SUSSEX winemakers are optimistic that 2019 will be another good year for the industry. Nick Mosley talks to growers and restaurateurs about the growing popularity of this premium local product that is making waves nationally and internationally.

Growing grapes commercially in a marginal climate such as the UK is always a challenge but that hasn’t stopped more than 500 vineyards being planted, with some 70 of those across Sussex alone.

It is critical the vines don’t suffer from frost damage in the early spring or too much rainfall during the flowering season which occurs over the next two to three weeks. This can damage the flowers and thus reduce the grape yield.

“Currently, the season is looking fairly average,” said Kevin Sutherland of Bluebell Vineyard Estates at Furner’s Green, north of Newick.

“We’ve got through the late spring frosts unscathed and we are expecting flowering at the end of June for which we would like dry, warm, sunny conditions. The more flowers we have, the more grapes when it comes to fruit set in July.”

Meanwhile, over in Pulborough, Simon Woodhead of Stopham Estate feels quietly confident that 2019 will be another good year for growing. He said: “We are looking at another good year having escaped frost damage, but still have flowering to go through in a couple of weeks, which can be ruined by mis-timed rain.”

Over the summer, the vineyards will be hoping for warm, dry and sunny conditions to maximise photosynthesis in the vine leaves and minimise the risk of fungus to the plants.

“We are still early in the season and in UK viticulture anything can happen,” said Kevin.

The industry is certainly expanding exponentially. The 5.9 million bottles produced in 2017 compares with 15.6 million produced in 2018, with current planned vineyard plantings, suggesting the UK will be producing 40 million bottles a year by 2040. Sussex is also home to Plumpton Collage, the only educational establishment in the UK that offers degrees in wine making and business.

Kevin said: “Our Bluebell Hindleap wines are sold in our local country pubs and prestige London hotels and restaurants alike.

“We know that our consumers are increasingly concerned with sustainability and where their food is coming from so the fact that our wines are all vegan and that we are less than 20 miles from Brighton and less than 45 miles from London makes our wines very popular.”

Kirsty Goring of the Wiston Estate, north of Worthing, said: “There is definitely an increase in demand for English sparkling wines and we are seeing a surge in sales of our wines to both the on-trade and retail, which is brilliant.”

Today, you would be hard-pushed to find a quality restaurant, pub or hotel within Brighton and Hove that doesn’t stock at least one local sparkling wine.

James Thomson of the recently opened Wild Flor in Church Road, Hove, said: “English sparkling wine is a massive deal in Brighton while still wines lag behind. We pour Wiston’s 2011 Blanc De Blancs in parallel with one of the best counterparts champagne has to offer. With the new wave of serious, well-aged and powerful wines, it is now quality over novelty and English wines are delivering that.”

Down the road at Fourth and Church, Paul Morgan said premium English wines are offering a real differential: “We are enjoying more conversations with our diners about the different styles of Sussex and home counties wines. All of our favourite cuvées from local wine estates offer diversity in wine style and we enjoy pinpointing customers particular taste requirements before recommending a bottle.”

Alex Preston, head sommelier at Isaac At in Brighton, said consumers’ initial concerns about English wines are no longer a problem for them.

“We began with the idea to create a tasting menu from the local area so to us it made perfect sense for the wines to come from the South Coast to stay true to our concept. We experienced issues and backlash from guests in the pop-up days, but as the English wine trade has grown we have seen that become less of a problem. Why have local beef if you’re choosing not to uphold your ethos to the rest of your sourcing?”

Respected Sussex chef and long-established independent restaurateur Jeremy Ashpool of Jeremy’s Restaurant at Borde Hill agreed.

He said: “Our first introduction to English wine was in the 70s when we ran the Farmer’s in Scaynes Hill. Our neighbours at Rock Lodge produced a quite decent Müller Thurgau.”

“We find that many clients now are just as happy to have a glass of high quality local fizz as they are champagne. Good red wine is much harder in to find in Sussex but following the splendid summer in 2018 the current vintage of Bolney Pinot Noir is noteworthy.”

As consumers gain more awareness and knowledge of English wines there has been significant new investment in cellar door and tasting room development to improves the visitor experience. Stopham Estate is in the process of developing a new tasting room due to open early next year, while Tinwood Estate near Chichester recently launched a new tasting room.

Kirsty from Wiston said: “Wine tourism is playing a larger and larger part in raising awareness and demand, as people can visit estates to see where the vines are grown and wines made.

“This allows consumers to build a relationship with local producers and feel proud of supporting them.

“In fact since we opened the doors to a tasting room in our vineyard last year for tours the feedback has been hugely positive and we are currently in the process of building a new visitors’ centre at the winery, which is scheduled to open in summer 2020.”

Wiston was recently announced as the first English sparkling wine to have won a Decanter World Wine Award best in show trophy for its Wiston Estate Blanc de Blancs 2011 wine, made by head winemaker Dermot Sugrue. Decanter is the world’s biggest wine completion judged by some 280 wine experts from 30 countries. On the blind tasting, their wine scored an impressive 98 out of 100 points.