An English Wine Adventure

Climate change is everywhere these days (which is great), from the minute you wake up and make a coffee with a reusable cup to the moment you go to bed with your bamboo toothbrush. However, and I don’t say this with ignorance; climate change, sustainability and having a consciousness to how permanent our actions can be is largely, quite negative, restrictive and sometimes, a real hassle. While we must all do our bit, we sometimes have to attempt to see a silver lining, otherwise we’ll be miserable forever more. That silver lining just so happens to be wine. English people making wine is far from original, in fact, the first English sparkling wine can be traced back to the 17th Century and was deemed better than even the finest champagne. And yet, this means little to us now as the landscape has changed and the history books show a real jumble of different summers since the 17th Century.

Then there was 2018, one of the driest, hottest summers of all time where everything turned into hay and farmers saw some of the worst crops on record. It has gone down as the 4th hottest summer since records began in 1800 and while it terrified many, it revealed terroir for many more, we’ll get back to wine shortly. It was an interesting year, yields in the farming world dropped around 17% overall with onions responding the worst at 50% and potatoes not far behind at 30%. This lower yield for spuds has meant that since harvest, chips are around 3cm shorter than normal, it’s quite the tragedy. Conversely, many things that require vast quantities of sunshine and could be saved with a little irrigation had their best year yet. Take cider for example, the excess sunshine meant the ripeness of the apples was nothing short of sublime, this creates higher sugar which in turn can be transformed in record setting cider. But as excited as I want to get about cider, it’s incomparable to how I feel about wine.

Hush Heath

In 2018, wine production was close to three times the average due to the near perfect growing conditions. There is a huge demand for English wine too, the industry predicts 40 million bottles per year will be produced within the next 20 years, which is over seven times the current 10 year average. For comparison, the record breaking harvest of 2018 produced 15.6 million bottles. But do people want it? It appears that yes, they do. Sales increased by 186% between 2017 and 2018, 8% of this being exports. Consequently, all of the hot weather got farmers thinking (something they do far too much of) and since 2000, the area under vine has tripled. In 2018 alone, 1.6 million vines were planted and this year that number is expected to reach 2 million. Researchers have suggested there is still plenty of land, particularly in the South East that has not seen its potential for wine making yet. The chalky soils are perfect and reflect the conditions in the champagne region in the 1980s.

The future is exciting, with 33.700 hectares of land in the UK suitable for planting, who knows where the wine industry will take us. East Anglia is getting extra attention too after throwing out a few complex wines in 2018. I have always been ever so slightly suspicious of still English wine but I’ll try anything once. In my sister’s section of my wine rack in the cellar there were quite a few English bottles she’d acquired from farm shops and other funny places, all which have pleasantly surprised me. So much so that I spent this weekend staying in Rye, a quirky little town surrounded by some of England’s finest vineyards.

The stunning cobbled streets of Rye

I arrived in Rye and after seeing how busy the pub where I would be staying was I thought I’d take the dogs for a little wander along Camber sands first. First impressions of this area of the world? Dry, Rye is high and very dry. There are very little trees, just lots of sheep grazing the grass to within an inch of its life and etchings of where water used to run. Camber Sands is quite the operation. For someone used to the quaint beaches of Norfolk where you’re pretty much left to do as you please I was quite surprised to see such fierce car parking entrances, so I abandoned the Landy on a (very dry) verge with fellow Land Rover owners.

Camber sands beach, silhouette of a Sausage

It is a beautiful beach, you go up over a hump of gloriously golden sand, dunes high and mighty either side and filled with people trying to get the next best Instagram photo. The tide was out, so there was a small walk to reach its gently rippling waves. Olive and Chunky, my two boisterous dogs that accompanied me on holiday, essentially lost the plot at this point. Chunky (a miniature wirehaired sausage dog) went in for the attack first, choosing her mark as Olive’s back leg. This is code for Chunky’s favourite game in the whole wide world which is quite simply, being chased. Olive was delighted to be on the attack and took after the sausage, teeth bared, and tongue lolling with a menace that only Border Terriers seem to be able to conjure. Her excitement was her downfall and a few expert commando rolls from Chunky put her out of Olive’s destruction. If I thought they were funny at the opening of the beach, there is no madness like a wet Olive, once she’d been for a paddle the sausage never really stood a chance. With two inch legs there’s only so much dodging one can do and the commando rolls were replaced Tuilagi tackles, but they remained happy sandy dogs nonetheless.

