There are many lovely things about Sussex: fairy-tale castles; stunning cricket grounds; sheer, beautiful cliffs and coastlines.  But in my view, one the very loveliest, is the knowledge that wherever you are – East or West of this once-enormous county – you are never far away from a vineyard.

Bolney started as Bookers Vineyard back in 1972

Bolney started as Bookers Vineyard back in 1972

Sadly (due to the length of the journeys required, and with small children inevitably in tow) I have not yet been able to get to as many in the West as our native East, but last weekend, combined with a family camping trip in the new-to-us campervan, we managed to squeeze in a corker.

To tell the truth, I am not a brave camper.  And the Bongo – whilst being her very own dream come true – has been Ruth’s canny attempt to coax me ever-so-gently out of a stubborn resistance.  The resolve is definitely weakening, and it was not even by connivance that, left in charge of the campsite choice, I chose one a spittoon’s distance from Bolney Estate.  It was all just a happy coincidence!

So let me say first of all that for any reader needing to camp somewhere near Henfield, Blacklands Campsite – http://www.blacklandsfarm.co.uk – is a very welcoming place with good hot showers, a playground and a well-stocked shop!

And to add to its general acceptability to anyone with a passing interest in wine, it is a ten minute drive from Bolney Estate – one of the best-marketed wine brands in Sussex.  Their email newsletter is always jaunty and warm, and worth signing up to via http://www.bolneywineestate.com.

But wow.  I had not really been expecting the Estate itself to be so beautiful.  Diversified certainly – besides the viticultural buildings, machinery and paraphernalia there is a café, a function room and (would you believe it) a Post Office – but also incredibly manicured: the photos don’t really do justice to the way that the vines and vegetable gardens are kept.

The vines were manicured to a level that I have not seen before in Sussex

The vines were manicured to a level that I have not seen before in Sussex

We were lucky to visit on a wonderfully sunny July day, but I am sure the beauty of the site – ‘on a hill which was part of the Butting Hill One Hundred, listed in the Doomsday Book’ – would command attention whatever the weather.

When we arrived there was a group of wedding-dressed revellers enjoying what looked like a buffet lunch and a tasting.  There were folk sitting outside, relaxed under umbrellas, tasting.  And there was a busy but small staff team trying to do their level best with the assortment of paying guests and off-the-street browsers that arrived in the vineyard shop.

Amidst all this I managed to score a taste of their Pinot Gris, their Bacchus (2014), their Cuvée Rosé (sparkling, 100% Pinot Noir, 2010) and a slurp of their Bolney Bubbly at the end.  Sadly, I didn’t write notes, but suffice to say that I remember the Pinot Gris being much more mineral on the palate and less aromatic on the nose than I had expected.  Conversely, the Bacchus was much more stone-fruit and succulent – a beautiful off-dry apéritif for a summer’s day.  (I bought two bottles).

Nicely stocked shop, but the layout doesn't help staff to mingle with customers

Nicely stocked shop, but the layout doesn’t help staff to mingle with customers

The still whites were in my view significantly better than the sparkling wine that I tasted.  Not that the sparkling was unpleasant, at all, but it just didn’t have the same depth of quality.  The rosé was startlingly pale – not sure if it was bled or pressed – and had a biscuity Pinot nose, but the palate was much thinner by comparison.  And the Bolney Bubbly?  Very drinkable, but without any punchy, memorable features.

The Estate website says that they consider themselves ‘specialist red wine producers’ and I saw a still Pinot Noir and I think a sparkling red as well, neither of which I tried.

But when you go, perhaps you will, and you’ll let me know what you think?

Hall's fold in the Downs

Hall’s fold in the Downs

There’s a vividness that you get from writing something immediately.  A clarity of lines; a sureness about the colours of a memory.  But there’s something valuable too about leaving an experience to sit for a bit.  Might we say, on the lees?

This is just what I have done with my trip to Breaky Bottom – a little treat that I had been promising myself for a good long time.  In fact, ever since I met the vineyard’s owner Peter Hall at Glyne Food & Wine Festival a couple of summers back.

The beauty of Peter’s little holding is breathtaking.  You turn off the Newhaven Road and wend your way up a farm track.  Up and up.  Past horses grazing.  ‘Come up about a mile and there’s a fork in the road.  Get yourselves over the cattle grid and you’re there.’

