It’s April Fool’s day, and the first warm weekend of 2017. Pastel-coloured blossom floats to the pavement outside my window. This, I decide, would be a good day to visit a vineyard
I stick a virtual pin in a virtual map of Sussex, and the name Bolney Estate leaps out. I remember trying Bolney’s Lychgate Red at the Brighton restaurant Isaac At. It was one of my favourites. That’s that decided then.
It’s lunchtime when I arrive, so it’s straight to the café. There’s a balcony overlooking the vineyard, but it’s about two degrees too cold for that, so I settle by a sunny window. The menu has an Anglo/French feel: beef brisket cottage pie; sourdough croque monsieurs. I go for a light salmon salad and a glass of Lychgate white. Wise move.
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 not just a sales assistant; it turns out she’s a human wine encyclopaedia. “I could talk about Bolney Estate all day,” she says. She’s not joking.
Even though she’s not been 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 ask to try some samples. First up, the Bacchus…
It’s a crossing developed in one of the German universities, apparently. Aromatic, fruity, crisp and elegant. There’s a 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 clean finish. Stylistically it’s similar to an expensive French Sauvignon Blanc. I recall getting ticked off by an English-wine-enthusiast sommelier for comparing Bacchus to Sauv Blanc.
“Oh, we don’t mind comparing,” grins 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.
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.
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