Tag Archives: English wine

A visit to Gusbourne Estate

We’ve all heard of a busman’s holiday, well for the purposes of this blog I think it should be renamed a monkey’s holiday. For what would a holiday be to a wine monkey without a visit to a winery or cracking open a bottle or two of something special. Lenka and Alex have written previously about their monkey’s holiday experiences in Greece, Croatia and New Zealand – and now it is my turn. But for me it wasn’t the azure waters and sunny skies of the Med or the shires of Middle Earth – instead I stayed rather closer to home and enjoyed a week’s holiday right here in England.

Kent is called the garden of England because of its abundance of orchards and hop farms. But these days it is also home to some top-class wineries. And so on my recent holiday there it seemed only appropriate that we should visit one of them and learn more.

Gusbourne Estate as a property dates back to 1410, but its winemaking history is rather more recent, with the first vineyards planted in 2004. They now have over 60 hectares of vineyards (all estate owned), with two thirds planted on the estate near Appledore in Kent and the remainder planted in West Sussex. This is particularly interesting due to the differences in soil type. Despite what many people think, there are multiple soil types across southern England – vineyards are not all planted on chalk. So whilst Gusbourne’s Sussex vineyard is indeed on chalk, their main vineyards in Kent are on clay – and this gives very different profiles to the grapes.

Gusbourne Estate

Gusbourne Estate

We were lucky enough to taste some of the new 2017 wines from tank and were able to compare both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from clay and chalk soils. And the differences were quite marked with both varieties particularly showing higher acidity levels on the Sussex chalk soils. For the Chardonnay, chalk gave a much tighter, leaner wine whilst the clay soil Chardonnay was a bit riper with more weight. And for the Pinot, the clay soil gave a distinct savoury note whereas the wine from chalk soil was fruitier. It was fascinating to taste the differences.

In common with many English wineries, Gusbourne focuses on sparkling wine made from traditional varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). Whilst they also make two still wines, these only account for around 5% of total production. After a tour of the vineyard and winery we got the chance to taste through Gusbourne’s three bubbles as well as both of the still wines.


Gusbourne’s wines

Gusbourne Rosé 2013

Unusually this vintage is 100% Pinot Noir. Normally their rosé has 10-20% Chardonnay blended in, but in 2013 Charlie, the head winemaker, felt that the fruit suited being solely Pinot Noir. This is quite a serious style of rosé having spent nearly 3 years on lees which gives a vibrant, toasty note to the wine along with some bright red fruit as well as a savoury note – perhaps that Kent fruit showing through?

Gusbourne Brut Reserve 2013

55% Pinot Noir, 27% Pinot Meunier, 18% Chardonnay with 3 years on lees. Whilst this has that typical acid drive you expect in an English sparkling, here the richness and toasty core really holds that acidity in check and balances it out beautifully.

Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2013

100% Chardonnay. This was my favourite wine of the tasting – elegant with a real purity. Creamy in texture with some nutty notes and slight saline minerality all driven by a pure apple/lemon core of fruit. Delicious now, but this will surely age beautifully.

Gusbourne Guinevere Chardonnay 2014 (still wine)

From their Boot Hill vineyard in Kent, which Charlie believes to be their best vineyard. Toasty oak notes on the nose also give a richness to the palate which nicely balances the bright, zesty acidity.

Gusbourne Pinot Noir 2016 (still wine)

Boot Hill vineyard. Very young – only just released – but already very impressive. Red fruit dominated with cherries and crunchy redcurrants along with some savoury and spice elements. I’d defy anyone to correctly guess this as English in a blind tasting.

Thanks to Charlie and the team at Gusbourne for a wonderful visit. If you’re ever in the area I highly recommend visiting yourself – for details see their website.


Tasting Ridgeview’s 2013 releases

After chatting frost prevention in the vineyard on my recent visit to Ridgeview (see my blog here) it was time to head into the tasting room to try some wine. Luckily for me, their 2013 wines had just been released so I got to taste through the range.

As you might remember, the 2012 vintage was a bit of a washout in the UK with a cool, wet summer meaning low yields and a lot of rot. Indeed, Nyetimber famously declared that the quality was so low they wouldn’t produce any wine that year. So it was with a bit of a sigh of relief that, after a cold winter, 2013 enjoyed a lovely warm summer perfect for ripening grapes and resulting in an excellent vintage for the UK.