It says on the back of the bottle of his 2007 Cuvée Francine – the Seyval Blanc and Chardonnay blend that I took away with me – that the vineyard ‘was established in 1974 in a beautiful isolated fold in the Sussex Downs.’  It’s a perfect description.  You come over the lip of the hill.  Mustard colour fields patterned with hedges.  Sheep here and there.  And this little plot down in the dell, before more hills roll away to the sky.  Two very small, manicured fields of vines either side of an olden cottage and barns (if memory serves).  With a tyre-swing tied to a tree on the approach, and a vegetable garden, and a lovely spot to sit in the back yard.  A Hansel and Gretel cottage of English Wine.

And then there’s Peter Hall.

A raconteur, bon viveur; obvious entrepreneur.  Who dips in and out of fluent French – his mother’s tongue – as we speak about wine and travelling and how he has hardly left his pig farm-turned-vineyard in 40 years.  Only once, to Switzerland he says, to the funeral of a great Dutchman friend.  Never to Champagne – the geological and viticultural confrère of his South Downs home.

He speaks with passion about Seyval Blanc, the grape that has flourished best in his vineyard; how he knew that it would take to bubbles.

He has the commitment of the artisan to his craft – up at 4am that morning, spraying the vines, after an evening of labeling by hand.  Something which would have, no doubt, made his Burgundian grandfather proud.

The eccentric photo, with cat.

The eccentric photo, with cat.

With twinkles in the eye and white whiskers to set them off, Peter Hall seems to be a winemaker who has eschewed the razamatazz of the burgeoning English Wine scene.  He prefers an eccentric photo to a staid ‘winemaker with bottle’ shot.  There is little on the internet about Breaky Bottom save its website, and an article from the New York Times in the mid-1980s.

Still, he is not shy to name-drop, and Andrew Jefford and Stephen Skelton he counts as old friends. And he tells me that his Breaky Bottom – Old English for scrubland at the valley bottom – is the most popular wine at Waitrose in nearby, well-heeled Lewes.

My daughters were as interested and relaxed as I’ve ever known them in a stranger’s garden.  Feeding his beautiful fish in the pond; listening to stories of a girl cat called George, and tickling the farmhouse’s current feline occupant – a Bengal of exquisite markings.

My four year old enjoyed her finger-taste of the 2007 blend, and came back for seconds.  It is 55% Seyval Blanc with the rest mostly Chardonnay; a smidgeon of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier for good measure.  “Lemons”, was Aisha’s firm view; not to be swayed.

The bubbles were small and soft and – at 11 o’clock on a sunny Saturday morning – a little glass of this was really quite the ticket.

And then we were on our way, so that a group of students from Plumpton College could arrive.  With stories of the summer of the Beaujolais Nouveau, and Soho and oysters and strong black coffee, and pheasants and rugby football, dancing in the mind like bubbles in a flute.

Surely there are only a clutch of people that you meet in life where the memory of the meeting seems to improve with age – like a good red Burgundy.

This was one of those.

The Charles Palmer tasting at Siam2Thai, George Street, Hastings

The Charles Palmer tasting at Siam2Thai, George Street, Hastings

For a very long while now I have meant to write a little homage about Chris and Waew’s Siam2Thai Restaurant on George Street in the Old Town, Hastings: http://www.siam2thairestaurant.co.uk

Not only are these two a fabulously hospitable and interesting couple, doing a roaring trade in their Kong River cuisine, but they are interested in wine, and matching it to their food.

I think I have heard it said that they have the best wine list of any of the restaurants in Hastings, and I can well-believe it – certainly in terms of range.

A few months ago we ate there and tried a Monsoon Valley Chenin Blanc from Thailand, which was off-dry and very acceptable.

The Monsoon River Chenin Blanc

The Monsoon River Chenin Blanc

Last week we returned for their Charles Palmer tasting event – another Sussex Sparkling which has burst onto the international wine scene with acclaim (for its 2009 vintage) at the 2014 Sommelier Awards; and if I heard correctly, at the Decanter Awards and the International Wine Challenge too.

