Raise a glass to Sussex vineyards during English Wine Week

Liz Sagues writes about the national campaign that runs from June 20-28, its aim is to raise awareness of English wine across the country.

Thursday, 18th June 2020, 2:22 pm
Nyetimber owner Eric Heerema and head winemaker Cherie Spriggs among the vines. Photo: Nyetimber.

One event that coronavirus is not going to stop is English Wine Week, the annual celebration of what is increasingly appreciated as a world-class product.

But this year what happens in Sussex and elsewhere in the UK from June 20 to 28 will be rather different from the usual guided tours of vineyards, face-to-face tastings and special menus in restaurants.

Activity, explains Peter Gladwin, acting managing director of trade body WineGB, has to be mainly virtual rather than actual. “We have a comprehensive social media campaign underway, channelling celebrity and expert tastings, discussion groups, video tours and special offers from vineyards and producers,” he said.

Nyetimber's Tillington vineyard, source of a special sparkling cuve. Photo: Nyetimber.

Like other vineyard owners throughout the county, Gladwin has been forced to put the usual programme of visits, tours and special events such as wedding parties on hold until restrictions on the hospitality trade are relaxed. But he and his wife Bridget, who have run Nutbourne Vineyard near Pulborough for almost 30 years, are eagerly awaiting that moment.

The pandemic is a huge blow for the 70-plus commercial vineyards in Sussex.

For most of them, welcoming visitors is crucial to business success – a third of wine sales are at the cellar door, for example.

The county is the heartland of UK wine production. It has the largest area of vineyards in WineGB’s south east region, which is home to three-quarters of England’s 8,600 acres of vines. Of the grape juice produced, 70 per cent goes into the acclaimed sparkling wine that time and again has beaten champagne in blind tasting contests, while the remainder becomes ever-improving still wine.

Stopham vineyard near Pulborough: vines with a view of the Arun valley.

Sussex is also where the fine fizz emerged, in the 1990s.

Wine grapes have been grown in the UK since Roman times: the thirsty invading army needed supplies, and the soldiers were followed by monks, the gentry, even royalty (Henry II planted a vineyard at Windsor Castle). In 1667 Samuel Pepys enthused about an English wine; a century later the 10th Duke of Norfolk had a generously yielding vineyard at Arundel Castle.

The ground-breaking 20th century initiative happened close to West Chiltington. There, at the Domesday-mentioned Nyetimber estate, Chicago emigrés Sandy and Stuart Moss went against all then-conventional advice and planted the three champagne grape varieties, chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, not the Germanic hybrids happier in England’s cool climate. The Mosses made their wine in exactly the same way as champagne, bubbles created by second fermentation in bottle.

The first wine they released, 1992 blanc de blancs, astonished the world by coming top in an international blind tasting of sparkling wines in Paris. The rest is history...

Harvest time at Rathfinny. Photo: Viv Blakey, Rathfinny Wine Estate.

Nyetimber, owned since 2006 by Dutch-born former shipping magnate Eric Heerema, is still the best-known name in English sparkling wine.

But it now has many rivals. Soon to follow it was Ridgeview, where great credit is due to the late Mike Roberts for making fine Sussex fizz widely available – its own well-distributed wines apart, Ridgeview is responsible for many top own-brand bottles.

There are, though, longer-established producers that are important in the modern Sussex wine story.

Peter Hall, whose tiny Breaky Bottom vineyard is tucked beneath the South Downs inland from Newhaven, has risen above a truly unfair series of tribulations over 46 years, the latest serious frost damage this spring.

Bolney Wine Estate, near Haywards Heath, will celebrate 50 years in 2022, and has, unusually for the UK, long focused on award-winning still red wines alongside its whites and sparklers.

Carr Taylor Vineyard, inland from Hastings, made the first commercial quantities of champagne-method sparkling wine in the UK in 1983, but from reichensteiner grapes.

Then there are the newcomers. Set to become England’s largest single vineyard at 400 acres, Rathfinny, high on the South Downs above Alfriston, is a brand-new business life (and massive £10-million-plus investment) for former hedge fund manager Mark Driver and his wife Sarah.

