A Terrific Visit Close to Home

Stopham Vineyard - this lovely tree graces their label.

Stopham Vineyard – this lovely tree graces their label.

A Terrific Visit

What a day I had last week. In the evening I led a wine tasting of some of the really interesting, surprising and downright fabulous wines that I had discovered on my travels over the last 12 months – or so.

2012 was an incredible year for travel for me and 2013 is looking pretty good too, so I am constantly having wonderful new experiences – sometimes visiting regions or countries that are completely new to me or seeing new producers and winemakers in areas that I have visited in the past.

Such trips push my knowledge and understanding forward and keep my passion for wine – and telling you all about it – alive.

So, it might astonish you to know that my most recent trip was to – Sussex.

One of the wines that I wanted to show was from Stopham Vineyards near Pulborough in West Sussex and as the wine is hard to find in the shops I dropped in to see Simon at the winery. It is a lovely part of the world on a nice day and the sun made the whole trip feel like being somewhere exotic and exciting. And of course I was somewhere exciting.

I have mentioned Stopham Vineyards before when I tasted the 2010 vintage of the Pinot Gris and the Pinot Blanc, but this time I had the 2011 Pinot Gris – I have yet to taste the 2011 Pinot Blanc. If you want to try it, hunt the wine down quickly as it has almost sold out everywhere and there they made nothing at all in 2012, so you will have to cross your fingers and wait for the 2013 – if there is any.

The vineyard sloping down towards the South Downs.

The vineyard sloping down towards the South Downs.

I must say if you are feeling stressed and oppressed it is a good idea to visit an English vineyard. It must be so hard growing grapes in England, even if you have a lovely south facing, sandy and well drained slope as they do at Stopham. Nature does not mean grapes to ripen easily here – it is a matter of coaxing and hoping and lots of hard work in the vineyard and even then you can lose an entire crop. I am pretty sure that I would be under serious medication by now if that had happened to me, but Simon Woodhead – the chief winemaker and viticulturist – is one of the most upbeat jolly people I have ever met. He is also one of the most interesting and dedicated winemakers I have ever had the pleasure to listen to. Despite everything our climate has thrown at him, he told me that there is nothing else he would rather do.

Simon Woodhead - a great winemaker and seemingly happy man.

Simon Woodhead – a great winemaker and seemingly happy man.

Strolling around his vineyard with him was a delight. Seeing it through his eyes was really a wonderful experience. To see where all the hard work goes on and to hear how he does it was a privilege. Because I know that his wines are amongst the very best produced in this country. I haven’t tasted them all so will not put it any higher than that, but I have not tasted a still white wine from England that was better.

Simon in front of one of his large tanks with one of his carbon dioxide sensors that allows him to ferment his delicate white wines at 6-8˚C - he did explain it to me, but I don't seem to have really understood it!

Simon in front of one of his large tanks with one of his carbon dioxide sensors that allows him to ferment his delicate white wines at 6-8˚C – he did explain it to me, but I don’t seem to have really understood it!

I showed the Pinot Gris at Hextable Wine Society that evening and was thrilled that pretty much the whole room agreed with me that this was a terrific wine, delicious, aromatic, dry and a joy to drink:

StrophamPG2011 Stopham Pinot Gris
This is a delicate Pinot Gris, not like Alsace – and not like Pinot Grigio either, there is nothing bland about this. The aromatics are wonderfully fragrant and exotic with a touch of herbs about it too – there is a little Bacchus in this wine as well as Pinot Gris. The palate is light and fresh with a lively acidity that dances across your tongue leaving mandarin and apricot flavours – indeed the whole thing is bursting with flavour – 91/100 points.

I am utterly thrilled by this wine as it shows that we can make wines as good as anyone. What’s more they do not have to be hybrid grapes and we can bring our own unique take to a grape variety that is widely grown elsewhere. Do try and find a bottle if you can, it is well worth the effort.

Another way to try it of course is to have a tour of the vineyard. You will get to meet Simon, listen to how he selected the site, how they planted the vineyard and how they make their wines. He kept some bottles back so that you will be able to try his wines without hunting down a stockist or waiting for the 2013 crop – go on and tell him I sent you.

