Raise a glass to the British version of Champagne

Southeast England celebrates historic villages, rolling hills, and now, award-winning bubbly wine.

By Bruce Schoenfeld
photographs by Matthieu Paley
Published 29 Dec 2018, 09:16 GMT
Photograph by Matthieu Paley

“Pure chalk,” says Dermot Sugrue. He picks up a chunk the size of a double-A battery. Then he scrawls his initials on a steel post that supports fruiting wire, as easy as if he were writing on a blackboard.

We’re standing in a vineyard in West Sussex. Before us looms the gentle slope of the South Downs, a range of hills that arcs from Hampshire, to the west, across 250 miles to Eastbourne and the sea. Sugrue, who is the winemaker at West Sussex’s Wiston Estate and previously worked at Nyetimber, a pioneer of English sparkling wine, scoops up a handful of soil, chooses another nugget, and hands it to me. “Once you go down 15 centimetres, you’re on top of billions of cubic metres of pure white chalk,” he says.

The chalk looks like granite, but feels surprisingly light. It’s porous, Sugrue explains. Rainfall drains through it, rather than pooling on its surface. When a vine’s roots need nutrition, they grow deeper and pull water from the subsoil. That makes chalk ideal for growing grapes. The same chalk at Wiston Estate, which was founded by the Goring family in 2006, extends across the English Channel into France, where it serves, most notably, to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the Champagne region.

The dramatic landscape around the coastal region is known as the 'Seven Sisters'. A series of chalk cliffs, they form part of the South Downs in East Sussex, between the towns of Seford and Eastbourne.

For centuries, Champagne marked the northern boundary of where these exalted varieties could regularly thrive. But English springs and summers have become far warmer. On this Friday afternoon, the temperature registers 24 degrees Celcius; forecasters predict the warmest May bank holiday weekend in history. “The year 2011 was England’s warmest,” says Sugrue. “But then 2014 was warmer. And 2015 was warmer than that.” This is ominous for humanity, of course, but a boon for English wine. “In the 1980s, you could not ripen Chardonnay and Pinot Noir here,” he says. “And then, suddenly, you could.”

As a consequence, prime conditions for sparkling wine have crossed the Channel to Sussex and Kent, contiguous counties about an hour’s drive south of London. This doesn’t mean that English wines now rival top Champagnes. In Champagne, growers learned long ago which varieties grow best on precisely which tracts of land; along the South Downs, they’re still guessing. And the largest Champagne houses each produce tens of millions of bottles, more than the entire English industry.

But later, in a small tasting room at the bottom of the vineyard, I sip a Wiston rosé, and I’m dazzled. It’s crisp and fresh, and has a tart cherry note that lingers on the tongue. The cost is £36 pounds. But even in the most fecund vintages, Sugrue says, he’ll make fewer than 10,000 bottles.

Across the room, Kirsty Goring is prepping appetisers for Swedish guests who are heading this way. Goring’s mother-in-law, Pip, emigrated to England from South Africa in the 1970s. Pip had ancestral roots in the Franschhoek wine region, so she begged her husband, Harry, to plant vines on a bit of the 6,500-acre estate that had been Goring property for generations. Grapevines? In England? On an English sheep farm, that just wasn’t done.

Now Taittinger, the Champagne producer, is making sparkling wine in Kent. Wealthy London professionals are snatching up potential vineyard land, just as tech millionaires and Hollywood producers invaded Napa Valley. The amount of wine produced in England, I’m told, is anticipated to double by 2030. Nearly a million new vines were planted in England last year, according to an industry trade report, the most ever.

This, too, represents good news. I’m looking forward to enjoying that wine in the years to come. But it’s also worrisome. Sussex and Kent are among England’s most timeless places, green landscapes dotted with small villages that look much like they have for centuries. With the emergence of this entirely new industry, I wonder what will change.

As I wave goodbye in the gravel parking lot that abuts the vineyard, a tour bus arrives. The door opens. People start to file out. “It’s the Swedes,” Kirsty says. “Thirty of them. It’s one of our biggest markets.”

How good is English sparkling wine? Good enough that it’s starting to show up beside Champagne on the lists of some of London’s poshest restaurants, even those as Gallic as Claude Bosi at Bibendum, which has two Michelin stars and is owned by a classically trained chef from Lyon. “The English wines are there because they have the quality,” the restaurant’s sommelier, Elio Machiné says. “Most people who dine here still prefer to drink Champagne. But that is changing, and I believe it will continue to change.”

In part because production is small, the wines haven’t spread in any volume outside England. (They’re also expensive, ranging between £25 for ordinary cuvées to £75 and up for the more exalted bottlings.) But their fame has travelled. In July, Cherie Spriggs, Nyetimber’s chief oenologist, won the Sparkling Winemaker of the Year award at the International Wine Challenge, an annual event that had never awarded the prize to anyone outside Champagne.

