A toast to England

27th July 2017

Sussex vineyards are producing award-winning wines that are putting their continental cousins in the shade. Jemima Sissons finds out why the region is now on every sommelier's list

  • goodwood newsletter

  • wine

  • estate

  • Magazine

  • Food

Verdant vineyards of East and West Sussex

On an early-summer’s day, the vineyard is bathed in light. Under the shade of a wizened oak tree, lunch is served with views of the forest-flecked terroir. From an outdoor pit fire adjoining the tasting room comes a mouthwatering lunch of grilled prawns and whole barbecued lamb, and served alongside it a sparkling rosé from 2014, pale pink and resplendent with raspberry and citrus. Yet this isn’t Bordeaux or Champagne, but Nutbourne in West Sussex.

This is the 26-acre vineyard run by the Gladwin family, who own three restaurants in London: The Shed, Rabbit and Nutbourne. As well as their trademark “nutty” sparkling, they turn out a quaffable Sussex Reserve NV with hints of elderflower, a rosé and a lightly barrel-oaked Pinot Noir.

Nutbourne is one of many estates bringing this region to the fore of the English winemaking revolution. With 106 vineyards already established in East and West Sussex and many more emerging annually, the region is producing wines that often beat their Continental cousins in taste tests – and not all the obvious sparkling wines. Cracking reds are made here too, such as the Bolney Estate Pinot Noir as well as many Burgundian Pinots.

Sussex might also be edging towards a Champagne-style protected status. Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has put forward an application for Sussex wine to be awarded PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status under the EU’s Protected Name Scheme, but it remains to be seen what effect Brexit will have on this. If it happens, ordering a “glass of Sussex” will, hopes the local wine industry, become common parlance.

Whatever the result, the wines are in hot demand. The most familiar are the prize-winning sparklers, from pioneering vineyards such as Ridgeview, Nyetimber and Gusbourne. In 2010, Ridgeview’s Blanc de Blanc 2006 scooped the Decanter World Wine Award for best sparkling wine over £10, beating leviathans such as Taittinger and Piper Heidsieck. Ridgeview is also now Downing Street’s official supplier – and has been served on numerous occasions by the Queen. It is also responsible for the winemaking of the recently launched Windsor Great Park Wine. Last year the expressive almond and vanilla notes of a £40 2009 Nyetimber won favour over a £65 bottle of Billecart-Salmon Grand Cru champagne in a Wine and Spirit Trade Association tasting in Paris.

An exciting project on the horizon is Rathfinny Estate – 250 acres of south-facing chalky downland owned by former hedge-fund manager Mark Driver. The estate’s first sparkling wines will be out next year. The country’s three largest organic vineyards are in Sussex: Davenport, Oxney and Sedlescombe. The latter’s Pinot Noir-Chardonnay Brut 2013 vintage sparkling wine won a gold at last year’s international wine awards for its biscuity depths.

The verdant vineyards of East and West Sussex have the perfect microclimate for winemaking

 So what to look out for this year? Oxney is about to launch a luscious Pinot Noir Rosé. At Goodwood, wines from the adjoining estate – Tinwood Estate Brut, Tinwood Blanc de Blanc, Tinwood Rosé – as well as Coldharbour Sparkling wine (both Brut and Rosé), Bolney Pinot Noir and Bolney Pinot Gris are among those being served. The estate is also partnering with Coates & Seely from nearby Hampshire .

So why does this region produce such fantastic wines? Its climate is opportune – Eastbourne is the UK’s sunniest place – and it benefits from a favourable terroir: both the chalk downs and the weald behind the downs provide the soil and microclimate you also find in Champagne.

Chris Foss, who heads up the wine course at Plumpton agricultural college in Sussex, explains, “There’s really good sunshine and not too much rain. Kent and Essex are drier, but they don’t have the same amount of sunshine.” He adds that the winemakers here excel at innovation. “They’re New World; the vineyards are more modern than a lot of the older ones in more traditional winemaking countries. You see higher trellising, lower plant densities.”

For some budding oenophiles, it’s the tourism surrounding the new wine boom that might appeal more. For those seeking their own Sideways-style adventure, a number of tours are in progress. The South East Vineyard Association is campaigning for the opening up of a wine route, which would guide tourists with brown plaques around the vineyards, along with a visitor centre and wine maps.

Nutbourne welcomes guests to its windmill tasting room and recently launched an outdoor kitchen. Best of England’s vineyard tour launched in Sussex this year, taking guests to the Bolney and Ridgeview estates, rounding off the day at Rathfinny for a tasting in its Gun Room – rumoured to have once been the Duke of Wellington’s gun store. Ridgeview is also preparing to build a winery to increase capacity in line with its production growth for 2020.

Yet it hasn’t all been plain sailing. This year the region was hit hard by a frost – similar to the one that affected Bordeaux. “In May 2017 we had an Arctic frost, which meant our frost-fighting techniques were not as successful as predicted,” says Nutbourne’s Oliver Gladwin. “We’re going to see what happens over the summer from second budding to ripening for an idea of what yields will show at harvest.”

At Ridgeview, the team lit 500 candles over six nights when the temperatures dropped, to try to curtail the damage. The frost-specific candles are contained in tins the size of paint cans and lit when necessary to create enough heat to protect the vines by warming up the vineyard. “It’s predicted that there may be around a 10 per cent loss to Ridgeview vines, especially the vulnerable Pinot Noir,” says Mardi Roberts, marketing and communications director at Ridgeview. “However, this is difficult to assess; there’s the chance that secondary buds may have regrowth.”

Yet every cloud has a silver lining. “The frosts are not necessarily a bad thing, because they postpone a glut,” says Foss. “There will be a point when we produce more than the market can bear, so people will try to sell at a cheaper price. If we have a shortage of wine, we can keep the prices and reputation up. After all, it’s a luxury product. If Asda was selling Gucci handbags at half price, it would be a bad idea.”

This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Summer 2017 issue

  • goodwood newsletter

  • wine

  • estate

  • Magazine

  • Food

  • beef.jpg

    Stories from the Estate

    A Winter Feast

  • wh603-5.jpg

    Stories from the Estate

    Special Ranch

  • the-sipsmiths.jpg

    Stories from the Estate

    Taste Gin like a Pro