England – brave new world of wine

Stopham Estate, West Sussex

Recently I have been getting keen on English wine and wrote about a couple of super examples here.

The sheer quality got me thinking and led to me being lucky enough to try some more. I was thrilled to discover Stopham Estate who are based in Pulborough in Sussex. It is a new operation created by Simon Woodhead between Pulborough and Petworth in West Sussex – a part of the country I thought I knew well.

Simon Woodhead

It seems that the estate enjoys a sheltered and warm micrioclimate and this allows Simon to do something pretty unusual in England – he grows classic grape varities rather than the normal hardy crosses like Ortega and Huxelrebe, although he does have a little Bacchus. Now those can produce lovely wines in the right hands, but they hardly trip off the tongue and have very little commercial following, so specialising in Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc might well be a stroke of genius. It is early days, they only have 21,000 vines and the 8,400 Pinot Gris vines represents the bulk of their production, but only produced 4,000 bottles in 2010.

2010 Stopham Pinot Blanc
A very pale, almost silvery looking colour with a fresh, lively nose offering touches of pear with floral notes, Asian pear and apricot – leaning towards delicate peach notes at the lighter less creamy end of the Pinot Blanc spectrum.
It is lively and fresh on the palate with a little zing of acidity. Softer fruit on the mid palate – apricot and peach – then some green fruit characters on the back palate too.
A light bodied and dry wine with lots of flavour and a decent length finish. Lime and apricot acidity really refresh and balance the finish.

This is a terrific, dry – it has 4.4 g/Litre of residual sugar which balances the high natural acidity very well, and vice versa – light and delicate wine that should win many friends for the stylish pleasure it delivers. At 10.5% vol it is perfect with a light salad or DIY tapas lunch – 89/100 points.

2010 Stopham Pinot Gris
The merest hint of coppery peach skin gives a depth to the colour.
The nose is fresh and hints towards the exotic with peach and pear and a touch of sweet spice, all balanced by a citric freshness. The aroma is less heady and more delicate than examples from Alsace, but this is no bland Pinot Grigio.
The palate is slightly off dry – it has 8.8 g/Litre of residual sugar – which gives a succulence and mouth-feel, but there is a lovely cut of balancing mandarin acidity keeping it fresh, clean and lively. Apricot and spiced pear fruit dominate the flavours on the mid palate and finish.

It is very rare for me to rave about a Pinot Gris, but this is a very exciting wine with lovely aromas, balanced weight and acidity and is delicious to drink, it is 11% vol and the extra alcohol shows in the weight. I liked it very much precisely because it is a delicate take on Pinot Gris without being bland in any way. It goes splendidly with a wide range of food including spicy Asian dishes – 90/100 points. I have marked it high because it is so exciting and delivers a great deal of pleasure.

These were both lovely wines with a freshness and a purity that is not altogether unfamiliar to New Zealand wine enthusiasts, but you can taste the cooler and shorter growing season here which gives a lightness that put me more in mind of really good Vinho Verde or Galician wines. It might be the microclimate or the weather, knowhow, or the choice of grape varieties, but these are much fleshier wines than the more normal stony and mineral English offerings

If you enjoy light, fresh and thrillingly lively white wines with good fruit, then these really can hold their own against all comers and rather wonderfully at around £10 a bottle are no more expensive than their New Zealand, Spanish or Portuguese competitors.

I only have one quibble with the good people at Stopham Estate, their labels state that the wines are ‘made with precision and passion in Sussex’. Tasting them I would swear that precision and passion should be the other way round. In fact everything smacks of passion and precision, not just the taste of the wines, but the look of them too. The labels have no hint of the hobbyist Olde English about them and even more excitingly they have sealed the bottles with the top end Stelvin LUX+ screwcap which looks great and seals in all that delicate freshness.

Whichever way it is, the wines are excellent and Simon reckons the 2011s are even better – I cannot wait to try them

On this showing I am getting very excited about the future of English wine – let’s all drink a lot more of it!