The English countryside conjures many images. With their beaches, marinas, glorious forests and national parks, the counties of Hampshire and Sussex are best-known as southern England’s prime holiday playgrounds. But now they are gaining international recognition for something a little more unexpected – award-winning English wines. Think toasty sparklers evoking the style’s French rivals, delicate pinot noirs and floral whites with the fragrance of an English midsummer garden. It seems that England’s southern neighbours have new competition on the European wine front.
It may be the one upside to global warming. You can credit it along with the the soil (in many places mimicking the chalky terrain of Champagne), as southern England now gets enough sunshine to support varietals such as chardonnay with a long growing season as well as the bacchus, ortega and other lesser-known grapes which flourish in the fickle British climate. But it’s also a case of history repeating itself.
While ale and mead are most closely associated with tankard-swigging Anglo-Saxons, wine was the preferred tipple of the chattering classes 2000 years ago. Evidence of some 20 English vineyards dating back to Roman times has been uncovered, and more than double that number was documented in the Domesday book by the Normans who landed on the beaches of Sussex a millennium later, their nobles instigating a new era of wine-growing.
A burst of fortuitous climate change supported viticulture across the southern half of England in the Middle Ages, but the Mediaeval Warm Period was followed by the Little Ice Age and by the 18th century it was all but over. The great revival of English winemaking started 60 years ago with a few varietals hardy enough to survive the early frosts and paucity of sunshine. However, it’s the much more recent climate change supporting the growth of pinot noir, chardonnay and other mainstream grapes which has been the game-changer.
Not surprisingly, now the key grapes of Champagne are thriving north of the Channel, sparkling wines have been England’s most successful. Nyetimber of West Sussex, Ridgeview of East Sussex and Chapel Down on the East Sussex-Kent border leading the way with international awards.
The big name in Hampshire, where Nyetimber grows some of its grapes, is Hambledon Vineyards, whose classic cuvee sparkler has beaten Pol Roger and Taittinger in blind tastings; the pink took Gold in both this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards and the International Wine Challenge.
Now closed for harvest and an ambitious winter construction programme but reopening for vineyard tours next June, a Hambledon visit could be combined with a sojourn in Hampshire’s New Forest. Originally the hunting ground of monarchs from William the Conqueror to Henry VIII, its big draws today are thousands of ponies roaming wild on heathland, the motor museum at Beaulieu with nearby stately home and the legendary gastronomic resorts of Lime Wood, The Pig and Chewton Glen, all championing local produce.
Head north to include Winchester, famous for both its exquisite cathedral and the home of Jane Austen; luxurious lodges with private hot tubs deep in the trees can be rented in nearby Blackwood Forest. Hampshire is also famous for cheese; look for buffalo mozzarella from Laverstoke Park Farm, Camembert-like Tunworth and Winslade from Hampshire Cheeses and nutty hard varieties from the Lyburn dairy in local farm shops, along with goat meat products from Hampshire Charcuterie.
Ridgeview, less than an hour’s drive east of Hambledon, also offers visits year-round and is close to Brighton, Britain’s liveliest coastal town, more culture hub than resort. Also of note here are the racetrack at nearby Plumpton, summer opera at Glyndebourne and hiking in the beautiful South Downs National Park which runs south-east from Winchester to the Channel coast.
The Rathfinny Estate on the edge of the South Downs offers bed and breakfast as well as tours of its own vineyards, and a little way west Ockendon Manor, a grand hotel close to Bolney, yet another award-winning Sussex wine estate, offers an excellent list of English wines to whet the appetite in its Michelin-starred restaurant.
Farm shops throughout Sussex sell the county’s own great cheeses – look for Burwash Rose from the Traditional Cheese Dairy, Brighton Blue from the High Weald Dairy and the incredibly delicate and creamy Flower Marie. Increasing numbers of Sussex gins are making waves in the drinks world – look for Blackwood, Mayfield, Tom Cat and Slake amongst local labels and plan to follow a visit of southern England’s vineyards with a distillery tour down the line.
By Anthea Gerrie