If you’re planning any Sussex wine tours this spring, the good news is that eight Sussex wineries have joined forces to simplify your itinerary. The group invited me on a condensed, two-hour winery-crawl (aka a launch event) to learn more about the cream of Sussex vineyards.
I was at the press launch of Sussex Wineries at Murmur on Brighton seafront last night, tasting and chatting with eight producers and winery owners who have teamed up to shout from the fields about the county’s fermented grape juice products.
When I first heard about about the formation of this group (whose website goes live today) I imagined a Mafia-style cartel. A coven of shady vintners cloaked furtively around a vast walnut table, sipping Cognac and concocting nefarious machinations inside an opaque cloud of cigar smoke. But that’s just how my mind works. In real life, they’re all rather nice.
As I schmooze my way around the room I realise the group are keen to draw awareness to the distinction between “wineries” and plain old “vineyards”. Because none of these wineries just grow grapes, oh no. As well as providing a tourism “experience” — a day out, a lunch, a vineyard tour — you’ll also get to see how they process, ferment and treat the fruit.
Each producer has provided three wines to sample, and tasting them in tandem reveals that, although each wine is unique, there is a definite Sussex-wine style. Light in colour and body, fresh, zesty with citrus and gooseberry notes and, most distinctively of all, a smokiness similar to French Sauvignon Blanc (I was once reprimanded for comparing English wine to French Sauv Blanc, but the similarity is undeniable). Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (the Champagne cuveé) dominate the sparkling contingent, while the stills are mainly Pinot Gris and Bacchus.
“If you taste them all you’ll have tried 24 wines,” Stopham Estate’s owner Simon Woodhead tells me. He’s clearly been putting his engineering background to good use, working out how drunk I’m going to be by 7pm. I recognise his calculation as a warning disguised as trivia, but I forge ahead anyway and try them all. No spitting for me. It is Monday night, after all.
As expected, the wines on display are roughly 60 per cent sparkling, with the remainder still white — with the exception of one red perched defiantly at the edge of the Bolney Estate table. But there are a couple of surprises too. Wiston Estate’s (pictured above) award-winning 2014 sparkling Rosé is delightfully unusual. Aged in French oak, it tastes subtly like malt whisky. Rathfinney, meanwhile, have smuggled in a bottle of their Seven Sisters gin, which slides down uncommonly smoothly.
The evening ends with a palate-cleansing bubbly from Bluebell Vineyard Estates, which surprises me with mango sorbet on the tongue (although not on the nose). What black magic is this? Someone alert Willy Wonka! But by this time I realise I’ve learned an important lesson. Don’t attempt to drink the whole of Sussex in two hours. I did it so you don’t have to.
The eight estates comprising Sussex Wineries are Albourne Estate, Bluebell Vineyard Estates, Bolney Wine Estate, Oxney Organic, Rathfinny Estate, Ridgeview, Stopham Vineyard and Wiston Estate.
For further info, including a Sussex Vineyards map, see sussexwineries.co.uk