It’s April Fool’s day, and the first warm weekend of 2017. Pastel-coloured blossom descends delicately to the pavement outside my window. This, I decide, would be a good day to visit a vineyard
I stick a virtual pin into a virtual map of Sussex, and the name Bolney Estate leaps from the screen. I remember trying Bolney’s Lychgate Red while sampling English wines at the Brighton restaurant Isaac At. It was one of my favourites. That’s that decided then.
It’s lunchtime when I arrive, so the first stop is the café. There’s a balcony overlooking the vineyard. The view’s fantastic, but I decide it’s about two degrees too chilly for that, so I settle by a sunny window instead. The menu has an Anglo/French feel; beef brisket cottage pie rubbing shoulders with sourdough croque monsieurs. It’s a light salmon salad and a glass of Lychgate white for me, and it hits the spot.
Fortified by fish, I’m off for a nose around the shop. And that’s where I get chatting to Rebecca. She’s working on the till, but she’s no mere sales assistant; it turns out she’s a human wine encyclopaedia. “I could talk about Bolney Estate all day,” she says. And I soon realise she’s not joking.
Even though she hasn’t been working there long, she knows all about the vineyard’s history.
“It started in the early 1970s, when the owners realised German varietals would probably do well in England. We started off planting varieties like Müller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner and Schönberg, which make nice, easy, light wines. Now, we produce about 150,000 bottles a year, but we’re expanding. We’ve bought some new plots, and we intend to double our production in the next ten years or so.”
“We’ve got a whole mixture of grapes planted now. But we’re cutting down on varieties like Müller-Thurgau and planting more Bacchus. Our Blanc de Blancs is award-winning. We’ve recently done a deal with British Airways — it’s the first English wine to be served in first class!”
She’s justifiable proud of that, and I’m keen to try some samples. First up is the Bacchus…
It’s a crossing developed in one of the German universities, apparently. Aromatic, fruity, crisp and elegant. There’s a gorgeous gooseberry acidity in there, alongside some apple and pear, but also a hint of tropical fruit. It’s more complex than I’d expected, with a very clean finish. Stylistically it’s similar to an expensive French Sauvignon Blanc. I recall once getting a light ticking off by an English-wine-enthusiast sommelier for comparing Bacchus to Sauv Blanc.
“Oh, we don’t mind comparing,” smiles Rebecca. “Our Lychgate Red, for example, is similar to a Loire Chinon. It has the same sort of fruit profile.”
The rosé’s excellent too, I ask Rebecca which TV programme she’d pair it with and she says maybe Countryfile. She’s probably not used to being asked such inane questions. Unfortunately I don’t get to try the popular Pinot Gris because the latest harvest has only just been bottled. But… I do sample some Foxhole gin. It’s likely the most aromatic gin I’ve had; its juicy, rich juniper smell packs a heavyweight punch and it goes down dangerously smoothly. It’s a knockout.
I pick myself up off the metaphorical canvas, and Rebecca leads me out to inspect the vines, which will soon have Pinot Noir and Chardonnay among their repertoire. Buzzards watch over the crops from the surrounding trees. “We like our buzzards, they help to scare off the smaller birds,” she says.
I get to peek inside the riddling room, where they remove the sediment from the sparkling wines; and the fermentation room, where the stainless-steel tanks stand like robot sentries, guarding the precious nectar being created by their industrial colleagues. It’s an impressive array of gear, and evidence that this is no small-scale operation.
I’m told there are some great walks in the area but I have to get back to Brighton so I don’t get a chance to try any. On my next visit I won’t be such an April fool… I’ll bring wellies — and a lot more time.
For opening times and details on booking tours and tastings, visit https://www.bolneywineestate.com