return our headsets and try some of the wine. On this occasion, there were only six wines to try: three whites and three reds. Usually they have a couple of roses on offer as well, and I think another red was also mentioned, but it depends on what they have available at the time, as everything is produced on site from the vines you see on the tour, so it really depends on the crop.
We were very, very pleasantly surprised by the wine. I’ve tried a few English wines in the past and been underwhelmed, but these were very good. In terms of the white we tried the Wickham Dry, a Fume and a Wickham Medium, and with the reds we tried a very unusual light one, which they’ve only produced small quantities of, and don’t manage to produce every year, plus two slightly heavier reds – of which the details escape me (nothing to do with them being at the end of the tasting, I can assure you, as I was unfortunately driving!) Mr W had two free bottles with his voucher, and opted for the Wickham Dry and the light red that I’ve mentioned. Both of these retailed for around £9.50 in the shop, and some of the varieties are also sold in Waitrose – so we’re going to look out for them! The shop sold a few other gift-type items, but didn’t go overboard and certainly wasn’t trying to cash in by selling souvenirs or totally unrelated goods. This is very much a working vineyard that happens to offer tours and tastings, really as part of its efforts to encourage people to buy its very good wine, rather than something that sets out to be a tourist attraction. Whilst we were tasting the wines, a couple of people came in who had obviously stopped by specifically to buy cases of wine, having tried it before – a very good advert for the Vineyard.
There is also a restaurant on site, Vatika, which bears the name of Atul Kocchar, the Michelin-starred chef behind Benares in London. The cuisine is similar: a heavy Indian influence, but with dishes that seem predominantly British. We had considered having a light lunch there, but the only options seemed to be a 10 course tasting menu, or a two course option for £35 per head. We were very tempted by the afternoon tea, but sadly we were too early in the day to try this. If we were passing again at a more conducive time, though, we’d certainly call in and sample it.
We really enjoyed the hour or so we spent at Wickham Vineyard. It was fascinating, and it is great to see a small, local enterprise like this in action, whilst being relatively unspoilt by visitor centres or tourist overkill. It was lovely to be out in the countryside, enjoying the fresh air and the beautiful views. I can imagine that if it ever got busy it could be less enjoyable – part of the enjoyment for us was wandering around the vineyard in relative seclusion, and it wouldn’t have been so lovely if there had been other groups close by. Also, the wine tasting is fairly intimate, at the shop counter – and ours was interrupted a couple of times when the lady had to break off to serve people buying things. Not a problem for us, but at busy times I can imagine it becoming a bit disjointed (although perhaps they’d have two people behind the counter at busier times). We also would have struggled to get a good look at the winery if there had been more people on the site, but as it was, there was only one other couple doing the tour at the same time as us, so we didn’t clash too much!
Recommended for a visit if you’re in the area, and the wine is recommended if you see it in Waitrose or find yourself passing the shop. It’s also a nice present idea for a wine lover, and there seem to be a range of different tour/experience options available on the vineyard’s website.
Wickham Vineyard, Botley Road, Shedfield, Southampton.