We headed back to Rye to check into the hotel, The Ship Inn, which is owned by Balfour vineyards group. It is a dog friendly hotel, but I never expected them to literally just show me the room and not really acknowledge the dogs. I’m not sure what I expected really, maybe a few rules? But their relaxed attitude was to be a theme throughout my stay and made things thoroughly enjoyable.

The Ship Inn, Rye
A delicious breakfast

Now for Rye, what a mysterious and peculiar little town it is. I have never got such a strong vibe of somewhere being isolated and potentially haunted in my whole life and I’m not really someone who thinks about ghosts all that often. I walked around without any prior research and came to the conclusion that Rye is spooky, it’s definitely haunted but not in an unpleasant way. The cobbled streets wind up and down and with names like ‘The House Opposite’ and ‘The House with Two Front Doors’ it’s very hard not to fall in love. There isn’t a Costa coffee shop in sight either, or a Tesco of sorts. In fact, it’s a mixture of very friendly pubs and restaurants run by a mixture of people, young and old but all passionate about their little town.

Rye

It turns out that Rye used to be an island and one of the most famous ports in the world. It was actually the most famous pirate port in the 13th Century and there is an extravagant history of smuggling in these parts. Rye is even featured in a very famous painting of Queen Elizabeth I; the Ditchley Portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger shows the Queen standing on a map of England. The map shows only two ports on the East Sussex coast: Chichester and Rye.

An extract from Britain Express which summarises the demise of Rye:

“In 1336 Rye was named an ‘Antient Town’, affiliated with the Cinque Port. Cinque Ports was a loose confederation of harbour towns created by Edward the Confessor to foster coastal defenses.

Gaining Cinque Ports affiliation was a mark of Rye’s importance, but even by the 14th century the writing was on the wall. The most famous event in Rye’s long history came in 1377 when the French burned the town to the ground, destroying most of its timber buildings.

One consequence of the raid was that within three years a set of massive stone defences were begun, with thick walls and heavily defended gates. The harbour, always subject to silting, could not be kept clear, and by the 16th century Rye’s once busy port had become a forgotten memory as the shore receded further and further from the foot of the hill.”

I think Rye has a lot of potential, and with its surrounding vineyards perhaps it will see an increase in tourism. It’s also rammed full with antique shops and warehouses, so if that’s your bag you’ll be in utter heaven in this funny little town.

Gusbourne Wine Estate

Gusbourne

I set off for Gusbourne to get there as it opened at 10am on what was the most fantastically boiling day in the Defender. Dogs in tow I met a man called Dan who gave me a map and sent me on my merry way. I walked around the vineyards for nearly two hours, taking it all in, the beautiful rows of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir clones from Burgundy, reaching their final stages of ripeness before harvest begins. When I came to Heartbreak field (named for its excessively long rows, heart-breaking for work by hand) I let the dogs off as I seemed to be a bit more off the beaten track, it became clear that this was actually because I was lost, I was later told, and far from the track I was meant to be on. This did lead me to discover pheasant feeders though and I was thrilled to learn there is a shoot on the estate and raining pheasants do not stop play, the vineyard stays open to tours and tastings pretty much all year round.

The sausage dog was starting to lose enthusiasm for wandering so we made our way back to the winery to do a bit of looking around and tasting. The Nest, the structure that Gusbourne have built for tastings and events, is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s stunning, a really architectural dream that combines their industry and nature perfectly. Steel tanks stand gleaming in the sun and there was a sense of apprehension for the beginning of harvest, may the weather remain in their favour.

