At Plumpton College, tucked into a fold of the South Downs just below Ditchling, you can study vine-growing and wine-making in their brand spanking new Wine Study Centre. On your way to the vineyard though, you might find yourself distracted by Tony the Hawk, or Elgar and Egor the owls, or even Iggy the Iguana (that name I may have made up, but it's the obvious choice) who are all residents in the adjoining Animal Care Centre.
As the English and Welsh wine industry grows ever larger, with around 400 vineyards currently in production, there is a burgeoning demand for a homegrown solution to training tomorrow's wine-makers and Plumpton College is meeting the need.
Wine production has been taught here since 1988, when they started out with just a few rows of vines and some demi-johns to ferment the resulting juice in. Things have moved on in the intervening years and now around 150 students are here at any one time, learning hands-on how to train, prune, spray and tend the vines; then how to ferment, rack, pump over, fine, filter age and bottle the final wines. Not to mention learning how to drive and manoeuvre a tractor, a vital skill for anyone looking to be of any help in a vineyard.
Unlike the product of most diploma courses – wads of paper, files and bumf which gather dust over the years before finally succumbing to the recycling bin – Plumpton students' labours have a very tangible, nay drinkable, result. Each year Plumton produces 15,000 bottles of wine which are all available to buy. I tried four of them on my visit and was impressed by the fact that all were not just drinkable, but of a commercial standard. Their biggest customer is a seafood restaurant in nearby Brighton.
And you can try them too, to judge for yourselves whether the future of English winemaking is in good hands. Waitrose stocks two of Plumpton's wines: their sparkling white and rosé.
Plumpton Estate, “The Dean” Blush Brut NV - £18.99 at waitrosewine.com
As with most pink fizz, this is made by adding a small amount of red wine, made from Plumpton's own pinot noir grapes, to their regular white sparkling wine. Although non vintage, this is based on the 2008 vintage. The colour is a pale smoked salmon rather than pink and it has an invitingly creamy nose. It might be maturing faster than it ought to, but it's a great pleasure to drink now with plenty of sherbetty acidity and an elegant finish that leaves you wanting another sip.
As well as teaching the next generation of UK (and Indian and Scandinavian) winemakers, Plumpton is also setting up a Research Centre, which will help to support the UK winemaking industry by undertaking scientific research into areas that mean little or nothing to wine drinkers, but are of intense interest to winemakers. I learned, for example, that English chardonnay must (juice) destined for sparkling wine has much greater “foamability” than its French counterpart in Champagne. Who knew?
Plumpton College is generally not open for casual visitors, but you can find out about their various courses for those interested in learning about the practical and business side of wine on their website: www.plumpton.ac.uk. But be careful, you could find yourself getting distracted by the wildlife...
A few miles up the A23 from the college is Bolney Estate, an English wine success story, whose winemaker, Sam Linton, is herself a graduate of Plumpton. Bolney, then known as Bookers Vineyard, began making wine back in 1972, from just 3 acres of vines. Now they have over 39 acres under vine and plan to produce over 200,000 bottles of wine in 2012.
Sam, daughter of the owner and founder Rodney, has a gift for making delicious red wines – always tricky in our really too-cool climate – and consistently makes one of the country's best pinot noirs. Her sparkling wines are pretty good too.
Here are my favourites from the range:
100% pinot noir traditional (ie same as Champagne) method sparkling wine. There's a lovely leafy and floral lift to the strawberries and cream nose and the palate has plenty of juicy red fruit.
You might have come across rather thick, treacly sparkling red shiraz before. This is a red wine and it is sparkling, but the Bolney wine is altogether a different beast from those Australian heavyweights, made from Dornfelder grapes. It manages to combine light, juicy frivolity with more serious wine characters and has a delicious hint of cocoa bitterness on the finish which makes it food friendly – great for barbecues, says Sam.
Waitrose also stock Bolney's Dark Harvest red blend, which is a very accomplished English wine. It's a soft and spicy, slightly earthy mouthful of blackberryish fruit. £8.99 at waitrosewine.com
To sample and buy the full range of Bolney Estate wines, you'll need to take a trip down the A23 to the vineyard, where they run tours and tastings every day except Sunday. Find out more via their website on: www.bolneywineestate.co.uk.