Now is the time for Sussex wine. Although a relative newcomer upon the world stage, the county’s vineyards are bettering centuries-old producers with a mix of passion, innovation and determination.
Started in 2010 by husband-and-wife team, Alison Nightingale and Nick Cooper, Albourne Wine Estate has become renowned for offering an exhilarating range of tipples.
While Sussex has received recognition for its sparkling wines for some time, still varieties are rapidly grabbing serious attention. “Since our first harvest 10 years ago we’ve always produced still and sparkling wines. The quality of the still wines is definitely up there with the sparkling!” Alison tells me. “Having the flexibility to use our grapes to produce a range of wine styles is a key part of maximising the quality of each of them and minimising juice wastage.”
In 2015, their second year of production, the estate won UK Wine of the Year with a Bacchus wine. The range, quality and reputation of Albourne Estate wines has seen their offerings grow to include traditional and charmat method sparkling wines, white and red still wines and one of the first English Vermouths.
Located just outside Hassocks, with magnificent views of the South Downs National Park. Only eight miles from Brighton is Albourne Estate’s 44,000 vines across around 30 acres enjoy the perfect growing location. Alison says the area’s mixed geology, comprising sandstone and chalk plays a big part. “Coupled with our moderately warm climate, and proximity to the coast, it provides the necessary environment for grape cultivation. Our location is also a huge bonus. The proximity to the urban areas of London and Brighton makes us more accessible for visitors.”
As well as creating a sensational selection of wines, Alison and Nick are keen on welcoming visitors to come and see what they do on the estate.
Alongside establishing the vineyard, they’ve also built a winery and stunning new Tasting Room. “Building a significant wine tourism element to our business allows us to engage with our customers and share with them our beautiful little corner of the South Downs. Whether visitors are local residents or long-haul tourists, engaging with them and sharing our passion for wine and the local ecosystem brings us great satisfaction.” This kind of wine tourism also supports the growth of the English wine industry, and its overall reputation. A big part of their ethos is to be inclusive in their approach. They engage with customers and creating an experience which is enjoyable, informative and accessible.
In the last few years Albourne Estate has expanded its visitor experience. They encourage more people to visit and learn about their range and English wine in general.
“We run our tours and wine tastings. People can enjoy a relaxed but informative introduction to our wines and how they are produced. Plus gain a greater appreciation of our unique style of wines and the range of wines we produce.”
Their Tasting Room and shop are open April to September, offering informal walk-in wine tastings, guided wine tastings and wine sales. Visitors can even purchase wine by the glass or bottle to enjoy whilst overlooking the vines.
Guided wine tasting events run every Saturday, where you can explore the true diversity of Albourne wines with a passionate and knowledgeable team member. There are also two delicious Sussex sampler food boards on offer, so visitors can experience some of Sussex’s wonderful charcuterie and cheese. “We have always worked with local food producers serving local Sussex cheeses and charcuterie as part of our wine tastings and at our Tasting Room. This helps showcase the amazing food produced in Sussex. We introduced the Friday Night Supper Clubs last year as we wanted to further our partnerships with local food producers and offer visitors an opportunity to enjoy a wider range of delicious local food in the beautiful surroundings of our vineyard accompanied by a glass of our Sussex wine.”
This year, Albourne is welcoming six local chefs and street food vendors to serve up a range of fabulous dishes.
Some evenings will see entertainment from local musicians, Ellie Parkside and Sistie Moose, accompanying a South Downs sunset. “We can assure you that there is no better ‘restaurant’ view than that from our Tasting Room and balcony on a long, warm summer’s evening, and there is plenty of grass and space for the kids to run around if you decide to bring them along. Albourne estate customer relations manager Bonnie, our vineyard dog, is always there and happy to help entertain them!”
The estate is also available for exclusive-use corporate and private event hire. It provides a blank canvas space which clients can decorate as they wish (within limits) and bring in their own caterers (they can provide a recommended list as well). “We’ve hosted many events here, from sit-down four course dinners to more informal buffets, as well as corporate away-days with meetings followed by a fun guided tour and wine tasting. We work with our clients to tailor what we do to suit their requirements.”
Albourne Estate’s bottle labels feature some of the wildlife seen around the vineyard and winery, so you’d expect Alison and Nick to hold a big interest in sustainability and working sympathetically with the local countryside.
They’re striving to reduce the site’s carbon footprint. “When we built the Winery in 2011, we installed an array of 159 solar panels on the roof so we could run the Estate on renewable electricity. We have done this ever since, buying in power from Good Energy, a green energy supplier, when it’s dark or raining and our panels are not generating sufficient electricity.”
From reduced use of herbicides and mulching of all vine prunings, to improving soil structure with green compost and transitioning to printing labels on recycled paper, there’s lots of different ways wine producers can reduce their environmental impact. Alison tells me the awareness, understanding and tools have grown in recent years to help businesses calculate and reduce their carbon footprint. “This has become a real focus for us. Reducing our carbon emissions and hence helping tackle climate change has to be a top priority for all of us now. We are perhaps more sensitive to this than other industries as we see the impacts of climate change first hand in the vineyard. Erratic and extreme weather patterns which make growing grapes reliably and successfully in the UK more challenging are occurring at an ever-increasing rate.”
Now Albourne Estate are looking right through their supply chain to reduce carbon emissions.
“One area we have identified for improvement is to encourage visitors to us to use more ‘green’ forms of transport to reach us. Unfortunately, due to our rural location and the poor provision of rural public transport in the UK, this is quite a challenge! However, we are encouraging locals to walk or bike and visitors from Brighton to take advantage of E-Bikes which can turn a visit here into an adventure! And as an added incentive we offer free next-day home delivery of wine purchased on site so they don’t have to struggle back with wine bottles on their bikes!”
With as much care for the environment as the finished product, Albourne Estates are producing a stunning and distinctive range of English wines. With a careful mix of tradition and forward-thinking, they’re the epitome of the flourishing breed of Sussex vineyards. From selective oak barrel matured Chardonnay and Pinot Noir base wines to inert gas pressing of aromatic varieties and innovative yeasts for fermentation cultures, they continue to explore and push the boundaries of English wine making.
From cultivation to delivery, just how much work goes into producing wine? “A lot!” says Alison. “The most challenging aspect is the viticulture (grape growing) as our climate is unpredictable. We know farmers always moan about the weather…. I think vineyard owners are worse as our crop is so sensitive to weather patterns. If we have a kind year though, running a vineyard can seem like a dream and is an incredibly beautiful place to work.”
Albourne Estate is at Albourne Farm, Shaves Wood Ln, Hassocks BN6 9DX