Bolney Wine Estate interview with Sam Linter, MD and winemaker:
Located about ten miles north of Brighton somewhere in the middle of Sussex in a village of the same name, Bolney Wine Estate boasts a broad range of sparkling and still wines with an established heritage of producing wine in southern England since 1972.
Nearly half a century of discovery:
We really love our still wines and we really hero our Pinot Noir red and we hero our Pinot Gris white as well as obviously the Bacchus, which is quite exciting in the English wine scene at the moment.
Then we also do sparkling. We do something call Bolney Bubbly, which is our entry-level sparkling. It is made from, what we call our heritage varieties, varieties that we have grown from the ’70s, and they are the more floral Germanic varieties but they are lovely. They are very floral and aromatic so it makes a really easy drinking sparkling wine.
Then we do the same as the others, we do the really serious blanc de blancs and cuvée rosé from Pinot Noir. We do the full range here.
Pre-COVID-19: “You can sit on the balcony and as the hill goes up you actually feel like you are sitting in the vines. It is absolutely stunning!”
There is no one around at the moment, it is quite depressing. We have an onsite cafe/restaurant, we have a shop, we do tours, we have events and parties in our function room people can hire out.
We have a beautiful cafe with a balcony that looks out over our 18-acre vineyards. You can sit on the balcony and as the hill goes up you actually feel like you are sitting in the vines. It is absolutely stunning!
Normally at this time of year, it would be absolutely heaving on a day like today. We love people coming to the site and we love to educate people about how vines grow and how wine is made as well. Obviously we are showcasing the wines that we make here.
As the crisis hit, Bolney had suppliers with food products and customers who needed it. With rapid reorganisation, the business has pivoted to meet the challenge.
More English Wine:
We became quite conscious early on that our suppliers for our cafe had food to sell but couldn’t because they had no route to market but our customers were struggling to get fresh vegetables. We all know what it was like in the first week or two at the supermarkets!
So we thought it would be really good to help both sides. We started up three different essential boxes where we just had staple vegetables, bread, milk, eggs, cheese, depending on which box you bought. This went down really well.
Then we thought that we have chefs in the kitchen, can we keep some of them on-site rather than having to furlough? So we actually got them to make ready-meals, like beef Bourguignon, or lasagne, for example, that we could freeze or deliver out fresh. This has also gone down really well so we have kept a small team on site.
“It is more like Christmas than this time of year… we are about delivering orders every day”
Everybody’s job has changed as you can imagine. They have now become delivery people. We are out delivering orders every day and have extended to other things as well because we have other produce.
We had planned to launch a farm shop in June this year but obviously that has been put completely on hold. All the suppliers we had sourced for that we are helping them and getting all those things in as well.
We are just doing free delivery through the courier network but within 20 miles of the vineyard, we are delivering ourselves.
We are of course delivering wine as other producers are as well. Like other vineyards, we have seen a huge upsurge in internet orders. It is more like Christmas time than this time of year. So it is keeping Pete in our warehouse very busy!
The Classic Cuvée - how is it made?
Nothing we do at Bolney is normal. That sounds a bit weird but because we started back in the ’70s and my parents were really pioneers, no one really knew what to make in those days, so as a business we became very experimental.
We hadn’t done the Classic Cuvée. We had started off doing a sparkling rosé because we were very much loving Pinot Noir and Pinot Noir being very important to us, meant everything we were making going forward was out of Pinot Noir.
We use Pinot Noir Burgundy clones for red wine and Champagne clones for sparkling wine but over time we realised there is a huge market for classic cuvée and we weren’t making one. We thought, ‘this is really silly, we need to make one now!’
So that is what we did. We are focussing more on a predominantly Pinot Noir based Classic Cuvée but we originally started with a more Chardonnay-based Classic Cuvée but this is quite new for us with the 60% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier and 15% Chardonnay. It’s a reversal.
What drove the flip from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir predominance?
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We found that we were putting more of our Chardonnay into the blanc de blancs and at the same time, one of the things that we always do here as a winemaking team is to keep looking at the blends that we do and trialling different things and seeing what goes best in what wine.
Vintage variation is a Bolney signature!
So, a lot of that was about trial and error. It was about experimentation and we do that with every wine that we make. The way we work at Bolney is to make the best wine we can with that vintage and with the varieties we have. We don’t hold a lot of juice back in tank from previous vintages to make it the same every time. We work, really, to enhance the vintage and so every year our wines will just be a little bit different. Basically, we think it is just a bit more interesting.
We don’t want to be that wine that tastes exactly the same whenever you buy it. We do love to talk about the vintages and highlight the vintages, so every wine we have, apart from the single varietals often has a slightly different blend every year because we think that makes a better wine.
As a winery with nearly 50 years of winemaking, what would you say is driving the current English wine scene?
I think in the early years, in the ’70s and ’80s, people learned how to grow vines and grapes in the UK successfully. In the mid-’80s, my parents planted 10 different varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay being amongst them, to see what really grew the best on our soil in Sussex.
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I think it was that kind of progress and what people did that really made the difference. When people knew that we could grow those varieties in this country because people said ‘you can’t grow those here, it would be impossible because they are very difficult to grow’, but we did!
So people picked up on that and then they thought, ‘You can make a sparkling in England!’ And that is what the Nyetimber’s, the Ridgeview’s, and people like that started to do.
We didn’t pick up on it until 2000. We were a bit behind the curve. We were still thinking about still wine here at Bolney.
And that’s what happened and it started being very successful. The traditional Champagne varieties grow very very well here in England, especially in this part off the country. We have the sandstone soils here at Bolney and the chalk soils, as you know, and the right climate. It is a combination of all these things that really made the sparkling wine work and changed the whole scene.
We just needed to make some really good wines and once some vineyards started doing that, everything changed.
Review: Bolney Estate Classic Cuvée NV
Other wines are available in supermarkets such as Waitrose.