The long Easter Bank Holiday here was not without its pleasures, a lovely picnic and some wonderful food, but it was mostly dedicated to decorating. It was rather nice, therefore, to be getting up bright and early last Tuesday to head off for breakfast in the new Chalk Restaurant at Wiston Estate. First up, breakfast with Dermot Sugrue (plus Damon Quinlan of Swig Wines, Agents for Wiston, and Ruth Spivey, of many hats including Star Wine Lists, Wine Car Boot, consultant, and not least an exciting book project which will bring a new angle to the writing about English Wine). We chatted about Dermot’s future plans for Sugrue South Downs (rather exciting, to be sure), but more of that later. Breakfast was followed by a tasting of the Wiston Estate range, and it is that which I shall begin with.
Wiston Estate is just north of Worthing in West Sussex, right on the busy southbound lanes of the A24. Literally a grass verge separates the outdoor, stainless steel, tanks from the traffic. Away from the road and the winery the South Downs rise reasonably steeply south of the village of Washington, where around 7 hectares of vines were planted from 2006. This is all part of the Goring family’s 2,400-hectare farm, but the sites chosen for vines, on Downland chalk, are quite special, with one vineyard in particular in a protected bowl with perfect exposure.
It was probably the exceptional vineyard sites that lured Dermot Sugrue to the new Wiston venture, from his short stint at Nyetimber, just before that estate was purchased by its current owner. Dermot has spent sixteen years at Wiston as Chief Winemaker, and during that time he has established himself as certainly one of the three best known winemakers in the UK, alongside developing his own brand, Sugrue South Downs.
The whole setup at Wiston has benefited from a lot of investment recently. This is not restricted to the winery, but equally into wine tourism. Although the new Chalk Restaurant is set in a very newly landscaped part of the site, some young vines planted but quite a bit of asphalt, from the breakfast I ate in a beautifully restored old Sussex barn, I’d say it’s well worth a visit. Next door is the tasting room and shop (where alongside the wines, and Wiston Gin, you can also buy the excellent coffee served in the restaurant, roasted by a not-for-profit company which works towards helping homeless people through various projects).
Our morning tasting comprised seven cuvées, three being non-vintage and four vintage. Pricing at Wiston has not yet reached the more speculative levels of some of the larger English producers, and you can still buy a very good classic NV and Rosé for under £30 here.
The tasting notes are brief because, let’s face it, TNs are dull, but I hope there’s enough to describe what the wine is like.
WISTON CUVÉE NV
Wiston’s house wine, a blend of all three “Champagne” varieties with judicious use of reserve wines from a perpetual reserve covering all vintages back to (I think) 2008, with just 2013 missing. It has that classic English apple freshness, linear, crisp and definitely chalky. It’s nice to try the entry level wine to the range and to taste something of the terroir from which it comes. £28.99.
WISTON VINTAGE 2017
This sees barrel ageing, but old barrels so there’s not really any direct sign of oak, but the ageing medium does give this cuvée a nice roundness. You can definitely see that. There’s also a textural note. The grape mix in the blend is 45% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay and 22% Meunier, but you definitely get a fresh bready/brioche note which raises it above the non-vintage. It’s a wine with a nice savoury touch, and with further ageing potential. £38.99.
BLANC DE BLANCS NV
This cuvée is absolutely recognisable as a BdeB. Pale, deep, Chardonnay fruit on the nose. The base was the excellent 2018 vintage. The palate is really interesting with herbs and some exotic fruit (mango, peach) and candied citrus peel. This is not the best wine in the range, but it is almost certainly the best value. It over delivers on its £36 retail price.
BLANC DE NOIR 2014
The vintage BdeN has an astonishing bouquet of cherries, in fact cherry bakewell. I’ve never quite smelt anything like it on a sparkling wine and I love it. It has some blackcurrant in there too, and that comes in on the palate as well as the bouquet. It has a massive personality, but don’t think that means it lacks elegance. Nor structure. But it has a nice amount of age on it as well. I brought some BdeB home with me but I truly regret not grabbing a bottle of this as well (£56).
The vintage Rosé is a very pale salmon pink colour. The blend is 68% PN, 22% Meunier and 10% Ch. The fruit is very fine, carried along on an elegant line and length. It’s in the red fruits – pomegranate and cranberry spectrum. Added complexity comes with a touch of spice on the finish. It sets off the sweetly ripe fruit nicely. The gorgeous acids finish it off, a balanced, very impressive pink sparkling wine. £38.99. No photo (oops!).
The non-vintage Rosé is a much deeper pink. This wine is a total contrast to the 2014 vintage wine. Although overall it’s a much simpler wine, it’s very much more suited to pleasing a crowd outdoors in summer, assisted of course by the lower retail price. The fresh fruit explodes on the palate. Horses for courses. Whilst the vintage Rosé will appeal to the serious wine lover, who will pay the premium for what is much more than a very good example of the genre, this version provides great value for money. £28.99.
