Thursday, 1 June 2017

Bluebell Vineyard tour and tasting – Hindleap English sparkling wine

‘Are you in France?’ my friend asked after I posted a photo of Bluebell Vineyard Estates. Close, I guess, but no, I’m a bit closer to home in the stunning Sussex countryside.

Stepping out of the car at Bluebell, I genuinely felt myself instantly relax. It’s a bit different to London life… The four gorgeously lazy Labradors that live at Bluebell ambled over to say hello, as I looked over the vines soaking up the afternoon sun.  

Bluebell Vineyard Estates used to be the site of a former pig farm, home to Large Whites, Landrace, and Blue Cross Pigs. Things have certainly changed since then, and it’s now home to the award-winning Hindleap wines. After the first vine plantings in 2005, the vineyard has more than doubled in size.

I was surprised by the size of the operation for the impressive amount of wine produced, with four full-time staff doing most of the work, and grape pickers coming in for a few weeks a year. Currently, the vineyard produces 40,000 bottles a year, but is hoping to increase this to 100,000 over the coming years.

In 2015, there were 502 vineyards in the UK, with 133 wineries. Annual production stood at 5.06m bottles, with suggestions this will increase to 12m by 2020. The top three grape varieties planted in the UK are Chardonnay (23% of total vine plantings), Pinot Noir (22%), and Bacchus (8%). 

Bluebell Vineyard has more than 100,000 vines growing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Seyval Blanc grapes. The lovely Collette O'Leary, winemaker at Bluebell took us on a tour of the vineyard. After serving time in PR in London, she decided she wanted a change, enrolled on a winemaking degree at Plumpton College, and hasn’t looked back since.

Collette explained the vines are spread out across the 70 acres of beautiful Sussex countryside, according to site and soil conditions, and to maximise the chances of having all the varieties growing every year, in case of any frost or disease. I knew that frost could be devastating for vines, but I had no idea the methods or lengths some vineyards go to mitigate the problem, including lighting hundreds of candles among the vines in the middle of the night to keep the air moving, or even using sprinklers to freeze the vines. As the water changes to ice on the surface of the vine, it releases a small amount of latent heat that protects the vine from damage.

The grapes are harvested by hand around the first week of October, and are whole-bunch pressed, before being fermented in stainless steel tanks over four weeks, at a cool 12-13 degrees Celsius. The base wines (not yet sparkling, and they don’t taste anything like the finished product which makes it even harder for the winemakers), are kept over winter on their gross yeast lees (which is unusual, and quite a lot longer than other winemakers would leave them). Collette said it helps to enhance mouthfeel and structure, and improve the stability of the wines, but if any ‘off’ aromas start to make themselves known, the wines will be racked immediately.

Come spring, Kevin Sutherland, head winemaker, finalises the blends for each style. The wines are then bottled for a secondary fermentation and aged for 17-60 months on yeast lees, so every wine is vintage, and varies a lot from year to year.

Tasting time: the wines

In just five years, the Hindleap range of sparkling wines have won more than 60 national and international awards. After our very informative tour, we sat down in the tasting room to try the range, as well as giving our verdict on the base wines for a future wine, which was something I’d never done before. It gave a really interesting insight into how these wines taste a couple of years before anyone else gets to try them, and just how different they are at this stage too.

2014 Blanc de Blanc, 100% Chardonnay, £27
This is Bluebell Vineyard’s signature wine. It’s light in colour, with fine bubbles and loads of green fruit on the nose. There’s a pleasant sharpness on the palate with pink grapefruit notes, and a long, creamy finish. Collette says it’s enjoyable mow, but will also continue to gain complexity over the coming years.

2013 barrel aged Blanc de Blanc – 100% Chardonnay, £32
This was my absolute favourite. The wine was fermented in stainless steel before spending six months in French oak barrels, and spent a minimum of 30 months on lees. Oh I loved it. There’s vanilla and a sweetness on the nose, with a moreish biscuity flavour. It’s delicious and creamy and rich, with a long finish.

2013 Rose – 77% Pinot Noir, 23% Pinot Meunier, £26
This is a really lovely, delicate wine that would be perfect to enjoy over the summer. Kick start your barbecue with a glass of this. It’s elegant and well-balanced, with plenty of strawberry on the palate.

2013 Seyval Blanc – 100% Seyval Blanc, £22
This was my first taste of Seyval Blanc, and I would definitely go back for more. The grape is apparently very well suited to the English climate, and the result is a fresh, light and zesty wine. There’s bags of green apple on the palate, with a floral and herbaceous nose.

2014 Classic Cuvee – 61% Chardonnay, 24% Pinot Noir, 15% Pinot Meunier, £25
This is a fragrant, floral wine, with a delicious richness, which leads to citrus and pear on the palate, and a lingering finish.

If you’re in the area, the vineyard is open to the public for tours and tastings.

Tours run on Thursday, Friday and Saturdays (£16 per person, book in advance). Or the Tasting Room is open 10am-4pm Monday to Saturday throughout the year, so you can pop in and try a flight of four sparkling wines for £5 per person.

You can buy the Hindleap wines online, from the vineyard, or the Blanc de Blanc from M&S, and the Rose from Waitrose

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