SUSSEX IS in the minds of many people – not least those living in Sussex – the epi-centre of the UK wine renaissance. So it was with nervous anticipation that we were looking forward to visiting three of them – Bolney, Nutbourne and Bluebell – more or less at the same time. We were not disappointed. All are quite near each other – and, curiously, can be joined by a straight line on a map – yet have strong personalities of their own. Bolney is the country’s leading producer of reds, Bluebell is overhelmingly sparkling and Nutbourne, though is has won gold for its sparkling intends to concentrate on still whites.
But enough of medals. This is about vineyard experience.
If ever there was a labour of love in a vineyard it is Nutbourne, nurtured and expanded by Bridget Gladwin helped by her husband whose main job is running a very successful catering company. It is sheer delight to meander among its sprawling 26 acres rolling down to the South Downs in the near distance passing llamas and tumbling pools before having a tasting of its fine wines on the veranda of a former wind mill. The Gladwins purchased an 18 acre vineyard in 1991 planted with German varieties knowing nothing about vineyards and have since painstakingly expanded it to where they can sell 20,000 bottles in a good year. Although their Nutty Brut sparkling has won a gold medal twice at the prestigious International Wine & Spirit Competition they intend to specialise in still wines bolstered by the fact that their Sussex Reserve was the first ever English still wine to achieve a gold medal in the same competition. Located in terroir to die for with two vineyards belonging to Nyetimber close by on either side , Bridget has conjured up a memorable experience. It is also the most vertically integrated vineyard I have ever come across. A lot of their wine goes to three fashionable restaurants in London run by their sons (including The Shed in Notting Hill) which also take food from the family farm. To top it all Bridget, a part-time artist, designs the labels for the wines herself.
We visited Bolney and Bluebell as part of an £89-a-head day coach trip from London organised by English Wine Tasting, one of the first companies in what hopefully will be a burgeoning UK wine tourism industry. As Bolney came into view you are first hit by the ambition of the place – a spanking new tasting, café and reception area with a long balcony looking over 18 of their 40 acres estate – a pleasant surprise from other vineyard cafés where you have to stretch your neck to see the grapes. Bolney, with a terroir closer to Bergundy than the chalky underlay of Champagne, has courageously taken a counter-intuitive decision to concentrate on English reds led by their much lauded Pinot Noir even though their best selling wine is white (Bacchus). They plan to triple production over 10 years.
They grow their vines high to protect against frost and wandering deer and have a natural advantage from some buzzards which frighten off the birds. After an expertly curated tasting we retired to the picturesque Eight Bells in the village for lunch and other English wines which unbeknown to the organisers turned out to include “British” (ie made from imported grape juice) because, surprise, surprise the gastropub doesn’t serve local wines. However, it at least confirmed to us the quality of proper English wines and the sutuation was soon righted by our efficient tour operator.
Bluebell is a lovely welcoming vineyard built on an old chicken farm. It has rightly been garlanded for the quality of its Hindleap sparkling wines made with impressive attention to detail by winemaker Kevin Sutherland and vineyard manager Colette O’Leary. They only make vintages (wine produced from the year of growth) rather than blending the produce of different years as happens so often with Champagne producers.
Named after the bluebells which crowd the area in Spring and after which the nearby Bluebell railway is dedicated, the 60 acre vineyard ambles its way down a soft slope between former chicken huts and wedding marquees towards the South Downs interrupted only by several soft pools adding to its Arcadian charm.
They have a small-is-beautiful approach reflected in growing slightly different varieties of the same vines in neighbouring blocks and fermenting their wines in blocks – ranging from a sparkling made from the Seyval grape to others made from full blown classic Champagne grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier).
Bluebell is now growing other varieties such as Ortega and newly fashionable Bacchus and has plans to double output in the coming years from 50,000 bottles a year to 100,000. Like Bolney and Nutbourne they have their own winery with 40 tanks including a couple outside. There is a small friendly tasting room where we savoured their excellent range of wines while being talked through the wine-making process.
The more I visit vineyards – and I have clocked up many dozens – the more I am convinced of the prospects for vineyard tourism. Wines may have been of varying quality but the vineyard experience has been distinctive. The trouble is reaching them without a car (if you are not drinking and driving) as very few are near railway stations. Which is why dispatching coaches from London where the money and the tourists are could be a savvy idea, Our party of 15 included two people from Sweden and two from Denmark. There is all to play for.