Some English wine producers are visibly among the big boys and girls of the industry: it may be the vineyards stretching out in every direction from the winery, or the large, shiny visitor centre that marks them out.
Bluebell Vineyards is not like that, but it is in the top 20 in terms of its total vineyard area. Even those of you who know a fair bit about English wine may be surprised at this; if I explain that their English Sparkling Wines are branded Hindleap rather than Bluebell, it may be less startling. An early (and sensible) marketing decision was made that Bluebell Wines sounded a little, well, twee and sickly.
The Hindleap name comes from the many deer that roam the area – a small fortune was spent on fencing tall and strong enough to keep them from the young vines! The name feels appropriate too in terms of the style of the wines: they have a natural grace and poise but also energy and vigour to them.
As you arrive at the estate, nestled deep in the beautiful Sussex countryside, the bucolic atmosphere is strong – the farmhouse near to the entrance is close by the repurposed farm buildings that now house the small but perfectly formed visitor tasting area and the winery itself. Vines dive down the hill from the farmhouse, but most of the 70 acres of vineyard are out of immediate sight, hidden behind folds of the gently undulating downs or copses of trees. Although I didn’t have time for it on my visit, I can imagine that the vineyard and woodland trails would be quite magical, particularly in spring time when carpeted with the bluebells that give the vineyard its name.
Planting of vines on this former pig farm commenced in 2005; the varieties originally chosen were the classic Champagne grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, together with the high-quality hybrid grape variety Seyval Blanc. Although historically Bluebell have only been a sparkling wine producer, a range of still wines, under the separate brand name of Ashdown (the local forest) has just been released in mid-2019: the whites are based on Ortega, Bacchus (of course!) and Chasselas, the grape that is famously popular in Switzerland.
Back in April 2019, I was taken through the English Sparkling Wine range by Senior Marketing Manager Marielle, who has a keen nose and palate, trained at a young age by her father through smelling and tasting different varieties of tomatoes that he grew commercially.
Interestingly, it is their non-Champagne-grape-based wine that has spent longest on the lees, clocking up at least 41 months – the Hindleap Seyval Blanc 2014 was first disgorged in November 2018, and that investment of time has paid off, with glorious brioche, biscotti and honeyed toast notes weaving through the pink grapefruit and red & green apple flavours to a clean, long finish.
Their Hindleap Classic Cuvée 2014 is based on the three main Champagne grapes of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, with at least 18 months on lees, enough to impart a waft of freshly baked bread alongside the crisp Granny Smith, lemon and pear aromas, matched in the mouth and joined by a zippy but integrated acidity that delivers a truly refreshing but complex English Sparkling Wine -a deserved winner of a Gold Medal in the 2019 Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships.
The 2013 Barrel Aged Blanc de Blancs is actually fairly restrained in terms of the barrel ageing, with 6 months in 4-5 year old French oak; it results in oak and fruit as perfect partners: excellent body and structure but a deep vein of freshness and linearity from the Chardonnay. This is followed by the 2014 vintage, which displays the riper fruit characteristics to be expected of the better growing season weather – the oak notes now the backing singer to the fruit front man.
The Rosé from the 2014 vintage crams expressions of almost every red fruit you can imagine into its flavour: redcurrants, raspberry, cranberry and strawberries are all there, plus vanilla shortbread and a smooth lemony acidity to carry it along. The 2015 is made from the same mould, slightly rounder and creamier, but still crisp and bursting with red fruit flavours.
All in all, a range that consistently hits the high notes, with well-balanced wines that retain that quintessential English Sparkling Wine freshness but combined with a fullness of fruit flavour and added dimensions from extended lees ageing that delivers complex but very drinkable wines.
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