Picking pinot noir in Sussex – England rocks the world’s most elegant red grape

18 Oct

 Last week the Wine Wanderers helped harvest some prime examples of their favourite grape – happily grown down the road  from where we live in deepest Sussex.   Amazing England now has enough sun to grow decent pinot noir; the Bolney Estate, where we did our own bit of picking and sorting, and Chapel Down just across the border in Kent both make fine examples.

“Experts are predicting pinot noir will become the nation’s go-to bottle,” says Sam Linter, MD and head winemaker at Bolney, who says research shows our nation of white wine drinkers is now buying more red than white for the first time.   Certainly pinot noir, so light and elegant compared to sledgehammer grapes like shiraz and malbec, would be the varietal most likely to convert a white-wine drinker.

As Bolney is predicting a bumper crop, thanks to the Wimbledon heat assisting flowering this year, we were glad to help Sam with a morning’s labour and see the beautiful estate while some of the pinot noir – astonishingly, considering how much gorgeous floral, fragrant white wine we produce in the UK, is our second most prolific grape – were still on the vine.

It was Sam’s parents who planted the first three acres in 1972, creating what was then only the sixth commercial vineyard in England.   Now Bolney’s vines have expanded more than tenfold across 39 acres, with a state of the art winery leading to a UK Wine Producer of the Year title in the 2012 IWSC(International Wine and Spirit Competition).

It was strange to learn that the soil through which we trudged is known as Upper Tunbridge Wells Sand, and interesting that Bolney’s  pinot noir grapes flower two weeks earlier than the norm, so we clipped bunches off the vines in pouring rain feeling relieved professional pickers had already got in most of the crop.   Then we helped on the sorting tables; Bolney is almost unique in sorting grapes before they’re pressed, apparently.

We warmed up from the cold and wet with a glass of Bolney’s pink bubbly, which is also made from 100 per cent pinot noir; pale and delicious, no wonder it’s accumulated a slew of awards.  As for the still wine, which we enjoyed with some Burwash Rose from our excellent local Stonegate Dairy, the 2013 vintage took silver in this year’s International Wine Challenge.

English wine remains pricey, thanks to small production, but it deserves to reach a wider home audience.  Forward-looking Sussex hotels like Ockenden Manor, where we stayed the night before and enjoyed a superb dinner by Michelin-starred chef Stephen Crane, supports Bolney and other local wineries.   Those not close enough to drink it on the doorstep can find the pinot noir at Waitrose, which is leading supermarkets in championing English wines, for £15.99 a bottle.   Just the thing for a special Sunday lunch or, down the line, to accompany the Christmas turkey.

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