Grape and Grain Tours press day
A new venture takes guests on a guided tour of the exciting craft alcohol producers in Hampshire and Winchester Bloggers was lucky enough to be invited on a press day. Here’s a taste (pun intended) of what to expect when the full tours launch next year.
Hampshire is home to some of the most exciting distilleries, vineyards and breweries in the country. They are also located in some of the counties most stunning rural locations. Despite these two facts making a visit very appealing, the downside is that ‘remote rural locations’, ‘fine alcoholic drinks’ and ‘driving a car’ don’t mix, meaning the designated driver dips out on the experience.
Yet as our collective appetite for local products and new experiences grows, there is a clear need for something that allows us to enjoy what the country has to offer in a fresh way. Step forward Joel Eastman and his business, Grape and Grain. The idea is ingeniously simple. Joel handpicks some of the finest food and drink venues in Hampshire, sets the itinerary, collects you in a luxury coach and whisks you around the countryside.
It’s a brilliant idea brilliantly executed. Having met with our fellow members of the press at Winchester Station, we boarded the coach and set off. Anyone who knows Winchester understands that you are minutes away from some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes, and we were soon passing through pretty villages and stunning country views. We all introduced ourselves and got to hear the story of Grape and Grain, including Joel’s journey from the suburbs of Sydney to Hampshire. With vast experience in the drinks industry, Joel’s passion and knowledge shone through, giving us details of the venues we were visiting as well as dropping in some great anecdotes.
Our first stop was Hattingley Wines, a vineyard which is leading the huge surge in appreciation for British wines. Although our visit was after the harvest, with the vines looking distantly bare, the vineyard and setting are highly impressive. Rebecca Fisher, marketing and events manager, explained the history of the vineyard and gave us a glimpse at the incredible effort that goes into nurturing and harvesting the crop.
It was great to learn that the seam of chalk rock beneath the Champagne region extends under Hampshire. The suitability of the soil, plus the incredible passion and dedication of the Hattingley team, explains why its sparkling wines now regularly best some of the most renowned Champagnes in blind taste tests.
In the tasting room, we were given four of the wines to try by our tour guide Claudia Lopes who also explained the story behind each wine. Every one was distinctive and delicious, even to my untrained palate. My highlight was the beautifully oaky 2013 Kings Cuvee, an incredibly flavourful wine. Everyone had their favourites but all were in agreement that an ‘experimental’ Demi-sec was an absolute belter that should be bottled immediately. After a beautiful buffet lunch provided by the delightful Elizabeth's Kitchen, the highlights being a silky trout and watercress pate, plus a punchy frangipane tart, we were off to our next destination.
Itchen Valley Brewery
Located in an industrial area just outside Alresford, Itchen Valley Brewery is a true Hampshire success story. Founded in 1997 - long before anyone would have dreamt of a craft beer craze - Itchen has been a pioneer and fine Hampshire ambassador for 20 years. My favourite stat is that Itchen Valley Brewery has proudly served 30 million pints! It has continued to produce an outstanding lineup of beers using traditional methods as our thirst for quality, local beers has surged.
We were shown around by the engaging and knowledgeable Dom, who managed to teach us the entire beer making process in less than 20 minutes! We were offered a choice of two pints, a traditional bitter which Dom himself had overseen and the New Hampshire APA - a beer clearly plugging into the trend for hoppy American beers. It was a fascinating whistle-stop tour of the brewing process. It was also pleasing to see a brewery considered as equals alongside vineyards and distillers by being included in a tour like this. Beer is a great part of our heritage and we should celebrate businesses such as Itchen Valley as readily as the more ‘high-end’ producers.
Our final stop is set just behind a pretty village green next to a Watercress farm. What could be more Hampshire than that? Winchester Distillery, despite being born in Paul Bowler’s kitchen as recently as 2014, is at the vanguard of the English craft drink movement. Its signature Twisted Nose gin is distilled using the famous Hampshire watercress growing literally outside the door of the distillery. The passion and craft which goes into producing gins such as those made by Winchester Distillery help explain the huge renaissance in craft gin drinking.
We were welcomed by Paul Bowler and Belinda Fordham, who gave a fascinating explanation of where the business came from, and some of its exciting future plans. Winchester Distilleries is growing and expanding. Quickly. It will soon be taking up more space and adding new lines. Paul proudly showed us Persephone, his trusty distiller. She is a beautiful, hand-built contraption, aptly named after the mythical figure who was both goddess of spring and queen of the underworld.
After having a picture taken in front of the watercress beds, we were able to sample several of the gins, including the Twisted Nose and the newly launched Winchester Gin. The complexity and layering of flavours found in these gins - especially when sampled neat - are extraordinary. It was the perfect end to a successful and enjoyable day.
On the train home, we were able to reflect on a great day and superb venture. We can't wait to see the details of the full tour early next year. Joel says the tours will be longer and include a gastro pub lunch, making the already bargain price tag of £99 per person even more appealing. Grape and Grain is simply the best way to sit back and relax, talk to some great people and sample some of the incredible wares Hampshire has to offer. Oh, and the drink is not bad too!
Click here for more information and to purchase tickets for the 2018 Hampshire Grape and Grain Tours.