‘We’re here in jackets, this is not the Cote d’Azur,’ said Lucy Rhys, a master sommelier working for Gusboune in Kent, last week as she waved her hand towards the estate’s 60 hectares of vineyards, laden with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. This year’s harvest, just underway, promises to be at the very least, a good one (Gusbourne also has 30 hectares in Sussex that’s brought to Kent for pressing).
According to Simon Robertson, chair of WineGB, “We experienced long spells of warm weather over spring and summer and even into early autumn, which has resulted in one of the earliest ever starts to harvest. There were some challenges with late spring frosts which unfortunately has affected some vineyards. However, most are looking at a vintage of quality fruit and good volumes.’
At Gusbourne, the English Channel is only six miles away and there’s a minerality to the soil that makes sparkling wine an obvious choice (still wines are only produced in exceptional years). First planted in 2004 by South African Andrew Weeber, producing only vintage wines, using Burgundy clones, it was in the first wave of English wine production, alongside Ridgeview in Sussex and Camel Valley in Devon.
Today, there are over 3,500 hectares of vines planted in the U.K., a rise of 150 per cent in the last 10 years, producing 10.5 million bottles. It is an industry that is dominated by the South East and by sparkling wine. Both Pommery and Taittinger have bought land in England, the latter in the Kent village of Chilham and the first vintage will be ready in 2023.
Nearly a third of all trade in the U.K. wine is through cellar door transactions. Ridgeview, in the chalky soil of the South Downs, started in 1995, now produces 250,000 bottles a year, with seven sparkling wines, and in 2019 was named one of the top 50 vineyards in the world.
‘The latest September heatwave ensured a high quality vintage with fantastic sugars, incredibly clean fruit with the Pinot Meunier and the Chardonnay in particular looking incredible,’ says Simon Roberts, Director of Winemaking. ‘We began picking at Ridgeview on the 24th of September which is one of our earliest harvests reflecting an extremely rapid phase between verasion and ripening, normally this would take around 5 weeks but this year it has been two weeks. At the halfway point of the 2020 harvest we are incredibly excited about the potential quality of this vintage – one good thing to celebrate in 2020 anyway!’
Sharing the same chalky soil but nearer Chichester, Rathfinny was started in 2010 and the first vintage of its Sussex Sparkling wine arrived in 2018. With a tasting room and restaurant, there’s also accommodation in restored flint barns. The increasing importance of wine to the region spreads over to nearby hotels. Alongside a strong list of local wines which features both Ridgeview and Rathfinny, Ockenden Manor increasingly sees wine-based tourism as a primary reason to visit.
Covering just 65 acres, Tinwood, also in Sussex, is a good example of a smaller vineyard, which was started in 2007 by Art Turner. He has high hopes for this year’s harvest. ‘The Pinot Noir harvest began on the 20th September, the earliest harvest date ever recorded,’ he says. ‘The crop is looking beautifully ripe and clean this year with small, intensely flavoured bunches, and the quality is also one of the highest on record. The Chardonnay harvest will begin at the end of this week and is set to finish in a fortnight.’