Down to the Dengie – A Visit to Clayhill Vineyard
Long before Dale and Victoria Symons opened a café, cellar door and tasting barn in June 2017, people had been stopping at the entrance to their Clayhill Vineyard Drivers and cyclists would often pause to take pictures of the land rolling down to the River Crouch, so they was decided to give them somewhere to pull over properly, enjoy a cup of tea and a slice of cake, take in the view and take home a bottle of wine or two.
That’s exactly what we did this autumn, on a tour of Essex vineyards. While the view from the entrance is impressive, it’s even better through the floor to ceiling windows of the upstairs viewing gallery. Rows of vines draw the eye down the slope to the tidal river. Southend is visible beyond, 7 miles away, and further still, the north Kent coast. To the east is the North Sea. It’s easy to see how this south-facing site just soaks up the sun and how it benefits from the low rainfall the area receives, half the amount that falls on Kent and Sussex in September and October. Closeness to the Crouch, busy with leisure boats during the summer months, means there’s never any frost either.
The original 10 acre vineyard was planted in 2006 and primarily produces Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, although 4 acres of Bacchus (and 6 more of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) were planted in 2017. There are also a few Auxerrois vines and some experimental plantings of Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and Riesling; “if it’ll ripen anywhere, it’ll be here”, says Dale. The grapes are mostly grown under contract and go to supply some of the major producers in Kent and elsewhere who are keen to get the high quality fruit produced in this corner of Essex. The wonderfully named Dengie Peninsula, the tongue of land between the River Crouch and the River Blackwater on which Clayhill Vineyard sits, is home to a rapidly expanding number of vineyards. It began with New Hall in nearby Purleigh in 1969 and numbered just 3 in 2006 when Clayhill and Great Whitmans vineyards were planted. Now there are 11 in the CM3 6 postcode area, including Crouch Ridge and Martin’s Lane, prompting claims that Maldon district has more vineyards than any other local authority in the country.
Like many English grape growers, Dale is first and foremost a farmer, and introduces himself as such when we visit. His family have been farming these fields for more than 50 years and grapes are just the latest crop to be grown here. After realising in the early noughties that wheat was going nowhere, he responded in 2005 to an ad in the agricultural press from Chapel Down, seeking grape growers. He still supplies them, and it is at least in part Clayhill grapes which account for the Essex coat of arms on the bottle caps of Chapel Down’s sparkling wines.
There is a small winery in the nearby farm buildings where Dale produces a range of still wines (the white and rosé sparkling wines are produced at New Hall). Quantities are limited and intended for the local market, with just 800 bottles of still and 1200 of sparkling being produced from the 2016 harvest. All are sold via the cellar door. There are plans to move the winery to the lower floor of the tasting barn from next year, to bring the winery, shop and café all under the same roof.
The café serves delicious cakes, coffee and more, including soup and an Essex huffer – a local take on the bread roll, made by making a round loaf and scoring it to split into 4 portions. Keeping things local is important at Clayhill. The milk is from Bradfields Farm Dairy near Basildon, the last remaining dairy in Essex, and the cakes are from the local bakery. It’s a welcoming spot. Barrels and chairs are arranged outside for warmer days than when we visited, although for the determined a stack of fluffy blankets are available. It’s popular too. While we were there at least a dozen people came in, for coffee, a nosey round the vines or to snap some pictures from the top floor and pick up a bottle or two.
Every month there’s a free tasting of Clayhill wines. We tried the fizz, an off-dry Auxerrois and the Chardonnay. They are all very reasonably priced, with the 70% Chardonnay / 30% Pinot Noir sparkling wine just £14.50 and great value. We were also lucky enough to get a taste of two specials – Brandy Hole Essex brandy (named after Brandy Hole Creek off the River Crouch, a notorious smuggling spot in the 17th and 18th centuries) and Tof-Vie Liqueur, an eau de vie made at the English Spirit Distillery at Great Yeldham.
With so many vineyards in the area, Maldon District Council, along with neighbouring Braintree, have produced a Grape and Grain Trail to highlight some of the wine and beer producers which can be visited. Clayhill should certainly be on any visitor’s list of places to stop, and with a railway station just a mile away at Althorne, on the line from London Liverpool Street to Southminster, getting there is easy.
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