Daytrippers - yeah!

Birds, demon badgers and listening to bubbles all add up to a peculiarly British notion of terroir as River Café sommelier and pop-up restaurateur Emily O’Hare heads off to the South Downs

Emily tasting wines"Did you hear that yaffle?" asked Peter.

Sitting at lunch with Breaky Bottom winemaker, Peter Hall in his home in Sussex, I had not heard the call of the green woodpecker. My attention was elsewhere, my ears were otherwise engaged – in a flute of Peter’s sparkling wine made from the white grape variety, Seyval Blanc. When sparkling wine is poured for me, I always like to listen to it. I like to hear those bubbles fizzing and popping, noisily celebrating their escape.

After listening, I look – to admire the tiny size and evenness of the bubbles weaving through the wine. A good sparkling winemaker threads those bubbles carefully through his/her wine like a good tailor or seamstress, adopting the methods and techniques of the vignerons in Champagne to create this fine texture. In the mouth, that attention to detail will be felt. The bubbles in my glass today are creamy and moussey, not big and aggressive, and so it was as I went through these stages with Peter’s wines and ignored the yaffling.

Discovering what's on your doorstep

I was on an English winery tour organised by Meeghan Murdoch, energetic recent graduate from Plumpton College, and Canadian winemaker, Bob Madill. Bob is co-owner of Sheldrake Point Vineyards in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, and had read much about the booming winemaking industry in the UK. He was curious to meet, “to toast and to taste with like minds” winemakers working “off the grid” with similar grape varieties to those of his homeland, also operating in a marginal climate.

I must admit I didn’t know much about the English wine industry prior to this visit. I would always order a glass of Nyetimber (arguably England's most well-known sparkly) if I saw it on a restaurant list, and had enjoyed still whites from Denbies – England’s largest winery on a single site – with picnics last summer. But I had never visited any English vineyards. I have travelled on planes and coaches to tour the vineyards of Argentina, France and Italy, but I’d never gotten round to seeing the vines and tasting the wines that lay only an hour from my doorstep.

Inspired by Champagne

RidgeViewWe had begun our day with RidgeView’s vineyard manager Matt Strugnall at the foot of the South Downs. Founded in 1994, RidgeView’s aim has always been to create world class sparklies comparable to those from Champagne. After all, the Champagne region is only 88 miles south of RidgeView, and soils in this part of England are similarly rich in chalk and fossils.

The vineyards are planted with the Champagne varieties – the white Chardonnay and the red Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – and each contributes different characteristics to the final wine.  Chardonnay tends to bring finesse, Pinot Noir lends weight and power while Pinot Meunier brings flavoursome fruit to the blend.

The lesser known of the three, Pinot Meunier, is particularly easy to identify in the vineyard. Meunier is French for ‘Miller’ and the grape gets its name because the underside of its leaves look like they have been dusted with flour.

Romantic images of millers walking through these vineyards are soon replaced however by horrific scenes of demon badgers. It turns out, badgers are a real pest in southern England. Apparently they steal into the vineyards and crawl up the trunks of the vines, resting their paws on the training wires while nibbling on the precious grapes. Deer too are a nuisance, with a penchant for fine fruit, so fences are constructed that deer cannot leap over or badgers break through. Bob tells us that in the US it is raccoons and turkeys that like to treat themselves to dinner in the vineyards.

A time to taste

Emily tasting winesBack in the winery, all the wines are named after smart London locations and we begin with the Bloomsbury 2008. Chardonnay dominates, accounting for over half the blend. I listen, my ears tingle lightly, and then I look: the wine is pale lemony gold with fine, tiny bead-like bubbles. I smell – the aromas are of orchard fruit – and finally taste. In the mouth there is this crispness and crunch you might expect from a just-ripe Cox’s apple and a just underripe Comice pear. It is a rather thrilling experience – such delicacy of aroma and flavour but with such high, lively acidity. With my sommelier hat on, this sort of experience could be topped with a plate of grilled mackerel.

