With our thoughts turning towards a very different kind of festive season, Nick Mosley talks to Sussex growers and vintners about locally produced award-winning wines that will bring a splash of much needed sparkle to Christmas. [This feature first appeared in The Argus in December 2020]
This year has been a challenge for many in Sussex but a small silver lining is that our thriving local wine industry has had an exceptional year for quality grapes – if not volume – alongside ever expanding cellars of award-winning vintages that have been laid down for a number of years and are now being released for retail.
“Local wine is a great choice for celebrations this year because not only are you supporting local businesses but also getting premium quality”, said Fflur Jones, vineyard supervisor at Bluebell Vineyard Estates near Uckfield. “In only five years we have been awarded over 60 national and international awards for our still and sparkling wine range giving us one of the best reputations in the UK”.
“English wines are a great choice for many reasons”, agreed Sam Linter, head winemaker at Bolney Wine Estate. “They have rivalled many established world wines, often even beating them to take gold in some of the most respected [international] wine awards. Not only will you be choosing to enjoy award-winning wines, but you’ll be supporting a growing and thriving industry too”.
Buying local not only supports Sussex businesses in producing quality produce and employing local people, it also has clear environmental benefits. Wines grown, produced and bottled in Sussex – and then sold across the UK – reduce the huge climate impacts of transporting bottled wine from the Old World and shipping – literally – tanks of wine from the New World to be bottled here in the UK.
“We all aim for a better world”, said Kristin Syltevik, co-owner of Oxney Organic Estate near Northiam in East Sussex. “We must reduce climate change. The wines you buy locally are from grapes grown in Sussex and made in Sussex. It can’t get better than that. Wine bought from overseas have a carbon footprint that stretches from ‘big’ to ‘huge’”.
With an eye on the festive table and gifts for family and friends, vineyards are also teaming up with local food producers to retail gift boxes and hampers.
“This year we have launched our brand new Bolney Christmas occasions range”, said Sam Linter of Bolney Wine Estate. “It’s packed with our award-winning wines, cheese, accompaniments and delicious sweet treats. We also have a new Christmas hamper range featuring premium products, all sourced from brands as locally as possible and with similar values to our own”.
“Our Christmas offering includes festive gift boxes to complement our wines”, said Kristina Studzinski, co-owner of Off The Line Vineyard near Hailsham. “We are also launching Our Line, a wine club for those wanting a special experience. All our wines are available to buy on our website with free delivery for orders over six bottles”.
Looking towards 2021, there’s a quiet confidence amongst local vineyards. Despite the economic impact of lockdown and the closure of bars, restaurants and hotels where the majority of locally produced wines are sold, nobody gets into wine-growing – particularly in a marginal climate such as that found in England – without understanding that they are in for the long haul.
Many vineyards have developed virtual tastings, subscription wine clubs and online stores throughout 2020 but investment in new planting and production infrastructure alongside consumer-facing facilities and events continues.
“2021 is going to be an exciting year for the vineyard with more events and weddings planned than ever before”, said Fflur Jones from Bluebell. “2020 will end with the opening of our new marquee café”.
Whilst offering cellar door sales and self-guided walks of the vineyards, Rathfinny’s co-founder Mark Driver said that the business had initially been reluctant to open its own online shop, preferring to work with trade partners, but that they had been overwhelmed by the demand.
“Many wine lovers are looking for something a little bit different from their usual sparkling wine to consume at home, especially at this time of year”, said Mark, co-owner of the expansive Rathfinny Estate at Alfriston. “Something they cannot find on the supermarket shelves. They also like buying directly from the vineyard, because it makes their purchase feel more personal – they can read about the people working at the estate and the skills and passion they put into producing the wine”.
This festive season, if you’re looking for quality wines with provenance, made right here on our doorstep in Sussex then you’re spoilt for choice.
Leading wine writer Oz Clarke perhaps best captures the view of Sussex winemakers when he says, “When you know the place, and the people, a wine will never taste the same again. It can only taste better.”’
Festive Sussex Wine Picks
Bolney Wine Estate
Cuvée Rosé 2018, £29.99 (also available as a magnum £69)
An elegant, traditional method sparkling wine produced by one of England’s longest established vineyards. The red fruit and brioche notes make it the perfect pairing for rich cheddar so it makes a sparkling accompaniment to a Christmas cheeseboard.
Oxney Organic Estate
Classic Pinot Meunier 2017, £37
An exciting experimental release of only 533 bottles from the UK’s leading organic wine producer. Pinot Meunier is the least celebrated of the three classic Champagne grapes but Oxney have created a deliciously idiosyncratic wine with a clean and dry palate that unveils layers of cherry, marzipan and toastiness.
Bluebell Vineyard Estates
Hindleap Sparkling Ruby 2018, £28.95
Produced from Sussex-grown Merlot grapes, this rosé sparkling wine makes a unique choice for the festive season. A perfect aperitif, it also pairs beautifully with an after-dinner cheese course, with the notes of red cherry, raspberry and spice matching wonderfully with British cheese.
Off The Line Vineyard
Dog Rosé 2019, £14.95
This impressive still, fruit-driven dry rosé from East Sussex can easily hold its own against the Christmas turkey. Made from a blend of Regent, Pinot Noir and Rondo grapes, it has an intense nose with candied orange peel and red fruit on the palate following through to a light, elegant and refreshing finish.
Rathfinny Wine Estate
Rathfinny Rosé 2017, £36
The third vintage of this versatile and expressive rosé Sussex sparkling wine, the red-fruit style beautifully showcases the increased presence of Pinot Noir within the blend. There’s a vibrant nose of cranberries and redcurrants, alongside a mousse of cherry-skin and quince.
Local vintner’s Sussex wine picks
Sov'Ran Cabernet Noir 2018, £17.99
Recommended by Henry Butler from Butler’s Wine Cellar, Queens Park Road and St Georges Road, Brighton
“A small project based in Worthing, the quantities are minimal but the quality is high. This is a hybrid grape called Cabernet Noir, the winemaker's vision was to create a Loire style of Cabernet. Here at Butlers we think he was successful, it's full of plum and red cherry, this is all supported by soft tannins and a spicy finish, perfect for lighter meats like pork, turkey or roasted veg”.
Gusbourne Brut Reserve 2015, £37.95
Recommended by Sam Pryor from Fourth & Church, Church Road, Hove
“This is such a classy and elegant wine – from neighbouring Kent – that combines both red fruits and richer pastry flavours. It works well as an apéritif but also stands up to richer fish dishes and would be great with smoked salmon”.
Recommended by Tom Flint from Bottle & Jug Dept, South Farm Road, Worthing
“I’m recommending Fitz, a Charmat method sparkling wine produced here on our doorstep in Worthing. This Prosecco-style wine is the ideal festive fizz as it comes at a great price point for an English sparkler and its fresh fruity and fun style means you can pour and enjoy without it taking centre stage. Great for those festive cocktails as well”.