Career changes, too, have led to some of the UK’s finest still wines, made by former marketing executive Alison Nightingale at Albourne Estate, near Hurstpierpoint, and ex-Formula One engineer Simon Woodhead at Stopham Estate, close to Pulborough. Both have planted international varieties such as pinot blanc and pinot gris as well as the UK’s signature still wine grape, bacchus,.

Sussex is also the scene of much innovation

Entrepreneur Penny Streeter has brought her South African “golf and wine estate” concept to Mannings Heath, near Horsham, where the first grapes will be harvested this year. She also owns nearby Grade I-listed Leonardslee Gardens, site in 2018 of an experimental planting of pinotage vines.

Bluebell Vineyard Estates, beside Ashdown Forest, is about to release a pioneering barrel-aged merlot; Albourne and Bolney have both introduced vermouths.

Alongside all this is one hugely significant Sussex influence on the burgeoning English wine scene: Plumpton Agricultural College. Driver, Nightingale and Woodhead – and many, many more top English winemakers – are graduates of the college’s internationally renowned wine department.

Expertise is part of the reason why Sussex produces superb wines now, plus good choice of vineyard sites on the county’s chalk-rich soils. Climate change matters, too, bringing riper grapes. But its downsides include late frosts affecting earlier-opening buds and damaging storms and strong winds during the growing season.

Vintages vary a lot – wicked frost in April 2017 limited total UK production to 5.9 million bottles against 2018’s bumper 13 million.

What will the 2020 vintage hold for Sussex?

This is a crucial moment, as the vine flowers open, but prospects are encouraging, despite sporadic damage from April frost.

Cameron Roucher, Rathfinny vineyard manager, commented: “We’re a week to ten days ahead of normal. Here’s hoping for a settled flowering.”

At Bolney, flowering started even sooner, with an unusually early harvest predicted.

By then, Sussex vineyards should be in full welcoming mode.

And, as several suggested to me, there could be a silver lining to the Covid-19 cloud: increased enthusiasm for buying local.

Liz Sagues is an award-winning wine writer and author of A Celebration of English Wine (Robert Hale), which tells a 2,000-year story from the Romans to 21st century world-beating bubbles.

How to keep up to date with Sussex’s vineyards

To keep updated English Wine Week watch vineyard websites and social media threads, plus winegb.co.uk. Here is a small selection of what’s happening:

Albourne Estate (albourneestate.co.uk): discounted Expressions of Pinot Noir 6-bottle case; wine club; coming soon new tasting room, pre-booked vineyard picnics.

Bluebell Vineyard Estates (bluebellvineyard.org): 30 per cent discount and free delivery on online sales.

Bolney Wine Estate (bolneywineestate.com): free virtual tastings all week, starting with vineyard tour with MD Sam Linter and pinot noir tasting; vineyard shop selling wine, local produce and grocery essentials; online sales free delivery until June 30.

Mannings Heath (manningsheath.com): virtual interactive wine tastings with winemaker Johann Fourie, from South Africa; online wine offers.

Nutbourne Vineyard (nutbournevineyards.com): discounted English Wine Week tasting case, new vineyard trail as soon as allowed.

Nyetimber (nyetimber.com): Instagram live session with The Wine Society June 22, 5.30pm (@nyetimber), open days later.

Rathfinny Wine Estate (rathfinnyestate.com): cellar door shop open, picnics and take-away food in the vineyard when allowed; 20 per cent discount on Cradle Valley still wines cases at new online shop.

Ridgeview (ridgeview.co.uk): shop open Thursday-Saturday from June 18; free delivery on web orders until June 30 with £2 per sale to Hospitality Action; virtual tastings and seminars throughout the week.

Stopham Vineyard (stophamvineyard.co.uk): open for sales, 10 per cent off mixed case, online sales free delivery.

Sussex Modern (sussexmodern.org.uk, shop at shop.charleston.org.uk): mixed cases from the nine winery partners of this new cultural hub, profits to county arts organisations.

A message from the Editor, Gary Shipton:

In order for us to continue to provide high quality and trusted local news, I am asking you to please purchase a copy of our newspapers.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our local valued advertisers - and consequently the advertising that we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you helping us to provide you with news and information by buying a copy of our newspapers.

Our journalists are highly trained and our content is independently regulated by IPSO to some of the most rigorous standards in the world. But being your eyes and ears comes at a price. So we need your support more than ever to buy our newspapers during this crisis.

Stay safe, and best wishes.