The Grosvenor follows. A wine made just from Chardonnay, it displays the orchard fruit of the Bloomsbury on the nose while in the mouth there is a slightly richer sensation, and the flavours are nuttier, more honeyed than the first wine. I think about cold leftover roast chicken, fresh white bread and butter, and how a glass of the Grosvenor would be all the dressing up the dish needs.

The Knightsbridge 2008 is next. Made solely from the black Pinots, Noir and Meunier, it is bigger and broader than the previous two wines. It is quite extraordinary to drink, the aromas and flavours pale in comparison to the sensation of the wine in the mouth. It is a robust and powerful mouthful, the flavours are riper, they verge on the tropical, but this all tapers to such a fine point, the acidity directing fizz and fruit to the tonsils to leave the mouth refreshed and invigorated.

I felt like I’d just swallowed some precious, sparkly scaled flat fish. As we were hurried out and on to our next visit, to Breaky Bottom a 40 minute drive away, I checked my reflection in the car wing mirrors, half expecting to see a tail flipping wildly between my lips.

One of the originals

Breaky BottomNext stop, Breaky Bottom. Peter Hall planted Seyval Blanc back in 1974. This grape, developed in France in the 1920s, thrives in our cool climate – and also in Ontario, Canada. As it turns out, Bob is very familiar with this variety since it was one of the first varieties he worked with when he began his winemaking career. Back at Breaky, Peter also grows Müller Thurgau (another white variety that likes cool climates, hence feeling at home in England, and in Germany and Northern Italy) and he has just recently planted a little Chardonnay.

Peter’s Seyvals are “exceptional…linear, expressive and above all else with explosive energy” says Bob, “with some of the same qualities you see in Finger Lakes Riesling at the extreme edge of dryness”.

Sussing out Seyval

Breaky BottomI had never tried Seyval Blanc before, but it seemed to be very familiar. As a sommelier at an Italian restaurant working with an all-Italian list, I am used to working with white wines that are not so aromatic but are full of interest, in terms of flavour and texture. In Italy there is a specific term for it – “aroma di bocca” – and Seyval Blanc seems to have this in spades. Peter’s Seyval Blancs – his Cuvée John Inglis Hall 2006 and Cuveé Brian Jordan 2005 – both have mild aromas that remind me of trips to Northern France, bowls of cooked mussels and also, rather aptly, this being an English-made wine, of the scent of warm pavements after rain.

But drinking the Cuvée John Inglis Hall was a much more revealing experience. The palate was so fresh – lean and lemon peely, saliney, slightly salty. I was transported from rolling Sussex hills to the prow of a boat in a stormy sea. The Brian Jordan Cuvée in the mouth was more developed, more complex and showed, curiously, flavours of fresh roasted coffee and raw summer girolles. It tasted like the smell of a deli. Of chilled cheeses and green olives in brine.

Unsurprisingly these sparkling wines worked beautifully with food. Peter’s wife Christine had prepared a salad of lettuce leaves pulled that morning from their garden and she brought out great chunks of cheddar and rounds of goats cheese. Baskets of French bread were passed around and so we began a very English, luxuriously long, lunch. I sat back, and thought of England and of the award winning wines I had tasted that day.

So what is English terroir?

Daytrippers with Peter & Christine HallMy conclusion? Here in England we have a wine industry to feel extremely proud of, not just because the wines are hugely drinkable, and work beautifully with food, but because they have that magic quality that great wines share: a capacity to transport the drinker with one sip to those dramatic South Downs.

Bob agreed. “The South Downs are remarkable – sculptural, remote and yet engaging. What a compelling place in which to homestead and make wine. The wind inhabits the experience and in a physical sense, foretells the wine. Not a place, nor a wine for everyone but to be taken on its own terms. A 'terroir' wine, a creature of its place and maker.”

Couldn't have put it better myself. Cheers!

Above: A sense of place: the team at Breaky Bottom, from left, Emily O'Hare, Christine Hall, Bob Madill, Peter Hall


Words by Emily O'Hare, wine mistress & WhizzBangPop restaurant maestro; twitter: @emily0h

Photographs by Meeghan Murdoch, girl of many projects, wine consultant & Plumpton graduate; twitter: @winesagasu