Unlike many English producers, Ridgeview only make sparkling wine and solely from the three Champagne varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. But despite this they manage to create six diverse wines, ensuring there is something to suit everyone.

Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2013

The Bloomsbury is perhaps Ridgeview’s signature wine and is certainly the most widely available. A blend of the three varieties, Bloomsbury is always Chardonnay dominant and the 2013 is 59% Chardonnay, 27% Pinot Noir and 14% Pinot Meunier.

This is a great example of English sparkling – bright and fresh with those classic green apple notes and toasty undertones. A perfect aperitif bubbles.

Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2013

Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2013 (as pictured in the Douro – the South Downs aren’t quite that hilly)

Ridgeview Cavendish 2013

The yang to Bloomsbury’s yin, Cavendish dominates on the red grapes – 40% Pinot Meunier, 26% Pinot Noir and 34% Chardonnay. This gives a very different character to the wine – richer and fuller bodied with deeper, red fruit characters rather than the brisk apple and citrus of the Bloomsbury. These richer flavours mean that I’d love to try this with some food – either some meaty fish or even some duck would be well matched by this beauty.

Ridgeview Blanc de Blancs 2013

As well as being Ridgeview’s only wine made from one variety (Chardonnay), this is also their only single estate wine with all of the grapes coming from their estate vineyard next to the winery.

Only released a couple of weeks ago, this wine unsurprisingly shows its youth being quite taut and linear. But I loved its oyster-shell minerality, racy acidity and pretty floral lift. I am sure with time it will soften and evolve more complexity too. My pick of the bunch.

Ridgeview Blanc de Noirs 2013

55% Pinot Noir, 45% Pinot Meunier. This offers a great contrast to the Blanc de Blancs and is perhaps more immediately approachable now. A deeper, more intense sparkling with red fruit characters and rich toasty notes. A contemplative wine this, one to sit back and enjoy.

Ridgeview Rosé de Noirs 2013

This is their top rosé (sadly the Fitzrovia rosé had sold out so I couldn’t taste it), made solely from Pinot Noir (59%) and Pinot Meunier (41%). Unlike the majority of English rosé sparkling (and Champagne for that matter) which is made by blending a small portion of red wine into the white base wine, this is made by the saignée method where the juice is left in contact with the skins before the grapes are pressed – meaning that some of the colour ‘bleeds’ into the juice.

This is a very pretty rosé, delicate pink in colour with crunchy red fruit and lifted floral notes. Fresh and elegant, just what you need for a garden party in the summer.


A visit to Ridgeview

Last Friday I was standing in the vineyards at Ridgeview on a beautiful sunny spring day and it was hard to believe that just the previous week they had been battling severe frosts and had experienced their first ever snowfall. Late spring frost is one of a viticulturist’s biggest fears as it can damage or even completely destroy the tender young buds – meaning a hugely detrimental effect on the harvest that autumn.


This year old Jack Frost caused havoc across many regions in Northern Europe, with reports of widespread damage – including up to 80% crop loss in the Aube region of Champagne. If you haven’t seen the photos of the vineyards in Chablis tackling frost with burners illuminating every row it is well worth a look – see here. Ridgeview also use these burners (or bougies to give them their proper name) to protect their vineyards. This year the viticultural team had to light them on 8 separate nights (far more than usual) in the early hours anytime between 11pm and 3am when the vineyard temperature fell to critical levels. Impressively it takes the team just 40 minutes to light all the burners across 2.5ha of vineyard. The burners are dotted every few vines along each row and act to raise the air temperature around the vines just enough to stop the young buds getting frosted. It obviously works as, aside from some light leaf burn, Ridgeview haven’t had any major frost problems this year and so their potential crop hasn’t been affected.

So why, you may ask, have vineyards elsewhere experienced such devastating crop loss from these frosts? Well firstly the fact that England is so far north is an advantage in this case. For vineyards further south, budburst would have occurred earlier – meaning that by the time the frosts hit there were many more new shoots for the frost to damage. For once here in England we can be happy for the colder weather! Then there are also some legal issues to consider. In Champagne for example bougies are outlawed for environmental reasons. Something I’m sure many vineyard owners are grumbling about this year. Back at Ridgeview they’re also aware of these environmental concerns and so are experimenting with heated cables along some rows instead of the bougies. These run along the fruiting wire of the trellis, are powered by the electricity grid and are thermostatically controlled to turn on as soon as the temperature dips below a programmed level. Meaning the added benefit of the vineyard team not having to get out of bed in the middle of the night. So far the experiment is proving very successful – this year the vines with heated cables showed no frost damage whatsoever, not even any leaf burn.

