In England’s green and pleasant countryside, in the counties of Sussex and Kent, there’s a certain fizz about quaint villages with names that would suit a Shakespearan text. In Ditchling Common, West Chiltington and Small Hythe locally-made sparkling wine can add a distinct twinkle to a southern itinerary.
Widespread acclaim and a swag of awards at wine shows have confirmed that top English sparkling wines are as good as French Champagne. Some of these English wines have actually won French wine medals! Injecting extra zest to age-old cross-Channel rivalry has been the claim that the traditional method of making Champagne was actually invented by 17th Century English scientist Christopher Merret and not the famous monk Dom Perignon. Do I hear French wine lovers choking on their bubbly?
Far more sobering is the reality that global warming has helped boost the sparkling potential of England’s south. In Kent I’m told the average temperature of the region has risen three degrees in the last 10 years. “Global warming means we can now successfully ripen the three French Champagne grape varieties,” says Digby Welch of Chapel Down at Small Hythe near Tenterden. It’s the biggest producer of English wines.
Delightful Hever Castle – once the home of Anne Boleyn – and Leeds Castle (which has its own vineyard) are two impressive attractions that can easily be stiched into a visit to southern wine villages . So can Glyndeborne and its gardens. And the new South Downs National Park includes the western Weald, Lewes, and the village of Ditchling.
Down narrow Fragbarrow Lane on the outskirts of Ditchling is Ridgeview Estate, the first English winery to win French honours. Its Fitzrovia 2004 won Best International Sparkling Rosé at the 2007 Le Mondial du Rosé. Winemaker Simon Roberts said Ridgeview has always aimed at emulating the great French Champagne houses. “When we opened to the public in 2000 we put up a sign saying ‘Champagne in all but name’. This so irked the French we had to take it down.” The estate’s rural charm is best appreciated, glass in hand, from the cellar door overlooking the vines with a view of the South Downs.
Nyetimber Estate at West Chiltington in Sussex is glorious old manor house. The original house is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1061 which records Nyetimber Manor being given by William the Conqueror to Earl Godwin. Illustrious owners since have included King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and Anne of Cleves, the king’s fourth wife.
Nyetimber is not open to the public. There was talk of making one of the barns a cellar door but that’s still pipe smoke. The best I can offer is this list of places you can buy a bottle.
A terrific pit stop is The English Wine Centre in the old Cuckmere Barns beside the A27 exit to the attractive village of Alfriston in East Sussex. It has a range of sparkling and still wines, fruit wines and ciders from producers from as far north as Leeds.