WISTON BLANC DE BLANCS 2015
This is the just-released vintage Chardonnay cuvée. It has an elegant, fragrant, bouquet with complex spices and an intense perfume. One of the ladies in the tasting room suggested it has a bouquet similar to “cologne”. It really does, but in a subtle way, not the overpowering smell you might be more au-fait with when thinking of that scent. Dosage at Wiston is generally in the range of 6-8g/l, and this wine has 8g dosage, but it does taste drier to me right now. It is a wine in its youth, with a way to go before it reaches full maturity. Perhaps that’s more just me and the way I like to drink my traditional method sparklers, and I can’t help but think that most will be drunk soon after purchase. Fair enough, but a shame. It’s very good right now, don’t get me wrong, but it will get even better. £45.99.
Some cuvées will be available in magnums from time to time.
As I said in my intro, Dermot Sugrue has been at the helm at Wiston for round about sixteen years. During that time, he’s developed a reputation few can match in English winemaking. There are brands which are perhaps better known by the general public, but Wiston undoubtedly makes exceptional wines. Pricing here, whilst having seen rises which reflect inflation, is not as speculative as many, especially true of the top cuvées. I’ve included a few prices in the notes above, for reference, from local Sussex independent retailer Butlers Wine Cellar, which always carries an exceptional range of English Sparkling Wines.
It seems the time has come for Dermot to move on. His own label, Sugrue South Downs, goes from strength to strength (awarded Boutique Producer at the WineGB Awards in both 2020 and 2021). Dermot currently makes four cuvées. The range starts with “The Trouble with Dreams”, the flagship as Dermot calls it (current vintage release 2017), a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (60:40) with 7,700 bottles from the vintage. This was my first introduction to Sugrue, and I still have a single bottle of the 2010 vintage awaiting an appropriate occasion to open it, perhaps alongside some of Peter Hall’s 2010s from Breaky Bottom.
“Cuvée Boz” is a Blanc de Blancs named after Dermot’s brother. The Chardonnay comes from Jenkyn Place Vineyard in Hampshire and the wine won a Trophy at the 2021 WineGB Awards. Next is “#ZODO”, a zero-dosage multi-vintage blend with a 2014 base and reserves from 2009 and 2011. Retail is £59-£62 for both.
Top of the range is the oak-aged “Cuvée Brendan O’Regan”, named in honour of Dermot’s uncle. It has the same proportion of Chardonnay versus Pinot Noir as “Dreams”, but the selection creates a wine “beautiful to enjoy now”, yet one to cellar for a decade if you are going to let go of £95 (though in a gift box with free delivery if purchased from the web site, www.sugruesouthdowns.com ).
I haven’t tasted these current releases, but there are some pretty reliable notes on the web site from Neal Martin.
Dermot is currently securing premises and equipment (tanks and a press, he’s going for a Vaslin Bucher membrane press), which ideally will be close to his Mount Harry vineyard between Lewes and Plumpton. To this he can add the grapes from his original leased site near Storrington, planted in 2006 for a monastic order, from where his Trouble with Dreams has been created.
Finally, there’s a new site of about of five hectares just inside Hampshire, mostly Chardonnay on chalk but also planted with a little block of thirty-year-old Bacchus, which Dermot is quite excited about trying to make something with. The initial production for Sugrue-Pierre, as it was known, was around 5,000 bottles, which rapidly increased to 11,000 bottles. But Dermot feels, justifiably, that he can increase this further without losing the boutique feel to these hand-crafted wines.
Dermot is a man on a mission when it comes to terroir, and creating wines which aim to illustrate their place. He realised very early on that the Storrington vineyard was pretty special, as I can attest from tasting the early vintages of “Dreams”. Mount Harry likewise. He should now have the opportunity to show that site’s character, perhaps through a site-specific Blanc de Blancs.
The wines Dermot has thus far made under his own label have been astonishing, very much in the high-quality artisan frame. That said, the wines have up until now been made in the shared space of Wiston, and with a good dollop of his grapes being sold to Wiston as well. With a 100% focus on Sugrue South Downs (plus a little consultancy work) the future is exciting. I think most people would agree that it is probably the most exciting development in English Wine this year.
Which seems a good note to end on. I had a thoroughly satisfying morning at Wiston Estate, the breakfast in the new Chalk Restaurant being as enjoyable as the tasting (not least for the company). Wiston has a new winemaker in place to take over after the 2022 vintage and carry on Dermot’s good work, and he will be around and on hand, at arms-length, to offer support. But he now has a brave new adventure to pursue. We can only wish him well, but I’m sure that a winemaker of his calibre will advance English wine even further when he is fully focused on his own label.