Climate change means it is too hot in the Champagne region of France for the grapes to grow well, while in Sussex and Hampshire we now offer perfect conditions.
It’s bad news for the French but fantastic for our English wine producers. We are now making sparkling wines which in blind taste tastings beat some brands of Champagne hands down.
Like the wine at The Bolney Wine Estate which has just helped the vineyard to be named ‘Winery of the Year’ at the 2017 UK Wine Awards.
The inaugural awards ceremony shows just how far we have come with English vineyard that we now have an ‘Oscars’ for wine.
Bolney Wine Estate, in Bolney, West Sussex, is run by Sam Linter, who took over the reins from her parents Rodney and Janet Pratt, who she admits were thought of as ‘eccentric’ when they planted their own vineyard in the 70s.
Dad Rodney was a city council engineer while mum Janet worked full-time on the vineyards which were planted on a part of Butting Hill One Hundred and first calledBookers Vineyard.
Sipping the wine which has just helped her win yet another award, Sam, who is head winemaker and managing director, said: ‘Everyone thought they were mad! A vineyard in England! But they had an absolute belief it could be done.
‘They had a vision and a dream and here we are all these years later.
‘We are over the moon to have won the award – we still can’t believe it. It’s such a prestigious accolade and an endorsement of the hard work each and everyone of us at Bolney puts into our wines.’
Sam’s parents hand planted the original vines which still grow here. Other vines which have been added have helped the estate to produce the Bolney range of wines that includes the Foxhole Vineyard Pino Gris 2016 white wine which won ‘Top Still Wine’ at the awards.
Sam became a hairdresser after leaving school and even set up her own salon. But the call of the vineyards that her parents had started proved too much for her and she returned to take control of the family winery.
She said: ‘I spent my childhood running riot through the vineyards but I decided to do something else rather than join the business when I left school. But winemaking gets in the blood, you can’t walk away from a vineyard.
‘It is actually a joy to work here.
‘My parents set it up as a family business and that is the way it has stayed. There are now three generations involved in the estate.
‘The success of English wines is absolutely about learning how to grow wine grapes in our climate. We actually have centuries of knowledge here – the Romans used to grow vines and make wine. The monasteries continued to produce wine until Henry VIII destroyed them and killed off that knowledge.
‘Now we have bought it back to life.’
The vineyards of Sussex and Hampshire are now attracting thousands of visitors a year who may be wine buffs, or just want to enjoy the incredible scenery.
At Ridgeview Wine Estate, in Ditchling, in the South Downs, there is a tasting room with a panoramic view of the vineyard and a patio where you can enjoy a bottle.
In South Africa, nearly every vineyard offers similar experiences and Ridgeview hopes to extend what it has available and make the region a real tourist destination.
Marketing and communications director Mardi Roberts, 42, said: ‘We are a friendly bunch here, we all get on and we are hoping to join up with other vineyards to offer a variety of tours and experiences people can enjoy if they come to the Sussex wine region.
‘There is definitely the potential there to expand. We are so close to London so tourists can jump on a train, or get a coach and enjoy a whole weekend here in the wine region.
‘As it is our tours are booked every weekend so the demand is certainly there.’
The site produces only sparkling wine. During the tour, we get to see their secret weapon for beating the frost, a giant wax candle called a Bougies hidden amongst the base of the vines. It’s a system used in France which has proved very successful for Ridgeview, our guide revealed they had been lit eight times this year to protect the crops from frost.
Ridgeview makes and bottle wines for other vineyards, one of which is The Queen’s – her grapes are grown on land at Windsor.
The wine has been served at state banquets and parties hosted by Her Majesty.
Mardi revealed how the whole image of English wines has changed worldwide: ‘In the past when we supplied wines to brands they might have the words English wine in small letters on the label, but now they boast “English wine” big and bold.’
Ridgeview’s sparkling Blanc de Blanc, which is on sale at Fortnum and Masons for £45, scooped a Gold trophy in the Decanter magazine awards – the only non-Champagne wine to have ever scooped this award.
It is also the official supplier for Number 10 and exports wine to Japan Scandinavia and America.
Although The Queen owns her own vineyards, it wasn’t from them that the sparkling wine served at Kate and William’s wedding was served.
Instead it was from Chapel Down vineyard at Tenterden, Kent. Its sparkling wine is so advanced it now offers a premier league variety called Kit’s Coty Coeur de Cuvée 2013 which can cost as much as a £100 a bottle.
It was the more reasonable Rose Brut at just £22 per bottle which was quaffed at Wills and Kate’s reception and sampling it in Chapel Down’s new tasting room, which has a breath-taking view of the vines, you can see why. It is up there with any French rosé Champagne we’ve ever tasted.