Nyetimber estate, one of England's largest wineries, offers wine tasting tours.

But the charm of English wine country can’t be quantified. Sussex is all trimmed hedges and homes of old brick and even older stone. Foliage encroaches on narrow country roads, which were built long ago with horse carts in mind. When cars approach from opposite directions, one tucks into a nook and lets the other ease past. Coming over a rise, around a bend and into a clearing, I see sheep on a hillside and a thousand shades of green. The road signs are quintessentially British: Muttons Lane and Roundabout Lane leading to Smock Alley.

And this being England, there is history everywhere. At Wiston, I’d gawked at the grand manor, built in 1573 by Thomas Sherley in the exact year that he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I, and added to, in fits and starts, over the centuries that followed. In 1743, Elizabeth Fagge, the heiress of the estate, married Sir Charles Goring. Harry, Pip’s husband, is a direct descendant. The Canadian army was headquartered at Wiston House in the weeks before the Normandy landings. Nearly 50 years later, F.W. de Klerk’s South African government purportedly held secret meetings there with the African National Congress to negotiate Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.

At Nyetimber, the pull of the past is even stronger. The estate is mentioned in the Domesday Book, that 11th-century compendium of all English holdings. William the Conqueror owned it, and then Henry VIII when he was king of England, and later Thomas Cromwell. I stand outside the reception hall with a 15th-century barn to my left, a 16th-century manor house to my right, and a classic English garden between them.

In 1988 an American couple, Stuart and Sandy Moss, planted Nyetimber’s first vines, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Before that, England’s rudimentary attempts at winemaking involved obscure white varieties, mostly from Germany, on the theory that nothing else would ripen. By the turn of the century, though, Nyetimber was making credible sparkling wines in most vintages. And by 2006, the year that Sugrue left to help start Wiston, it had become clear that something special was happening.

That same year, Cherie Spriggs and her husband, Brad Greatrix, Canadians who had studied and worked in Australia, returned home with the intention of making wine in British Columbia, or perhaps Ontario. Then her father, who is English, brought them two bottles of Nyetimber on a visit. They drank it, then wrote to the winery and applied for a job. The letter led to a phone call, then another. Within a week, both were hired.

One night, Greatrix takes me to dinner at Etch, on the coast in Brighton and Hove, Sussex’s only metropolitan area. Once dingy, Brighton is booming. In each of nine courses, Etch’s chef, Steven Edwards, uses two seasonally changing main ingredients—say, duck and cucumber, langoustine and onion, or lamb and turnip—to create deceptively simple but deliciously accomplished food. Looking over the wine list, I realise that every sparkling wine is English. “It’s a statement about the wines,” Edwards explains, but this isn’t just about dining local, or some Brexit-fuelled expression of English self-sufficiency. “They’re just so good.”

Visitors on a tour of Nyetimber estate.

The coin in my hand is not quite round, almost oval shaped, and inlaid with elaborate designs. It dates from around 60BC, Wendy Outhwaite tells me, and was probably used to pay Celtic mercenaries in the war against Julius Caesar, and later to trade with Gaul-based Romans, who wouldn’t invade England for another century or so.

In 2008, when Wendy and her husband, Charles, were readying land they’d bought a few miles from Nyetimber for planting, they found several of those coins in the soil. Most were sent to the British Museum, but the Outhwaites were allowed to keep a few. Holding one now, I’m reminded that, though this stretch of the South Downs is one of the world’s youngest wine regions, the Downs date back more than 75 million years to the Cretaceous period. The dramatic rises in elevation on the Outhwaites’s land exist as pre-Roman remnants of the Iron Age, constructed by Celts who feared an invasion from the south.

Wendy was a lawyer until recently, raised and trained in London. Charles, who’d spent his youth in Sussex, worked in banking in the City. In 2001 they too shared a bottle of Nyetimber. “By the time we’re 40,” Wendy said to Charles, “let’s quit our jobs, plant a vineyard, and make wine like this.” For years they searched for a suitable plot of land, from Kent all the way to Cornwall. Eventually Charles’s father called their attention to a farm near his West Sussex home. Now they have nine acres on ancient soil: not chalk, as it turns out, but greensand, or ground glauconite, which is usually found at the bottom of the ocean. “All of this,” she says, gesturing toward the South Downs, “used to be underwater.”

Life along the promenade on the shore of the Channel in Brighton city. Summer 2018 was one of the hottest one in England's history.