I sat outside in the sun with dogs and Dan supplied me with water in a stunning ceramic jug, an equally charming cup and the first two wines. With my back catching some rays and the dogs stretched out in the shade under the umbrella it truly felt like I was actually on holiday at this point, it was bliss.

Tasting Notes:

Gusbourne, 2013 Reserve Brut, England
Disgorged 2 September 2016 after 36 months on the lees.
55% Pinot Noir, 27% Pinot Meunier, 18% Chardonnay

A lovely fresh sparkling wine, a tiny bit sharp at first but on second sips this soon diminishes. High acidity, tiny yeasty (autolysis) notes and shows a lot of promise of what they’re now delivering. Their Brut’s are red fruit driven and everything they produce is single vintage.

Gusbourne, 2015 Reserve Brut, England

The Pinot Noir smell on this wine is very prominent. It’s got a lot of spice to it, sort of turmeric gingery type of notes, reminded me of curry. Then again the high acidity, notes of gooseberry, very clear fruit notes overall.

Gusbourne, Rose 2015, England
54% Pinot Noir, 32% Pinot Meunier, 14% Chardonnay. Minimum 26 months on the lees.

A pretty wine, very delicate pink. Notes of wild strawberry, the little ones you get that make an excellent preserve. Again the spice is prominent from the Pinot Noir maybe? Lovely rounded finish.

Gusbourne, Blanc de Blancs 2014, England
Whole bunch pressed and naturally settled for 24-36 hours, minimum 42 months on the lees.

My favourite of the sparkling wines, 100% Chardonnay, bright golden and very elegant. Notes of lemon curd and brioche, so fresh with a lively acidity. Some mineral notes, very complex, could drink it all day. Very well presented too, beautiful branding here at Gusbourne.

Gusbourne, Guinevere 2016, Chardonnay, England
Vintage report: A mild spring resulted in a mid-April bud burst. The weather during flowering was warm and dry resulting in abundant fruit being set. Early August saw 50% of fruit dropped to intensify flavour and concentration. Harvest began in late September and resulted in fruit of exceptional quality. 100% malolactic, 10 months in French oak, 20% new 80% old.

The smoothness of this is astonishing, clear malolactic combined with oak wizardry. Lots of fruit still, well balanced. Tiny bit of smokiness on the nose, and some honey. Got me very excited, could drink by the bucket load and I know a lot of other people who would agree. A very very exciting moment discovering another wonderful still English wine.

Dan was so helpful and attentive, he was quite busy but never seemed rushed and made sure everyone was happy. A charming chap to represent this prestigious brand. Dan suggested that I get Oxney on my list for visits…so that’s where I set off to next!

Oxney Organic Estate

The largest organic wine estate in the UK

After a beautiful drive down some very narrow roads I reached a peaceful farm that’s home to Oxney organic wines. Whether by their organic nature or not, it was noisy with birds and bees at Oxney, there was definitely a lot more wildlife going on. Thankfully this was another dog friendly vineyard so the dogs accompanied me on my meander round the vines. Everything looked very healthy and the land that Oxney covers leans itself towards the sun like a determined teenager on their summer holidays. There are some shepherds huts on site too, a cosy place for couples to stay that’s a little bit different.

There is also a barn that can accommodate groups and a few other annexes tucked away for short breaks. I was fortunate to meet the owner of the farm when I got back to the tasting room, Kristin Syltevik, a beautiful woman with a certain openness to her. She apologised for her hands that had been busy digging in the garden, but the hands-on approach was quite charming. Kristin started buying farms while she was running a PR agency in London. It was only when she decided to plant her own vines that she sold the agency and fully immersed herself in the world of growing vines, crucially, organically. In fact, Oxney Organic Estate is the UK’s largest single estate organic vineyard, they now have over 35 acres of vines, planted between 2012 and 2018 which Kristin has settled on being the perfect amount. They grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Précoce, Pinot Meunier and Seyval Blanc vines.

