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Lucy Deedes from our food shop has been to meet another of our local suppliers this month…
It’s a warm evening at Nutbourne Vineyard, there’s an old brick windmill and the evening sun casts shadows across the acres of vines: it feels like ‘abroad’, not West Sussex. Vines were first planted here in 1980 and Peter and Bridget Gladwin have been making wine on these south-facing slopes of fertile green sand (identical to the soil in Champagne) since 1991; they have 26 acres of vines under cultivation and produce 40,000 to 60,000 bottles of wine a year.
This is a family business and every part of the process now takes place on the farm. Even the beautiful artwork for the labels was painted by Bridget. Their three sons – Gregory in farming, Richard in hospitality and Oliver a chef – have joined forces and established popular London restaurants: Rabbit, The Shed and Nutbourne, which serve British seasonal food and very much have their roots in the boys’ rural upbringing and the belief that what grows together goes together.
I somehow imagined that English wine-making was a by-product of climate change, but the Romans introduced vineyards to this country in AD43 and wine has been made on these shores pretty much since then, apart from a few gaps during the Dark Ages and unsettled times of tribal conflicts and unsophisticated beverages, and after the first World War when vines were turfed up to make way for vegetable crops.
From the viewing platform up in the windmill Bridget points out Pinot Blanc vines which are 36 years old. Much of the older planting here consists of the Riesling types: Bacchus, Huxelrebe, Reichensteiner and Schönburger for the still white wines. Later, Pinot Noir for the reds and the sparkling blends and rosé, and both Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc. Their Nutty Brut sparkling wine has won three international Gold Medals and the 2013 Sussex Reserve won an IWSC Gold Medal: “delicate and floral, packed with green fruits and nettles, very English, a hint of custard”.
Roses are traditionally planted at the end of the rows: they are the equivalent of the canary in the mine, raising the alarm if powdery mildew strikes. The recent hard frost of April 26th, when temperatures fell to -6 degrees overnight, was a disaster for the new buds. There will be secondary buds, but they won’t have as long to ripen, so this may be one of the years when vineyards need to dip into their stocks of wine.
Even without a disastrous spring frost, weather is a constant anxiety. Wind and hail will damage the leaf and the flowering vines suffer from heavy rain. Vines create their own micro-climates, and too much foliage can cause humidity and thence mould and fungus; in the spring the vines are pruned to control the leaf growth and focus the vine on making grapes, not greenery. But there must be sufficient leaves to allow photosynthesis to ripen the grapes so it’s a balancing act. Then once the grapes are ripe along come the four footed pests: foxes and badgers like to snack on grapes and so do wasps. There is no substitute for hands-on management and relentless checking.
The crew of Romanians who help work on the vines wave goodbye and Bridget tells me what brilliant workers they are. In October, when picking starts, there will be about 20 pickers, ‘No more or it’s chaos.’ It reminds me of those arithmetic problems: if a good picker can gather about 300kg of grapes a day; and an acre of vines produces 2- 3 tonnes of grapes and each ton translates into 850 bottles….
In the bottling shed they kindly explain to me such things as disgorgement, autolysis and botrytis, with partial success. What I do understand, though, is that if we are conscientious about the provenance of our food and the distance it travels, is it not magical to have a vineyard right on the doorstep? If you visit Nutbourne, you’ll think you’ve been on holiday. Nutbourne wines are available to buy in The Hungry Guest food shop, Middle Street, Petworth.
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