The wines being produced on this fair isle are fantastic: punchy Bacchus’s to win over Sauvignon Blanc drinkers; fine sparklings that have all the literal makings of Champagne, except their place of production – and, dare I say it, are a great deal tastier than some of the major players en Francais. Pinot Noirs to… you get the idea. But there’s work to be done to raise awareness – there’s still an element of wine snobbery and ‘ooh, that’s actually pretty good’ surprise.
But, if word of mouth and the growing collection of international awards isn’t enough to stir an interest in English wine, or the news that Tattinger saw potential enough in the soil to buy up land in Kent, then a visit to some of the vineyards, a tasting of the wines and a walk among the vines, should do it. And Best of England’s newly launched full and half day vineyard tours are just the ticket. This online and printed compendium of carefully selected independent places to stay, eat, drink and do around the country is shining a spotlight initially on the vineyards in Sussex, with a Kent vineyard tour launching in May taking in the likes of Gusbourne Estate and Chapel Down.
A typical all day excursion on the Sussex tour, which I was recently invited to join, will pick you up from Haywards Heath train station and minibus you to three different vineyards, treat you to lunch at one of the vineyards or a Best of England-recommended local food spot, and afternoon tea, before popping you back at the station to catch your connection home.
Three vineyards in a row is a dream day out to me, but to some it might sound like the makings of an information and wine overload headache. There is indeed a generous amount of wine, to direct at the spittoon or swallow as you wish, but plenty of food and water too, and just enough information at each vineyard to pique your interest. I must have visited at least two dozen vineyards around the world, but still picked up some interesting nuggets on this tour; an introduction to some grapes I’d never heard of, and above all, even greater appreciation of the superb English wine being produced on these shores.
For the Sussex tours, Best of England selects from a pool of around 20 vineyards, chopping and changing depending on availability. We visited Bolney Estate, Ridgeview and Rathfinny, but others could include Breaky Bottom or Kingscote. There were around 10 people on my trip, each with varying degrees of wine knowledge, and the tours and teachings were tailored to suit, covering everything from the different grape varieties and the history of the vines, to differences between Sussex wine and other famous wine regions.
At chicken farm-turned-family-run vineyard, Bolney Estate we warmed up with a coffee and introduction in the on-site 18 Acre Cafe, before a tour of the land (which if you’re lucky also includes the odd badger or deer sighting). Then back inside to taste and learn about some of the wines: the fruity Bacchus, living up to its ‘God of Wine’ name; a moreishly, rhubarb and custard-y Lychgate Red; the crisp, full-bodied, 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs, and the group-dividing Lychgate White (a not oft seen blend of Reichensteiner, Schonburger and Wurzer grapes). Then onto some red – Bolney is the largest English red wine producer in the country – and they’ve some smashing ones: such as the IWSC trophy-winning Cuvee Noir.
It was just after 11am by the time we left and headed over to winery number two, Ridgeview. One of the best known English wine producers, Ridgeview is solely dedicated to sparkling. As with Bolney, the main operations are kept firmly in the family, with siblings Tamara and Simon Roberts, running the show their parents started at the Ditchling estate over 20 years ago. One of the pioneers of English sparkling, Ridgeview focuses solely on the production of wines using the traditional champagne method and combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, adjusting the balances of the three to produce different variations.
Here, pared with nibbles of local cheeses and cold cuts and vineyard views, we sampled four wines from their multi-award-winning portfolio (the stand out for me being the Cavendish for its inviting colour and complex taste, achieved by putting the Pinot grapes centre stage). They scooped the English Wine of the Year award in 2000, for their debut release, and in 2010 the Ridgeview Grosvenor 2006 put English sparkling wine on the international map, when it was awarded the Decanter trophy for World’s Best Sparkling Wine – the first time it didn’t go to a champagne.
The accolades have continued to present day, receiving the royal seal of approval as the tipple of choice for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Prior to the tasting, the tour took us round the original 17-acre vineyard (Ridgeview’s remaining 170 acres are spread across various sites in East and West Sussex and Hampshire) before heading underground to learn more about the pressing, fermentation and bottling take place as we spoke.
By 1:30pm and a tiny bit tipsy, we were on our way to the final tour of the day. The single estate Rathfinny, a 600-acre plot, with 180 acres of vines planted so far, rising to 400 acres by 2020 to become England’s largest vineyard. The long driveway and sun-drenched, south facing sweeping vistas, feels more Alsace than Alfriston, and it is a monster in comparison to the other two – with a sleek RIBA-nominated, glass-fronted winery building, sporting a decked terrace offering panoramic views across the vineyard in front, and over to the River Cuckmere winding down towards the English Channel. A relative newcomer, Rathfinny has one still wine so far – the Eric Gill lithograph-adorned Cradle Hill – and its debut sparkling launches later this year. It’s here that we had afternoon tea, before heading down to the production area – a largely empty room, with tall, shiny fermentation tanks in one corner, set to develop over the months as it prepares to increase the yield. And then, it was time to hop back on the bus and head home.
Aside from the wine tasting, I was particularly interested to see the different vine growing and winery set-ups; how the large scale Rathfinny compares to the boutique Bolney; the ‘bougies’ candles Ridgeview lights to keep the frost at bay and the bright red poppies Rathfinny grows between their vines to spectacular effect. We discovered the differences in machinery used and manpower it takes to keep everything ticking along, and all likely left wishing we’d had the foresight and cash to have bought up some of this land, before it entered the realm of pipe dreams.
English sparkling is gradually gaining the attention and applause it deserves. And Best of England’s new vineyard tours is a delicious way to get acquainted.
The Best of England Full Day Tour starts from £149 per person. A Half Day Tour starts from £49 per person. For more information or to book, visit www.bestofengland.com or call +44 1273 476119.