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The Story of Wine in the South Downs

Vineyards are an increasingly common sight on the south-facing slopes of the South Downs. Our chalky hills are part of the same rock that runs through the French Champagne region, which lies just 88 miles to the south. Our warmer, later summers are ideal for ripening the grapes used in making sparkling wine, while cool breezes coming in from the sea add needed acidity to the flavour.

While the Romans may have been the first to try growing vines on this chalky soil, Sussex now has over 50 vineyards, more than any other county in the UK. Near Pulborough, Nutbourne’s 2010 Brut sparkling wine won Best Wine in the UK in 2013. Bolney, Albourne and Breaky Bottom all produce excellent sparkling wines, many of which have also won awards around the world. Most offer tours of their vineyards and tastings too. At Ridgeview, their best known sparkling wine is called Merret, in honour of Englishman Charles Merret, who in 1662 presented a paper at the Royal Society in London where he described the process of making sparkling wines, some 30 years before the technique was documented in Champagne.

In Hampshire, Meonhill vineyard was founded near the village of East Meon by Didier Pierson, a fifth generation champagne maker. His wines are sold by nearby Hambledon vineyard, in a village better known as the ‘cradle of cricket’. These days it is also home to England’s oldest commercial vineyard.

The biggest vineyard of them all is Rathfinney, where owners Mark and Sarah Driver have planted more than 210,000 vines since 2010, with plans to plant more over the next few years. Eventually the couple hope to produce nearly a million bottles of Sussex sparkling per year. The first bottles won’t be on sale until 2016 at the earliest, but you can already tour the estate and visit the gun room, reputed to be where the Duke of Wellington stored his arms. It’s now destined to be the retail outlet for Rathfinney, as well as the heritage centre for the nearby village of Alfriston and the Cuckmere Valley.

You can pick up most of these wines at the English Wine Centre in Berwick, also home to the English Wine Museum and its display of corkscrews. And if you fancy getting more seriously involved, you can follow in Mark Driver’s footsteps and sign up for a course at Plumpton College. Based near Lewes, it is the only place in Europe to offer English language undergraduate degrees in Wine Business and Production.