Mark Downey, Chapel Down’s managing director, revealed how the vineyard has been able to expand and evolve thanks to crowd funding. Its latest request saw £3.75 million pour in to fund a new brewery.
A previous crowd funding effort has been invested in the vineyard to help it achieve its next target of turning its current production of one million bottles to two.
If anyone was left in doubt about how much English wine growing has advanced, they need to visit the Rathfinny Wine Estate, in Alfriston, in the South Downs.
Former hedge fund manager Mark Driver and wife Sarah have invested close to £20m in the site. It is a vast, impressive vineyard of 600 acres which shows the couple means business.
At the heart is The Flint Barns. Originally built to house the grape pickers, it’s now a beautiful small hotel. You can stay for a weekend in rooms starting at £120 a night, or hire the whole place for a wedding, or party.
The dinner we enjoyed here was so amazing we sought out the chef to thank him personally.
Mark is obviously a man who has at last found his passion in life. He decided to study viticulture after giving up his career in the city.
He is now hoping that when the first Rathfinny Sussex Sparkling wine is launched next summer it will become a global smash hit.
He said: ‘We are very excited about it. The 2016 Cradle Valley still wine we’ve produced is superb. The sparkling is going to be even better.’
Mark and Sarah don’t just see the vineyards as a business, they also want it to become part of the South Downs – there for future generations to enjoy for years. To that end they have already established a walking trail across the vineyard.
The Drivers are also passionate about involving the local community and every October hold a day where villagers come to help with the harvest and enjoy a feast afterwards.
Mark said: ‘One of the things we are most pleased about it is that as the vineyard expands we will be able to create thousands of new jobs for local people. We love this place and we want to do as much for people here as we can.
‘The national park has been absolutely fantastic in helping us establish the estate. I think it recognises we are trying to establish something amazing here rather than doing anything harmful.’
Mark’s total love of what he is doing shows as he talks, he’s as sparkly as any sparkling wine and talks animatedly about what is obviously to him and his wife a vital part of their lives now, rather than just being a business.
Boosting exports of English wine is a top priority for the chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association Miles Beale. He said: ‘Our English wine members have big export ambitions and we are pulling out all the stops to help them. We’ve put on events in the US, Japan and Europe to showcase the best wines England has to offer.’
Will Perkins, 26, who is assistant winemaker at Hattingley Valley vineyard recognises how important English wines are becoming. He was studying politics and Spanish at university in Cape Town, South Africa when he got ‘bitten by the bug’ of winemaking.
He said: ‘I took a few wine courses when I was there and fell in love with the whole industry. I had worked at Hattingley when it was first planting the vines, so when I returned to the UK I took a job there.
‘To be able to see the wine literally from root to cork has been an amazing experience. I grew up near the vineyard and have a very emotional and physical connection with it.
‘It’s a special place. Local people are supportive, there is a pride that we have such a great product on our doorsteps.’
Will says one of the great satisfactions of meeting people who visit the vineyard on one of its monthly tours is shattering the image that English wines are not very good.
He said: ‘I think people come here with a perception of English wine then they taste it and all of them say “Wow that is really good”.’
Emma Rice, 42, who is head winemaker at Hattingley, revealed how the chalk seam the vineyard is planted on starts in the Champagne region of Côte des Blancs, goes under the English Channel and then pops up in the UK.
She said: ‘Chalk produces a very fine Chardonnay. Vines take longer to establish but when they do the wine they produce is very good. In Hampshire we have different conditions to Sussex as our vineyards are more inland and the soil is chalky. Chalk is free-draining which the vines like as they prefer dry conditions.’
Hattingley produces only sparkling wine on its 65 acres of vineyard which are split between the Hattingley site and one in the Test Valley, near Andover, which is sold in Majestic Wine Stores, Waitrose and Harvey Nichols.
It’s also exported to America, which Emma said is a ‘huge’ market for English wines. ‘It is very popular over there. English wine is a relatively new product for the USA and people really like it.’
The most expensive wine Hattingley produces is its top of the range Kings Cuvée 2013 which is priced at £70 a bottle.
Emma, who is the first woman to ever win the title of Winemaker of the Year twice in the UK Wine Awards, said: ‘It’s a very fine wine. It’s 99 per cent barrel-aged, while our other sparklings are 20 per cent barrel-aged. It gives it a toasty, bready character. There is a subtle oak flavour too.’
Hattingley is also unusual in that it produces a sparkling wine from the Bacchus grape which is normally only used for still vino.
Emma said: ‘It is very aromatic, very floral.’
Touring some of the vineyards in Sussex and Hampshire certainly opened our eyes to just how fantastic English wine is. Before we wouldn’t have thought of buying one if we saw it. But now we would certainly opt for a good English sparkling over a mediocre French Champagne.
Give it a try – you, like me, might be very surprised!