The heated cable at Ridgeview protecting the young shoots from frost

The heated cable at Ridgeview protecting the young shoots from frost

Of course there are still many months ahead before harvest will begin at Ridgeview and a lot can happen in that time. Indeed, the risk of spring frost doesn’t really pass until the end of May. But for the viticultural team the first major hurdle of their season is almost out of the way and things are looking good for now. Let’s hope that continues as the summer arrives.

I’ll report on Ridgeview’s new 2013 releases in my next post.


From Bacchus with love

It would be fair to say that I slightly fell into the wine industry. After studying genetics at university and realising that I didn’t want to work in a lab for the rest of my life I had to decide what to do next. A temp job doing data entry approving credit cards for people already in debt (not my finest hour) and then another as a receptionist paid the bills for a while until the call to the big smoke came. It seemed like a lot of my friends were moving to London and so I thought it was about time I got a permanent job somewhere and joined them. I had always enjoyed wine and so decided to have a go at working in the industry by applying for a place on Oddbin’s Trainee Manager programme. And, as they say, the rest is history.

Looking back now I’m not sure I ever thought about wine becoming a career – at the start it was just a fun job in a great city. But with the benefit of hindsight it was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made. Not only did I meet my husband through the trade, not to mention numerous friends, I have come to appreciate what a fantastic industry this is to work in. OK, I might be a little bit biased but it seems to me that the people who make up this industry are an incredibly kind, generous and friendly bunch. It’s safe to say that the wine industry is not one to make your fortune in – but this means that everyone in it is a part of it for the simple reason that they are passionate about wine. This is the same for your local wine store staff as the top names in the industry. The love of wine is a true democratiser and is the thing that binds us all together in the trade.

The prompt for writing this came as a result of being sent a bottle of wine out of the blue recently. Tuffon Hall vineyard in Essex wrote to congratulate me on the imminent arrival of my baby girl Sophia – sending me a bottle of their Bacchus which they had named after their daughter, Amelie. It was such a lovely thing for them to do and is just one example of the generosity and thoughtfulness of people in this industry. It meant even more to me though as, unbeknownst to them, Sophia had to be in the special care unit for two weeks after her birth as she had some breathing difficulties. So to receive that bottle with the lovely note when I came home from hospital without her really meant a lot.

Tuffon Hall Bacchus Amelie 2014

Tuffon Hall Bacchus Amelie 2014

Sophia is now home and doing well and I finally opened the Bacchus last weekend when my fellow monkeys came around to visit her. Of course, being sent a bottle of wine like that immediately makes you want to like it – and so I was pleased that Alex and Lenka both enjoyed it too. It seems to me that although sparkling wine is undoubtedly England’s calling card, Bacchus really deserves to be better known and celebrated too. Although it is a German crossing named after the Roman god of wine, Bacchus seems to have found its spiritual home here in the UK – producing wines redolent of an English hedgerow in summer with low alcohol and a refreshing style. In this case, the Tuffon Hall Amelie Bacchus is a mere 10.5% and would be the perfect accompaniment to a summer lunchtime picnic. Elderflower-scented with hints of tropical guava; crisp and refreshing – and above all easy drinking. Give me a glass of that rather than a brash Sauvignon Blanc any day.


On the Sussex Winery Bus Tour

Last weekend I spent a day in the Sussex countryside touring English wineries. For once, this wasn’t to learn as much as possible to assist with my MW studies – but rather it was simply for the fun of it.

I have to admit to feeling like a bit of an undercover monkey on the tour – there’s no way I am your standard consumer. On the other hand, having not visited very many English wineries before, there was just as much opportunity for me to learn something new as everyone else. So, to quote a colleague, my plan was to “not MW the sh*t out of them” and to just enjoy the day.

The day began and finished in Brighton which did make for a rather early start on a Saturday morning for this Londoner. But happily the combination of a lungful of sea air and a delicious croissant handed to me as I got on the vintage Routemaster bus helped to push away the last remnants of sleep. Onto the wineries!


