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As WineGB defines, Thames & Chilterns is a region comprising the three counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, west and north-west of London. A patch of land boasting some of the best vineyards and wines in the UK. An excellence resulting from a number of factors: lots of sunshine, proximity to the River Thames and a mixture of soils including sandy flats and limestone slopes.
English sparkling wine predominates with mainly Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes planted. Yet, several vineyards are successful with lesser-known grapes, such as the Bacchus grape that make a lovely fruity English white wine.
Let’s find out more from the words of Bob Nielsen, owner of Brightwell Vineyard and President of Thames & Chilterns Vineyard Association.
Bob, when was your association born and how many wineries does it represent?
T&CVA was formed in 1988, when the revival of English winemaking was just beginning to take itself seriously. It is the smallest wine region in England, covering the counties of Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. Currently it has 44 member vineyards but only 5 professional wineries.
Can you briefly describe the areas of cultural and wine tourism interest of Thames & Chilterns area?
T&CVA covers a very picturesque part of England. Centered on the Thames river valley running from beyond Oxford, through famous towns like Wallingford and Henley to end in London. The Region includes 3 ‘Areas of outstanding natural beauty’ (The Cotswolds hills, The Chiltern hills, and the North Berkshire Downs). There are many famous cultural and historic sites such as Blenheim Palace, Cliveden House, Roman Silchester and the museums of Oxford. There is not much wine tourism as the vineyards are small in this area. Stanlake Park and Brightwell Vineyard are routinely open for visits with wines to buy.
What services/activities do you use to promote your wine region?
The major event is our annual Wine and Food Festival. This year the ‘Thames Valley Wine and Food Festival’ is being held at Brightwell Vineyard on 17 and 18 June 23. (www.brightwellvineyard.co.uk, www.thamesvalleyfestival.co.uk for details).
What are the main vineyards and cellars and their characteristics?
Most vineyards in the region are small and take their grapes to be made at other wineries. However Stanlake Park is the oldest winery in the region dating from the 1980s. It makes all styles of wine and has an onsite shop. Brightwell Vineyard also makes an extensive range of whites, and excels at red wines for which it has a national reputation. Two newer wineries are ‘Hundred Hills’ and ‘Harrow and Hope’ which both specialise in just making Sparkling wines.
Why are the wines of the region so special?
The region is principally chalk clay. The Chiltern hills are a chalk escarpment while the Thames river was formed by glaciations that threw up masses of flint gravel. All ideal soils for Vines. Furthermore, the south-central location of the region is one of the warmest and driest parts of England in the summer (though correspondingly can be cold in the winter!). These conditions mean it can produce excellent ripe fruit. However this is an area that is close to London and other cities, and so the limited availability and price of land has inhibited vineyard expansion. The best sites for vineyards get bought up to build houses on!