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The Bolney Estate Cafe And Tasting Room, Foxhole Lane, Bolney, 01444 881575
Once upon a time English wine was regarded as the punchline to a bad joke. It was the stuff brought out to get guests to leave a dinner party, or based around nettles or elderflowers as homemade by Tom and Barbara Good or Reggie Perrin’s insufferable son-in-lawin the 1970s.
“When I first started working here 15 years ago even getting people to try English wine was a challenge,” admits Bolney’s master winemaker and managing director Sam Linter.
“Now we are seeing a lot of 20 and 30 year-olds coming to our tours, wanting to buy it for themselves. There’s a new generation of wine drinkers interested in English wine. It’s an amazing change.”
And Bolney is at the forefront of that change, 40 years after Linter’s parents planted the first vineyard over four acres of land. Now 39 acres in size, the estate won a Gold Outstanding Medal at the International Wine And Spirit Competition (IWSC) in May for its Bolney Blanc de Blancs 2007, made from chardonnay grapes, in a blind tasting.
The gold medal joins a clutch of other awards, including last year’s IWSC bronze medal for its 2008 Cuvee Rose made from pinot noir grapes, which also won a Naked Grape Zero To Hero Award for best sparkling wine earlier this year.
The international successes have seen the numbers of visitors to the vineyard shoot up, from 500 people a year in 2006/7, to 10,000 people joining tours last year.
This has led to the opening of the new Bolney Estate Cafe in what used to be a visitors’ tasting room, and the launch of a new programme of drop-in tours on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
“In previous years people would come with their voucher and we would put on lunch or a cream tea with their glasses of wine,” says Linter.
“We would use local suppliers and sell their chutneys and jams in the shop.”
It wasn’t too much of a leap to open a cafe, with the majority of food sourced from a 30-mile radius, including cheeses from the High Weald Dairy; meat from Oathall Farm, at Oathall Community College, near Haywards Heath; local apple juice and rapeseed oil; cakes from Shoreham’s Rich And Fruity Cake Co; and hot drinks supplied by the Coffee Fairy, based in Midhurst.
It even sells the only tea grown in England, from Cornwall’s Tregothan. The food miles for each product are on display on blackboards on the walls of the cafe.
The menu was put together by the cafe’s chef Dan Philpot.
“He did a lot of research,” says Linter. “He went to a lot of different cafes to see what was working. We looked at what was available to us and built the menus around that.
“We are still developing the menu, it’s not going to stand still. It will change seasonally.”
The cafe’s breakfast menu has already proved a hit, with parents coming in after dropping their kids off at school over the past two weeks.
The dishes are designed to match with the different wines on offer from the Bolney Estate, which range from their award-winning Pinot Noir to their Germanic Lychgate White, triple-award-winning Lychgate Red, Bolney Rose and a selection of sparkling wines.
The estate grows a mix of hybrid varieties of vines, although the cooler climate can make it hard to get a big crop of grapes.
“In France and other warmer countries they get a yield of seven to 12 tonnes per acre,” says Linter. “For us, if we get between two-and-a-half and three tonnes we’re doing really well.”
That turned into 65,000 bottles of wine last year, which should go up to 90,000 to 100,000 bottles this year as the estate has planted more vines.
Bolney only exports between two and three per cent of their wines – to Italy, Sweden, Norway and Japan, which loves anything English.
With the cafe, the estate now employs 14 staff, with only one or two assigned to the vineyard itself. Numbers go up dramatically during the four weeks of harvesting, with the estate bringing in casual workers, including teams of Romanians who are able to pick between five to six tonnes a day compared to English pickers’ measly one to two tonnes.
Much has been made of the poor summer so far possibly leading to a bad year for English wines.
But Linter says the real worry would be if it was constantly raining, instead of this year’s mix of sunshine and showers.
“Cold is the biggest issue,” she says. “If it was constantly raining it would kill it completely, but it doesn’t really do that in England.
“What has happened is that it has slowed progress. If we have a warm August and September then we can start picking at the end of September. If we start picking in October it becomes a little bit more marginal.”
With rumours flying around of French growers trying to buy land in Kent and Sussex, clearly the time is now for English wines.
“We believe that Sussex is the best county for making wine,” she says. “It’s the most heavily planted place in the UK.”
Cafe open Wed to Sat, 8am to 4pm. Drop-in tours Wed, Fri and Sat, 10am, noon and 2.30pm. Visit www.bolneywineestate.co.uk
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