Our lovely bus for the day

Our first stop was Bolney Wine Estate, just south of Gatwick airport. Their vineyard was first planted in 1972 and they now have 40 acres of vines- putting them in the top 10 vineyards in the country. Enough for more than a few good parties then.

On arrival we were taken on a walk around one of the vineyards and everyone was keen to taste a few of the remaining grapes on the vines. These had either been missed during picking or, in the case of some of the Merlot, deliberately left as the sugars weren’t high enough. It is always a privilege to taste grapes in the vineyard – and so enjoyable at the end of the season when the sugars balance the acidity. You do have to watch out for those pesky pips though – something I think a few of our group weren’t expecting.

I was surprised by how high trained the vines were – well over a metre. This was explained to us as a combination of keeping the buds above frost level, helping to stress the plants – and so produce better quality fruit – and also to prevent wild roe deer from eating the grapes.


Bolney vineyard

So after talking to us about the vineyard and harvesting the grapes it was into the winery to see where the magic happens. Which immediately brought a smile to my face with that very particular smell of fermenting wine and slight rasp of carbon dioxide. A winery in action. All of the grapes had been picked, with harvest finishing a few days before – and so ferment was in full swing.

And then onto the part we had all been waiting for, the tasting. We were treated to 3 wines and then another two with lunch. First up was the Blanc de Blancs 2009 – and the only sparkling wine of the flight. A very delicate, elegant sparkling with just a hint of biscuity autolysis. The perfect aperitif. The rosé was another highlight, a blend of Rondo, Dornfelder and Pinot Noir. Salmon pink in colour, off-dry and full of pretty red fruit flavours. The star of the tasting for most of the group and I reckon it would be a lovely wine to have with a picnic on the beach in the summer.


After a rather delicious lunch in Bolney’s cafe we were back onto the bus and off to Court Garden – a winery I hadn’t come across before.

Family owned and run, Court Garden is a much younger winery than Bolney – their first vineyard was planted in 2005. It is also much smaller at only 12 acres and so made a fascinating comparison. Howard, the owner, first took us on a walk around the vineyards – with the tip “You’ll get the idea we’re a bit nutty here”. He then proceeded to regale us with tales of the Germans who planted the vines and their very accurate GPS systems, a guy called Rambo who they brought in to ‘remove’ the deer and a pheromone trap for light brown apple moth that is labelled on the outside “so they know where to go”. Nutty, maybe, but hugely engaging. Incidentally, Rambo let slip that apparently deer don’t like sheep – so now they keep sheep in the field between the vineyard and a nearby wood in spring to prevent the deer from eating the young buds. Although I rather got the impression Howard missed having fresh venison in his freezer..!


Autumn colours at Court Garden

Hugo, Howard’s son, then showed us around the small but perfectly formed winery where the gyropallets were helpfully in the process of turning – allowing for easy explanation of the process of riddling. Court Garden mostly produce sparkling wine with only a tiny amount of still, and so this was the perfect place for everyone to learn about how sparkling wine is made.

A tasting of their four sparkling wines followed: the Classic Cuvée (50% Chardonnay, 26% Pinot Noir, 24% Pinot Meunier), Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs and Rosé. Again it was the Blanc de Blancs that really stood out for me – this one was elegant with a slight minerality along with the biscuity notes. Around the table opinion was mixed between all of the wines, with the Blanc de Blancs and Rosé probably earning the most votes.


By this time everyone was chatting and getting on well – amazing what a few tastes of wine will do! It was a lovely setting there in the old barn at Court Garden discussing the wines and making new friends. A timely reminder that it can be all to easy to drily analyse wine without really experiencing it. And that a good glass of wine can create conversation and bring people together.

There was a definite air of excitement on leaving Court Garden – both of surprise and delight in the quality of English wines, and appreciation for the genuine people who make them. Bravo Bolney and Court Garden, you made some new fans for sure.


I was on the last trip of the Sussex Winery Bus Tour for 2014 – but there are already 25 trips planned for next year. I would highly recommend the day as a fun, educational outing – and maybe the perfect Christmas present for wine lovers out there. For more information – http://brightonfoodfestival.com/sussex-gourmet-and-wine-bus-tours/