When I signed up months ago for the Surrey Bacchus Half Marathon I was pretty confident that by the time it arrived I’d already have one half marathon under my belt and my running would be on top form. It didn’t quite turn out that way. Injury meant I missed my planned debut in London and wasn’t in quite the peak physical shape I’d hoped. So I was genuinely apprehensive as I arrived at Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking on a glorious September morning that I might not make the distance.
I’d been to Denbies a couple of times before, though had never really ventured beyond the main building housing the winery, shop and function rooms. The race was going to be an ideal opportunity to see more of the estate and to enjoy tasting some of the wide range of Denbies wines being served at the water stations on the way around the 21km route.
As the race began, 100s of runners, many in fancy dress, started to move. There were fish, flamingos, ladybirds, bees, a fizzician in a white coat, celebrities, super heroes, even bunches of grapes. The pace was slow at first as people cleared the start line and stayed slow and steady as we wound around the winery and up into the vineyard. I and my two trusty running mates had positioned ourselves toward the rear of the pack and that’s where we remained as we took a right turn and headed through vines heavy with fruit for the 2016 vintage. On the northern edge of the vineyard we took another right, then another, circling around the edge of the vineyard. Although only a slow jog, this was no doubt the fastest I’ve been through a vineyard and a pace at which I’m sure my children would encourage next time I take them to visit one. I still had time to impart lots of interesting English wine facts to my friends though: Denbies is England’s largest vineyard; the plantings cover almost 90ha; the estate is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2016. I also had an advantage in that they couldn’t just wander off and I could slow down or speed up to keep up with them.
As we got to the clamour of the first water station it became clear that this wasn’t going to be my usual wine tasting experience. No one showed me the wine bottle while describing the vinification process. No one mentioned soil types. Instead I had to squeeze my way through a throng of people to grab a slug of white from a plastic thimble. There was a tech sheet on the table stating that this was Surrey Gold but I didn’t think those behind me would appreciate my lingering to ask about the grape varieties (Muller Thurgau, Ortega and Bacchus) in this medium dry blend.
The route then took us out of the vineyard along the outskirts of Dorking where people on the street applauded and shouted encouragement. I felt like a bit of a fraud – I’d walked a couple of kilometres and had a nice glass of wine in the sun. Past houses and on to country lanes and farm tracks, we soon got to the second stop. Here the wine was Flint Valley, a crisper, drier wine made from Seyval Blanc and Reichensteiner, with more pronounced citrus aromas and a welcome refreshing acidity.
A few kilometres more and we reached drink station number 3 and a taste of Rose Hill, a rosé served (I should’ve seen this coming) just before the route headed up a steep hill. Made from Dornfelder and Pinot Noir this had a lovely deep salmon colour and plenty of red fruit flavours. By this point the runners had spread out much more and the serious folk, looking for a good time (in hours and minutes) had separated from those looking for a good time (in wine and conversation) and had paced on ahead.
On a lovely stretch of running along the chalk slope of White Down, feet feeling every step, I gained a good appreciation of chalky soils of the area and why it was identified as such a good prospect for planting vines back in the 1980s. After negotiating the hazard of an on-coming cow, we descended to water station number four where a rock band was keeping everyone entertained while they enjoyed a taste of sparkling Demi-Sec. After a fretful moment when someone said the wine had run out, I managed to find some, poured by a man in a pirate costume. A blend of the classic Champagne varieties Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, this semi-sweet fizz was just the thing to get tired legs moving.
Off again, up through the woods and some welcome shade, I was running behind the Spice Girls, who, now bearded, appeared to have let themselves go a bit. At the next stop, at the National Trust’s Denbies Hillside, no wine (for some reason the organisers had classified this a ‘dry’ stop) so just a short pause to grab water and a fresh orange segment. Steady progress was rewarded at the next water station, where chilled Bacchus was being served in a shady clearing. Denbies Bacchus really is a very good wine, complex and with good length of flavour. Not as wildly aromatic as some, this is a seriously delicious example of this most English of still wines. If I had to run 16kms for a taste of wine again, I’d happily do it for a chilled glass of this. The gentle sound of bells floated across the grass from where the Chobham Handbell Ringers were performing and it would have been so, so easy to have settled down here, gone back for a top up, and drifted off.
Inevitably we had to keep moving and trotted off over Ranmore Common to the final water station. By this stage my face was almost as red as the Redlands being served by cheerful volunteers. This medium bodied wine, partly aged in oak, is packed full of flavour but could easily be served chilled. Something which on race day would’ve been perfect.
From there on, it was pretty much downhill all the way. Running along the edge of the vineyard again, we got an excellent view of the different slope and aspect of the various parts of the vineyard, including some plantings on very steep, south-facing hillsides. We could soon hear the music and cheers from spectators at the finish line and loped down the concrete track toward the winery. There, my two children spotted me and we ran the final couple of hundred metres together, full speed across the finish line.
I collected my finisher’s medal and t-shirt, seriously delighted that I’d made it to the end. A cold bottle of Whitedowns, a sparkling blend of Seyval Blanc and Reichensteiner, was a great way to celebrate.
It definitely wasn’t the easiest way to see a vineyard, and it’s definitely a long way to run to taste a few measures of wine. But for the atmosphere, the pleasure of being out in the English countryside in the sun and for the sheer fun of it, it must be one of my best vineyard visits ever.