The Palmer vineyard is  just on the right hand side of the A259 as, coming from Hastings, you start to go down the dip, before climbing the approach to Winchelsea.  The family are farmers by trade and thought they’d just have a go at growing grapes…  What about that for a laid back approach to brilliance?

I might say that we had not expected to be among the glitterati of the Hastings wine scene – the very lovely owners of Penbuckles Delicatessen on the High Street were there; one half of the Essential Wine School; and apologies were given from Phoenix & Plum and Sniff & Spit.  [By George Street, we’ve made it!]

Mason Palmer (who might also be Charles Palmer as well; it is a mystery I have not yet solved) gave the talk on the 2009 and 2010 vintages (as well as a recently thrown together still rosé).  These were utterly terrific wines with fantastic elegance and poise, but as you might expect with low-yield premium sparkling wines, house-remortgage-worthy.

The 2009 was bready but breezy, with body and bling.  The 2010 was lighter and fresher with a more floral (honeysuckle?) nose, delightful small bubbles and (paradoxically) a better match for the food in our opinion.  Perhaps it had that Zing to match Waew’s Kong Toasts…

The rosé was pale – like an Anjou – but whilst it had English terroir bite, it was very soft in the mouth; and full from those Pinot Noir grapes.  The skins had been left lying louchely for a mere 12 hours.  And we all thought that the wine  would grow fatter and brighter in bottle over the coming year.  Perhaps there is a still red on the cards in the future?

All in all, this was a fantastic evening spent with some lovely people.

And if there is another wino event there soon, I’ll race you for tickets.


Best gardening equipment that I have seen for a while!

Best gardening equipment that I have seen for a while!

Well the elections are done and dusted, and there is nothing left for Liberal Democrats to do but to turn to drink.

Luckily, here in Sussex, we have some of the finest premium sparkling wines in the world on our doorstep, and what better way to hammer a public sector salary than to buy a bottle or two?!

Happily, I am still finding wines that I have not yet tried and there are numerous vineyards that I have not yet visited across our rarefied county.  I am hoping very much that the summer months will allow for a trip or two.

And of course there is always a random, choice find, to brighten the day!

I had been on the road to Hellingly the other morning, taking a little scallywag of mine to the Herstmonceux Observatory, and we decided to stop at Lime Cross Nursery.

Well if you haven’t stopped at Lime Cross Nursery before, let me tell you, you are missing a lovely place to stop.  Take a look: http://www.limecross.co.uk

The plants and garden paraphernalia seem to be of very good order, and there is a little coffee shop which does quite acceptable and reasonable coffee (drink in, or take away), and – would you believe it – there is a table of produce in the middle of the shop which included a wine rack.

[This is my kind of garden accoutrement, I thought.]

There, standing before me, was a clutch of bottles of the local brew – Henners sparkling wine – of Herstmonceux.  And here they are: http://www.hennersvineyard.co.uk

I had no idea that there was a vineyard in Herstmonceux.

And not only did their 2010 vintage have an extremely classy livery, but the wine was delicious too.

I saved my scrappily written notes – ‘blizzard of bubbles; light gold; floral nose; almonds; cut grass; orangey palate; not too gaseous’.

Perhaps I am wrong, but my recollection was that it was high percentage Pinot Noir.

An experience certainly to savour.  Particularly as there was not much change from three tenners.

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It has been a while since last the blog was updated.  Various things have intervened – including children, snow and the recession.  But whilst the posting has been slow, the drinking has progressed at a solid rate.

The winter has seen a forray into relatively unknown parts, and grapes, of Portugal and South Africa.  But there are still a plethora of wine tourism destinations on our doorstep.  I am champing at the bit to get on the road again.  But in truth, they must wait until the weather is a bit kinder.

Nevertheless our trip to the County town of Lewes for Ruth’s birthday was delightful.  An overnighter (without children, thanks to Kirsty and Ben), that had some little gems for the wine lover.

Symposium – a  bijou, independent wine merchant-cum-coffee shop not far from the station on Lansdown Place,CIMG0152 was a good find.  Not a great big selection of Sussex wine: *disappointing*.  But their principle commitment appears to be to good quality wine for all budgets, which is very commendable. 

And it is certainly true that the premium wines of our fair downlands are at the pricey end. 

Why not check out their website www.symposium-finewine.co.uk.  They were super-friendly and the coffee was good.