Kristin was thrilled to show me a review from Matthew Jukes, renowned wine writer, that she came recently came across:

“Oxney ticks every single box there is and a few more that I am probably unaware of too. The entire portfolio of new releases this summer, is amazing and these wines are made with unmistakable care and attention. They are, prepare yourself for a much-maligned expression, definitive crowd-pleasers, in flavour terms, but there is serious detail here, too. […] This warm welcome is seldom experienced in young English sparkling wine. Only the forensically detailed will spot the ‘left-hand’ wound muselet. I have never seen this in my three decades in the wine business and it clearly points to a hand-made product! Middle class, aspirational, stunningly designed and appealing to all, this wine could be so bland and centrist, but instead it is utterly thrilling.”

Aside from the totally random reference to middle class, this is about as good as it gets when it comes to a magazine review, and it’s so accurate to. These wines are very handmade, but they’re not on a small scale anymore (they hope to make around 30,000 bottles in the future) and while certain English brands chuck everything they’ve got at marketing, I quite like that Oxney isn’t everywhere just yet.

Tasting notes:

Oxney Classic 2016
Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay

The 2014 of this won awards so the 2016 has had a reputation to live up to. It has delivered, I think, it’s just so yummy. I had my worries that being organic these wines might have that slight funny taste for England etc etc, total uneducated presumption bollocks on my part. This was fantastic, beautiful on the nose, warm honey and cooked apple. Very delicate moussey notes, stone fruit, peach and some honeysuckle floral notes. Great acidity.

Oxney Organic Estate NV
Blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc, Non-vintage

A very refreshing wine, would never think it was English, it’s perfect. High acidity, moist brioche notes, that Panatone unwanted gift you get at Christmas. A delight.

Oxney Organic Estate Rose NV
Blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc,
Non-vintage

A delightful colour, very pretty wine. Just so clean, made with such precision. High acidity, wild strawberries, mint, good length. Perfect pink fizz.

Oxney Organic rose 2018
100% Pinot Noir

This has seen malolactic fermentation and the result is a creamy smooth rose with a fantastic acidity from an outstanding year. Delicious. Beautiful colour too.

Oxney Organic Cider

A great idea for a poor year, made in the traditional way the refreshing sparkling cider is bottled up at 8%.

Chapel Down

After being at one charming organic vineyard, arriving at Chapel Down was a complete change of scenery. They produced 2 million bottles last year, for scale and they’ve taken the vineyard tour side of things to a commercial level that is both smart and faintly intimidating. Even the vines along the main track boast a bounty of chardonnay grapes, very much on the verge of harvest, sweet and concentrated. I thought the dogs had maybe had enough at this point but went the sausage launched itself out of the Landy like a leaping slug I changed my mind, another walk won’t hurt. Chapel Down have got some outstanding land, lots of slopes and undulations make it silly not to produce vast quantities of wine really. There were lots of tour groups going round in hi-vis vests, there was something quite surreal about the whole experience being in England, especially as it was baking hot. I made my way to the tasting area after tethering the dogs to a bench where they sat quite patiently, with hilarious pride, until I returned.

Abundance of grapes at Chapel Down

Tasting notes:

Kit’s Coty Blanc de Blancs 2014
Chardonnay 12.5%

Chapel Down planted up the Kit’s Coty site in 2009 and their first release was in 2012. It is essentially a better located site therefore produces higher quality grapes and in turn, premium wine. The labels are a lot snazzier and it’s all quite an effective marketing tool. The Kit’s Coty Coeur de Cuvee from 2013 is a whopping £100, they’re really trying to create a luxury brand here.

The Blanc de Blancs was pretty lovely, lots of freshness, toastyness and good bubbles. Crisp acidity, an impressive wine.

Kit’s Coty Chardonnay 2016
Chardonnay, 12.5%

Well balanced oak, very smooth and buttery. Fruit shines through, a marvel that this is English but I’ve got to stop thinking that. Long finish too.

