Any wine aficionado worth their Chardonnay will tell you; one of the most exciting emerging wine regions right now is not California’s Napa Valley or France’s undulating Champagne hills; but our very own Sussex.
The recent success of English wine – and English sparkling wine- is a true underdog story. It lacks the cool PR spin of California or South Africa’s sun-drenched vineyards or the gravitas of France’s long-held monopoly on wine and fizz, but recent blind taste tests have shown English sparkling wine, controversially, outdoing champagne.
The production of English wine has soared by 160% in 2018, meaning that approximately 15.6 million bottles were produced last year alone, with global exportation growing and two notable champagne houses: Tattinger and Pommery now investing in the English wine industry.
Beyond the bubbles, English wine country is also a prime destination for a stunning staycation. There are now over 500 vineyards in the UK, with 200 of them accepting visitors for tours, or even stays. Sussex in particular is a huge draw, with vineyards from the record-breaking Nyetimber to the stunning Stopham, Ridgeview, Bluebell and Albourne Estates. The region encompasses the South Downs national park- breath-taking rural vistas dotted with picturesque, historical towns and villages that you can whizz through on your way from vineyard to vineyard.
No drinking and driving now though kids.
Nestled within these aforementioned Sussex hills and close to the gorgeous village of Alfriston, is the Rathfinny Wine Estate. Probably one of English wine’s biggest success stories, the estate, founded by Mark and Sarah Driver in 2010, is vast and can soon lay claim to being Europe’s largest ever single vineyard, as well as the greenest. It is fully solar powered, and every effort is made to make the process as sustainable as possible.
Acres of vines on south, sea-facing slopes, give way to a sleek modern winery that houses, not only a fully-operational wine production, but a stylish restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows and a balcony overlooking the vines. It is here that we stop on first arriving. Though we’re here to taste the sparkling rosé wine (truly excellent by the way) the food is a delightful surprise. From the grape and rosemary focaccia and salted butter to a melt-in-the mouth mackerel tartare, the Rathfinny Tasting Room restaurant is a revelation. They even made sand carrots an appealing and delectable main course. All of it was washed down, of course, with Rathfinny’s finest but it was a delight to see other English wines championed on the menu.
After lunch we were treated to a tour of the vineyard by one of the Rathfinny team who told us more about their wines, under the label Cradle Valley, and their burgeoning spirit line; Seven Sisters Spirits. They are a brilliantly friendly bunch. You can’t help but wonder if they are paid in booze, or if it’s merely the beauty of the location that keeps them so cheery. Either way, it’s a breath of fresh air as welcome as the sea view from the rapeseed-clogged hills.
Rathfinny, you may have noticed, is more than just a vineyard. It’s a destination in its own right. It is one of the few wineries in the region to offer on-site accommodation. They boast ten rooms in converted barns from the original farm that previously stood on the land. The Flint Barns; a simple yet cosy operation, has a school-hall-esque dining room and a comfortable sitting room decked out with sinking leather armchairs and a library of books and board games. The rooms are equally paired-back yet come with vineyard views that means the location speaks for itself. The simplicity is also deceptive. Though the bar is limited and the facilities basic, the atmosphere is infectiously warm and the food was once again an unexpected triumph. We spent an evening drinking delicious Cradle Valley white (crisp and flavourful) and chatting to other guests, who were there to partake in the walking tours put on by the estate. Everything was so peaceful and effortlessly done that, when we checked out, it was with genuine regret.
The next day we decided to continue our wine education and drive up to Arundel, the historic town situated near the South Downs. Not only is it a hotbed of antique stores, cosy pubs and a rather impressive castle (all worth the trip) it is also home to the first tasting room from another emergent English wine brand: Digby Fine English.
Unlike Rathfinny, Digby are not a single-estate sparkling wine. Instead, they blend grapes grown from some of England’s premier vineyards across Sussex, Kent, Dorset and Hampshire. It is an eccentric brand, with a quintessentially English signature; named after Sir Kenelm Digby; inventor of the modern wine bottle back in 1630.
We meet Digby’s co-founder, Tevor Clough, at their beautiful newly-opened tasting room in the heart of Arundel. He guided us through a tasting of their 2010 Vintage Reserve Brut, their Leander Rosé and their relaxed non-vintage brut. All are equally drinkable, often stirring, wines that further prove England’s claim to wine greatness. It almost makes you feel patriotic.
Once the fizz had settled we made for Petworth, a charming small country town just a twenty minute drive through the South Downs from Arundel. Bustling with excellent pubs, antique and art shops as well as great eateries (try The Hungry Guest Café- even the takeaway coffee is brilliant), Petworth is also adjacent to the beautiful Petworth House – home to the National Trust’s largest and most impressive art collection, surrounded by 700 acres of parkland.
It is also home to The Angel Inn; a small country pub hotel where we end our wine country jaunt. The medieval origins of the inn are evident in the beamed, log-fire pub below, where we eat a relaxed dinner, and the labyrinthine corridors that lead to our room. Ours was a high-ceilinged treasure, with a plush bed and luxurious feel- perfect for a great night’s sleep after a long and arduous weekend of drinking wine.
All just over an hour and half drive from London; our Sussex weekend proved that wine country needn’t be a plane ride away. Our wine-tasting exploration came with a side order of English rural adventure, as charming, and bubbly as the wines themselves.