And whilst I had known that Lewes is the home of the illustrious Harvey’s Brewery, I hadn’t known that Harvey’s has a brewery shop, and that it has a bit of a fine wine enclave within it.

IMAG0292This was also a welcome find, and there was some very delicious-looking red Graves in there, as well as row upon row of new world wines with tantalising descriptions.

But, as with Symposium, not very much Sussex fayre I’m afraid.  So it didn’t get the full complement of SWL stars.

Anyhow.  Lewes.  Comes recommended as a superb weekend getaway location by many more Tripadvisor-tastic than I. 

And if you do end up there feeling a bit parched – rest easy.  You can find a good glass of wine if you want one!

The view of the ridge from the Tasting Room

You can be forgiven for not knowing, but I am tyrannical about poor spelling.

So the fact that I have spelt Ridgeview wrong throughout the course of the past months is a bit distressing.  But there are worse things happening in the world.  So I will have to get over myself.

Especially as I was given such a lovely birthday weekend by Ruth…

It’s become a bit of a tradition that I get a surprise for my birthday.  And Ruth has had to develop over the years all sorts of clever subterfuges to keep it secret as, by some unconscious process, I seem to develop all the innate abilities of a private investigator from about May onwards.  Hyper-vigilant to any clues as to the forthcoming birthday antics…

But it was too easy this year.  When I saw the envelope from Ridgeview addressed to the lady in question then I at least knew some of the answer.  But the half of it that I did guess in no way disappointed.

We arrived at the vineyard for an 11am start and Mardi Roberts, Sales & Marketing Manager for Ridgeview, took us into the vines.  With her native Australian accent a little subdued by life with the Poms, Mardi led us gently by the hand through the story of the Ridgeview calendar.

She conjured up images of naughty grape-loving badgers; cold nearly-mornings, the vineyard lit with paraffin lamps to ward off the frost; industrious hands green-harvesting in good summers and sorting cratefuls of grapes to ensure that only the very best get a chance to make the cuvée…

Mardi conveyed the sense that, like most premium wine producing vineyards the world over, the Ridgeview enterprise is very much a family affair.  And in our tour through the winery, it was re-inforced for me once again the notion that you need already to have made or inherited a shedload of money before you are able to start printing more by making good wine – especially good wine with bubbles.

Ridgeview’s outfit at Ditchling (near Brighton) is of the highest technological order.  The most up to date equipment from the Champagne region is there, part-funded by grants from DEFRA, so that it can be used by other grape-growers.  And the company is diversifying its business interests by making wine not only for other vineyards but also for Waitrose and M&S.

So in due course we got to the tasting in the room that best takes in the view of the ridge, and we had a chance to explore the different Ridgeview blends… 

Bloomsbury is their Chardonnay-dominant offering and this was our starter.  I had my Twitter fingers on that morning, and if you cast your eye over to the other side of the blog, you can probably still get a sense of the profundity.

The Bloomsbury was, for me, not quite as prosaic as my summer meadows tasting comment, but it was all to get better.  The Cavendish (more pinot in this) was the first Ridgeview I ever tasted some three or four years ago and the memory was in no way despoiled by a re-visit.  This was toasty and rich and the mousse was as creamy as a ferret’s tummy.

And the Knightsbridge was well, oh.  Just sublime.

So good in fact that they have more or less sold out of their latest vintage.  Which Mardi, in a beautifully Pom, understated sort of way, just slipped in to the patter.

I kid you not, the whole set up is incredibly impressive.  We were there just as the London Olympics was getting under way; when there had been a 70% increase in demand – and a massive spike in English Sparkling Wine sales across the country.  Ridgeview is already among the wine medals internationally, and it’s not hard to see why.  Not only is the product of an incredibly high standard, but the presentation is too.

We couldn’t resist taking some of the Victoria home with us.  This is a recent addition to the Ridgeview collection – a Diamond Jubilee pink that is truly, mouth-wateringly delicious.

Looking back on it, I gauge the success of the trip by these two disappointments: that we couldn’t get our hands on any of the Knightsbridge, and that the Victoria wasn’t for sale in magnum.

So whether you have to cycle Ditchling Beacon to get there, or you can bear to use your car, I’d recommend a trip to Ridgeview Wine Estate.  Birthday or not.