Kit’s Coty Bacchus 2017
Bacchus, 13%

The most superb Bacchus I think I’ve ever tried. So smooth, aromatic to the point that I’d happily bathe in it. Just divine. The grapes were whole bunch pressed before wild fermentation in old oak barrels for 9 months. They said “We’re hoping this wine isn’t a fluke because it could have been a complete disaster!” I will be buying more incase it is…but fingers crossed.

Hush Heath

The very impressive Hush Heath winery

My final visit in the Garden of England was sort of on the way home, Balfour or Hush Heath vineyard. It wasn’t an outstanding day but the sun was breaking through the clouds so it was still warm for September. I stepped out of the car and this has to be the smelliest vineyard I visited, somewhere someone had fertilised with what I’d guess was chicken shit and it was wafting across the car park nicely. This was the only vineyard that didn’t want dogs around the vines so I secured them in the car, they were probably quite relieved. I was given a map by the Tour Manager and once I recovered from the outstanding décor of the tasting room, I set off amongst the vines. Now, there’s a lot to be said for terroir and my grasp of it is thus, these vines are surrounded by orchards, there are apples everywhere! Is it terroir that all of the wines have notes of lovely appleyness to them? Although not certified organic, they are working hard at Hush Heath to promote biodiversity, there were lots of beehives to be seen and patches of woodland surround the vineyard, all with a plentiful supply of bird boxes. For note, Hush Heath is a 400 acre farm with 100 of those acres planted with vines.

Young vines

Tasting Notes:

Balfour Brut Rose 2015
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, aged for 36 months

This is Hush Heath’s flagship wine from the vines they planted in 2001. It is served in some of Gordon Ramsey’s restaurants and also on the Orient Express. It takes 700 grapes to produce one bottle! Trivia over, it is a very welcoming sparkling. High acidity on the first sip with crisp apple notes. Second sip the acidity settles down and the strawberry notes start to come through. It would be delightful with a canape of sorts.

Balfour Leslie’s Reserve NV
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Traditional Method

Leslie is Richard’s wife and together they own and run Balfour. This was very fruity, it reminded me more of a prosecco. Quite lively, all natural bubbles so it’s impressive how exuberant it is. Quite a refreshing wine, could easily go alongside elegant foods as well as a hefty bbq. Again the apple notes on the nose.

Balfour Skye’s Blanc de Blancs 2014
Chardonnay, 48 months, Traditional Method.

This was an interesting wine. They only produce it when they’ve had an outstanding year and they only use Chardonnay grapes grown in the Old Eight Acre vineyard. Clean on the nose, white pepper, appley. Very dry, honey, a little salty note to it but lovely and floral. Apparently it goes well with fish and chips!

Balfour Liberty’s Bacchus 2018
Bacchus, 11.5%

Single vineyard Bacchus from an excellent year, ‘England’s answer to Sauvignon Blanc’. It’s very aromatic, stings the nostrils with citrus grassy notes. Nettle like on the palate, very fresh, green apple and well balanced acidity. Really enjoyable, could maybe even stand up to a Chinese.

Balfour Nannette’s Rose 2018
Regent, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay

This says ‘dedicated to our Producer’s youngest daughter (who ironically doesn’t drink!) this delicate rose is made from a blend skilfully vinified in stainless steel at the Hush Heath winery.’ It is an interesting dry rose, a bit smelly, that creamy yeasty full wash basket type of smell. Very smooth, it has some acidity too. A perfect picnic wine in the sunshine, delightful. I hadn’t heard of Regent before, it’s a dark skinned grape that sounds pretty hardy!

Balfour Luke’s Pinot Noir 2018
Pinot Noir, 12.5%

Anyone who could made Pinot Noir in 2018, such an outstanding year for it. This is named after the producer’s eldest son and one of Hush Heath’s most popular wines. It is made from specially selected Burgundian clones at the Hush Heath estate and lightly oaked in French and American barrels. It wasn’t at all oak heavy, extremely well balanced, but may need a little more time. Lovely red berry fruits, high acidity, very fresh and exciting.

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