Pinot Noir

Three of the best on a Sussex vineyard trail

Posted by Victor Keegan on August 15, 2016
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Nutbourne's windmill tasting area

Nutbourne’s windmill tasting area


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.

Bolney's new tasting centre

Bolney’s new tasting centre

 

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's vineyard manager,Colette O'Leary

Bluebell’s vineyard manager,Colette O’Leary

The tasting room

The tasting room

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.

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Future rosy for English red wines

Posted by Victor Keegan on November 08, 2015
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PinotNoirPinot Noir ready for the picking at Forty Hall vineyard at Enfield, London
(Edited version of an article in the current UKvine)

ENGLISH AND WELSH sparkling wines are now acknowledged to be world class. Still whites are starting to make an impact but our reds seem destined to linger in a viticultural Limbo, the gates to Paradise steadfastly denied. In 1691 Richard Ames wrote an epic poem about his fruitless search for a decent glass of claret in the inns of London, castigating nearly all the innkeepers for the rubbish he tasted. If Ames were alive today he might have done a similar walk looking for a decent glass of English red except, of course, that hardly any pubs serve it. Maybe he would be harranging them for not.
Yet the fact is a lot of English reds taste better than the mediocrity so often served in pubs but they are either not marketed properly or, more likely, too expensive for publicans who often won’t buy for more than £5 a bottle wholesale – before they treble or quadruple the price when they sell it. Richard Ames would have had something to say about that
There is hope. The grape that gave Bergundy its charisma, Pinot Noir, notoriously moody to grow over here, is beginning to make its mark in the UK. Jilly Goolden in a recent blind tasting said of Gusbourne Estate’s 2011 Pinot Noir that it was “divine” and could not possibly be English because we struggle to make red. Wine expert Stephen Skelton said the same wine was the best English red he had tasted. Maybe we are all a bit blind to our own achievements. I purchased Sharpham’s much praised Pinot Noir and Précoce 2011 recently and they told me to lay it down for a few years. I did what I was told, totally fazed by this being the first time anyone had recommended laying down an English wine for so long. Bolney also makes a good Pinot (its Foxhole 2013 won a silver medal in this year’s International Wine Challenge) and Ancre Hill in Wales has high hopes as does brand new vineyard Jabajak deep into west Wales despite being located rather high up.
But Pinot Noir is not the only fruit. Some vineyards are having success with Regent which is relatively easy to grow and fairly disease resistant. Professor Richard C Selley in his seminal book, The Winelands of Britain said that good red wine has been difficult to produce but things were changing with the introduction of Rondo, an immigrant from Manchuria which, he observed, produces “excellent red wine in marginal climatic conditions”.

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England’s mystery grape – myth or magic?

Posted by Victor Keegan on September 09, 2015
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Wrotham3
Wrotham Pinot maturing

Wrotham1
Wrotham Pinot matured
IF SHERLOCK HOLMES had been interested in English wines, he would surely have tried to solve the mystery of Wrotham Pinot, an intriguing English mutation of the classic Burgundy grape Pinot Noir. It was supposedly grown in England by the Romans and later by medieval monks but has disappeared without trace from its native land though cuttings – it is claimed – taken from the UK have been grown very successfully on a two-acre site at a Yountville vineyard in California’s Napa Valley.

Wrotham2
Wrotham4

If true this would be of great interest to the burgeoning UK vineyards growing Pinot Noir because this variety is claimed to ripen two weeks earlier with higher sugar content and is apparently immune from powdery mildew which afflicts the standard varieties.

Edward Hyams, one of the pioneering British viticulturists says he discovered it on a wall in Wrotham (pronounced ‘Root-um’) in Kent in the late 1940s. It was almost certainly a variety known as ‘Miller’s Burgundy’ because the flour-like texture of its leaves reminded locals of mill workers after a long day’s milling. It had been grown on walls for many years having been originally discovered by the great horticulturalist Sir Joseph Banks in an ancient vineyard at Tortworth, Gloucestershire. However, I have been reminded by Stephen Skelton that Pinot Meunier leaves all have that flour-like appearance.
Hyams apparently took the vine to Ray Barrington Brock at what was to become the Oxted Viticultural Research Station, and he trialled it alongside the many other varieties he grew.
It was during a visit to Britain around 1980 that the distinguished US viticulturist Dr Richard Grant Peterson came across a wine made from Wrotham Pinot and although it wasn’t very good there was something in it that attracted him enough to take cuttings back to California, where, after meeting lengthy quarantine rules, he planted what eventually became two acres of Wrotham Pinot which still exists today and the wine from which has won prestigious gold medals. It has been described as the “most unique vineyard in the whole of the Napa Valley”. But it has yet to be established that he took the cutting from Wrotham and he has been mute on the subject when approached.
So what happened to this wonder vine in Britain? Does it join the embarrassing list of things discovered in the UK but exploited abroad? Is it still growing somewhere? Or should it be in the Loch Ness family of rural myths? It was after reading Stephen Skelton’s excellent Wine Growing in Great Britain – and an earlier book of his – which first alerted me to Wrotham Pinot that I decided to do a little sleuthing myself (though Stephen himself is now highly sceptical that Wrotham Pinot – which is an officially designated vine in the UK – is anything other than a Pinot Meunier).
In his book A Vineyard in England, Norman Sneesby chronicles his progress in establishing a vineyard on the Isle of Ely in 1973 where among other varieties he planted 100 cuttings of Wrotham Pinot. These produced 48 rooted plants which were looking healthy until they were “taken by the birds”.
A few years later Dudley Quirk grew Wrotham Pinot on his – now defunct – 65 acre vineyard at Chiddingstone near Wrotham in Kent. Some locals believe it was served at a banquet given by Margaret Thatcher for President Mitterrand but it was probably another variety from the same vineyard.
It occurred to me that it was possible that there might still be enthusiasts in Wrotham who had taken cuttings from the original vine – long since gone – on the garden wall which was supposedly somewhere along the main street. I wrote to the Parish Council and others looking for a lead. My email was forwarded to Brian Saunders of the Wrotham Allotment Society. He was very knowledgeable about the grape and not only had one growing in his garden (see pictures above, courtesy of Brian) but knew of around eight other locals who had taken cuttings from him and were now growing it themselves including one who has 12 vines growing on his allotment. Brian says he had got his from Dudley Quirk at Chiddingstone: “He gave me half a dozen cuttings around 1987… I potted them up and after a year planted one out”.
He added that the historical society established contact with the vineyard in Napa Valley and two of his neighbours visited it bringing back some bottles back for a wedding. One of them made wine from Wrotham grapes which was “passable but a bit acidy”. Brian has two bottles of the Napa Valley Wrotham Pinot which he hasn’t opened – one sparkling pink and the other an off dry white.
Whether all this is nothing more than an interesting sidebar to a curious story remains too be seen. The question is whether Wrotham Pinot – with its claimed near immunity to powdery mildew and the benefit of early fruiting – is worth re-planting in Britain given the increased interest in Pinot Noir among UK vineyards and all the improvements in technical ability and climate that have happened since it was last planted. You don’t have to swallow whole the seductive claim that it was the original variety introduced by the Romans – for which there is as yet no archaeological evidence – to accept that Wrotham Pinot, if it exists at all as a distinctive mutation, would be something special.
@BritishWino

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