The Outhwaites make some 60,000 bottles annually of their Ambriel wine, and they do much of the work themselves at their vineyards, tending the vines, fermenting the grapes, and blending the lots together, with guidance on the chemistry from a consultant. The 2010 Blanc de Blanc, an eight-year-old wine, is impressive, tasting of newly pressed cider, but with a citrus tang. “It doesn’t appeal to California sparkling wine drinkers,” Wendy says, “but it doesn’t need to. All we want is a small cult following.” They’re 46 miles from London, close enough that Charles still commutes to his bank a few days a week—and for weekend tourism. “That’s beginning to come,” Wendy says.

As for the lifestyle, well, she doesn’t miss the law. The next morning, I meet her and Charles in Petworth, a nearby village. Not long ago, it was a historic market town that was fading into obscurity. The wine industry has provided an economic boost while attracting free-spending visitors. (Wine tourists travelling internationally tend to spend more than other types of tourists.)

There’s plenty to spend it on in Petworth, from summer dresses in stylish boutiques to English bottlings at one of the best wine shops in Sussex. At the Hungry Guest, a gourmet food store that doubles as the local market, I find insecticide-free tomatoes from Nutbourne Nursery, just down the road. I choose three plum tomatoes and a baguette (baked in house), and then, from the cheese cave, a slice of Lyonnaise Brebirousse d’Argental. (Will that survive Brexit, I wonder?) It’s a perfect breakfast, and I eat it at a counter with a cup of tea, watching through the window as Petworth’s weekday crowd passes by in polo shirts and sleeveless print dresses.

A Sunday roast dinner, eaten at lunch. It’s my favourite English culinary tradition. But I’ve never enjoyed it with an English wine until I sit on the patio at the Tickled Trout, a roadside pub in the Kentish countryside. I have leg of lamb, Yorkshire pudding, jacket potatoes, and vegetables boiled into flaccid submission, accompanied by a glass (and then another) of Balfour, grown and produced only a few miles away.

The restaurant, Etch, run by celebrity chef Steven Edwards offers a large selection of English sparkling wines.

Formerly a seafood restaurant, the Trout was bought three years ago by Richard Balfour-Lynn, who also owns the Hush Heath winery and its Balfour wines, and then repurposed as part of his hospitality empire. That includes the nearby Goudhurst Inn, where guest rooms are named after vineyards, and three other pubs. But the primary attraction is Hush Heath. I find Balfour-Lynn in the parking lot, moments after he’d presided over a tour and tasting. An investor whose holdings once ranged from a London department store to Malmaison hotels, he settled in Kent in the 1980s to raise a family. For years he owned the Hush Heath manor but not the acreage around it, so when that came up for sale, he grabbed it. He’d nurtured an interest in wine—at one point dedicating a day each week to study it—and planned to own a vineyard in Italy or France in retirement. Instead, his wife suggested they plant vines at Hush Heath. It was supposed to be a hobby, but it became a business. “I’ve been in a lot of industries in my time, but this is the first time I’ve been in the right place at the right time by sheer luck,” he says. Hush Heath makes around 150,000 bottles annually, depending on the yield. A new £4.5million winery on the site, meant to increase both production and tourism numbers incrementally, is almost finished. “It will look more like Tuscany than it will England,” Balfour-Lynn says. Then he reconsiders. “Actually, there’s nothing quite like it in all of Europe.”

He urges me to wander the 400-acre property, so I set out on a dirt path under a fiercely blue sky, past a field of buttercups, into the shade of the woods. Oak from those woods, I’ll learn later, was used in the construction of Westminster Abbey in 1261. Hush Heath Manor was built in 1503, and Polly Sawyers, who serves as the property’s unofficial historian from behind the tasting bar, insists that some of the living trees I pass date back nearly that long. Her voice has the ring of authority, and not merely because, as Polly Boyes, she formerly read the news on BBC’s World Service. “Now you must have some apple juice, blended from Bramley, Cox, and Egremont Russet,” she says, setting a glass on the counter. “England is changing,” she tells me, but it’s still England.

The Kentish countryside looks as green as Sussex, maybe greener, but it’s wilder, less manicured. I drive past the crenellated walls of Leeds Castle and turn south at Canterbury, known for its archbishop and for Chaucer’s Tales. Soon I reach the coast: Dover’s famed white cliffs. On this pristine afternoon, I can easily trace the outline of France. I know that Champagne, and its impeccable vineyards, lie just beyond. Before me, the sea sparkles in the afternoon sun. I reach down for one of the stones at my feet and crumble it in my hand. “Pure chalk,” I whisper.

This story by Bruce Schoenfeld is published in the February/March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine and was produced in collaboration with the Wall Street Journal. Follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceSchoenfeld.

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