From grape to glass, it’s a hard slog…

First published Friday 29 May 2015 in The Argus

Running a vineyard is often associated with the glitz and glamour of the south of France or Californian wine country.

But one Sussex winemaker has recalled how she lived in “hand-me-down clothes” as her family planted their first grape crop in the heart of the South Downs and worked hard to make it the success it is today.

Samantha Linter grew up on the Bolney Wine Estate near Haywards Heath and remembers the early struggles as the family tried to get their “dream” of having an English vineyard off the ground.
The vineyard was the brainchild of her father Rodney Pratt, who got a taste for the industry while working at a German vineyard while a university student. He used his day-job as a commodity trader to support the estate and the family.

As everyone in the industry went through the wine-growing pains, Mrs Linter, now the managing director, says she has seen the business grow from struggling to make one bottle of wine to now making millions of bottles a year as an award-winning vineyard.

Mrs Linter said there was a “pioneer spirit” as the Bolney Wine Estate began to expand – along with other Sussex estates such as Ridgeview and Nyetimber before the industry really began to take off about 15 years ago. The industry had to adapt as the early wine pioneers went through a trial and error process to get the right varieties to take root in the hills of Sussex.

Mrs Linter said: “We did everything wrong as everyone did back in the 1970s and we planted lots of experimental plots in the eighties and it went from there – that is how I got started, I grew up with it from the age of four.” She added: “All the early vineyards made all the mistakes under the sun.

“There was no real history and tradition to fall back on, we were discovering it all for ourselves, so things went wrong all the time and it was hard graft.”

The Sussex winemakers’ year starts as buds begin to appear in their vineyards in March and before the flowers start to appear in May.

In late spring, about 40 to 80 days later, the flowers are fertilized and grapes begin to grow on the vine with the bunches beginning to appear.

The grapes begin to ripen and change colour in August before an army of pickers take to the fields in September to harvest the fruit and bring it to the winery and the process can truly begin.

Mrs Linter said success is all about picking the right varieties to grow in your fields.

She said: “Because we have a damp climate in England you need to treat the vines in a certain way otherwise you get lots of mildew diseases.

“It was learning that we planted the wrong varieties first because they were the most disease prone and it was about learning what we needed to plant.

“In the 1980s we did this experimental planting of eight different varieties to see which grew and we learned Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and all of that family grew well on our site.”

Since the eighties the Sussex wine industry has boomed and there are now 72 vineyards across East and West Sussex.

They are estimated by Chris Foss, chairman of the South East Vineyards Association, to be worth £50 million.

Sussex winemakers are now also bidding for European Union protected status which would mean if it says Sussex on the bottle you knew it went from grape to galleon in the county – similar to Champagne having to be from the Champagne region of france.

A combination of the county’s warm climate, rich chalky subsoil and the climate protection of the South Downs have all contributed to the industry’s growth.

Mrs Linter joked when she was a child helping on the vineyard that she thought of it as “slave labour”.

“When you are trying to build something it is hard to get it going,” she said.

“All the money my parents had went into the vineyard.

“It was very rare we had a family holiday as every penny was ploughed back into the estate.

“There was not a lot of money going around – we used to live in hand-me-down clothes.

“People think it is all very glamorous but it is really hard to make it work.

“We all had to help at weekends. My dad worked full-time and my mum worked on the vineyard during the week so at the weekends we did all the jobs she could not do by herself.

“I learnt how to cook from an early age and discovered if I cooked the family meals I could be excused from being outside – so I spent my weekends indoors making cakes and roast dinners, anything to avoid being out in the mud.”

Top five Sussex wines by expert Henry Butler of Butler’s Wine Cellar in Brighton

Sugrue Pierre
What a man, what a wine! This is a project headed by the irrepressible Dermot Sugrue, winemaker at Wiston Estate.
Dermot consults and produces wines for many vineyards in England. His day job is to produce the iconic Wiston wines – this position has allowed him the opportunity to create his side project Sugrue Pierre.
For a young wine, this really has some swagger. It’s a big wine, but has fine balancing acidity which keeps it lively and fresh.

Plumpton Rose
The Plumpton winery is an excellent project to support; it has a real
feel-good factor.
You wouldn’t think wine could be made in the foothills of the downs, but it can. It is made by students at Plumpton Agricultural College. Part of the winemaking course requires students to tend vines and see them through to harvest. They then set about making a range of wines.
The Plumpton Rose is always a blend. It has a very attractive pale colour and is fruity, fresh, and dry.

Gusbourne Pinot Noir
Making any red wine in this climate is tricky. Gusbourne have made a cracking effort.
Red grape varieties need plenty of sun to ripen correctly, not just warmth. So only buy reds when we had a memorable summer.
Gusbourne is a quality sparkling wine producer in Kent. They make very small quantities of an elegant red wine, when the vintage allows.
We recently had this matched perfectly with a very fatty trout, delicious.

Court Garden Blanc de Blanc
What is not to like about the Howard and Hugo, the dynamic father and son duo?
Howard the sheep specialist, he still dabbles, established the Court Vineyard for the long term.
Investment and progress has been measurable, and they have won many international awards.
The Blanc de Blancs represents the more delicate end of their range, a delicious, fresh aperitif. Or maybe grab some decent oysters and enjoy them with this elegant Sussex sparkling wine.

Ridgeview Cavendish
This is almost the benchmark English sparkling wine, in my opinion. It is made by the very special Roberts family in Ditchling.
It is a blend of three grape varieties, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Other wines in their range may have won more awards, but I think this is the friendliest wine in their portfolio.
It sits nicely in the middle – rich, biscuit and packed with ripe fruit.
The vineyard has recently had renovations and the new tasting room certainly justifies a visit.