A toast to British wines

Tasting tours are taking off in Sussex, which has the most vineyards of any county in Britain

One recent Saturday morning, four Australians, two Britons and this reporter met beside 7ha of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier vines, ready to sample what has been called one of the world's finest sparkling wines, at the source.

We were 142km from France's Champagne region, on the English side of the Channel, in a two-pub village called Ditchling, in East Sussex.

Here lies Ridgeview Estate (ridgeview.co.uk), which took the top prize for bubbly at the 2010 Decanter World Wine Awards, never before given to a producer outside France.

This was no anomaly. Increasingly, English sparkling wines have been racking up international awards and, like Ridgeview, many hail from the South Downs.

With the same chalky soil as Champagne's Cote des Blancs - geologically linked by the Paris Basin, which runs under the English Channel - the rolling grassland, ancient woodland and white cliffs between Hampshire and Sussex counties in south-east England encompass not only part of Britain's newest national park, but also a burgeoning wine region.

The Rathfinny Estate (above) in East Sussex county is England’s largest vineyard and has a B&B and cafe. A converted windmill at Nutbourne Vineyards, which offers tours. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

And rising temperatures have been working in its favour.

Husband and wife Mark and Sarah Driver (a former hedge fund owner and a former lawyer turned fine-wine enthusiasts) bought 243ha in a valley between Alfriston village and the East Sussex coast and started planting vines.

Their Rathfinny Estate (rathfinnyestate.com) recently opened as England's largest vineyard.

With their Moet & Chandon- trained winemaker, the Drivers plan to produce one million bottles of "world-class" sparkling wine annually (last year, all of Britain released about four million) while creating a sustainable, state- of-the-art hub for English wine tourism.

From the Rathfinny Trail (a new public footpath that cuts through the valley) to the Flint Barns (the estate's formerly derelict farmhouse, just opened as an old- meets-new B&B and cafe), it is a bit of an "If you build it, they will come" scenario.

A three-hour tour (from £35 or S$74) took me through poppy- strewn rows of GPS-planted Champagne clones, hand-pruned around steel posts, to the local oak-clad winery.

The Drivers are already applying for Protected Designation of Origin status to create a standard and a name for Sussex-made bubblies - a la "Champagne."

The Rathfinny Estate in East Sussex county is England’s largest vineyard and has a B&B and cafe. A converted windmill (above) at Nutbourne Vineyards, which offers tours. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

"Perhaps in the future, we'll refer to this as 'Sussex'," said Mr Howard Corney of his Court Garden (courtgarden.com) blanc de blancs, which he poured inside the Ditchling vineyard's restored barn while joking, "I have a cousin who very generously refers to our wine as 'Ditchwater'."

With his wife and winemaker- son, Mr Corney has spent the last decade growing vines on the site of a Saxon farm that is still home to chickens, sheep and bottle-fed lambs, and won two trophies at this year's International Wine Challenge.

Whether or not the Protected Designation of Origin pans out, Sussex has the most vineyards of any county in Britain, with more opening for tasting tours.

Even Nyetimber (nyetimber.com), whose Classic Cuvee blend was served at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and whose mediaeval West Sussex estate is normally closed to the public, has introduced occasional open days (£20) with guided tastings.

Lately, it has also been touring the country in a 1968 double- decker bus, converted with a copper-and-wood bar and a retractable roof.

Nearby, the young Gladwin brothers, behind London's buzzy "wild food" restaurants Rabbit and The Shed, just started offering tours (from £25) at their family's Riesling-focused Nutbourne Vineyards (nutbournevineyards.com).

Beside its ancient windmill, now a terraced tasting room, they will barbecue on old vine trimmings.

Meanwhile, having helped pioneer wine tourism everywhere from Champagne to South Africa's Cape during the last three decades, the Hampshire-based Arblaster & Clarke (winetours.co.uk) has begun operating on home turf.

"I have lived and worked in the South Downs for over 20 years now," said general manger Caron Fanshawe.

She said she "never imagined" the company would one day offer a South Downs Vineyard Walk alongside its tours in such renowned wine regions.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 29, 2015, with the headline 'A toast to British wines'. Print Edition | Subscribe