Emptying carefully filled bottles at Ridgeview
On seeing that Ridgeview Wine Estate in Sussex were doing a monthly tour, Susan and I thought we had better get ourselves down there. We had booked a while in advance and when the day came it was the morning after heavy winds and storms; we even wondered whether it would be cancelled. Our journey along normally busy roads had long stretches with not another car in sight, but astonishingly it was clear and bright when we arrived at the vineyard near Ditchling just before the appointed hour of 11am on a Saturday morning.
A good-sized group of around 30 were welcomed by our guide, Mardi Roberts, wife of the winemaker, daughter-in-law of the family and Sales & Marketing Manager. We started outside by the vines and Mardi explained the business in a way that was interesting to all levels of knowledge. She was really keen to stress the family aspect of the business.
Although they no longer do the pruning themselves, it wasn’t long ago that they did. One responsibility that does fall on the family is the lighting of the bougies when frost threatens. There are 2000+ of these candles in large tins (think Dulux paint tin if you haven’t seen one) which need to be lighted by hand to create warmth and smoke to blanket the vines and protect them. And then guess what happens a few hours after they have all been lit? Yes, they all need to be put out again! Because it is a family and they don’t want the whole staff wiped out the next day, it usually just falls on one or two people to do this while the rest get a good night’s sleep – because it might be their turn tomorrow. Some winters they get called out several times by temperature sensors to do this, others not at all. Mardi also explained that, while not organic, they try to minimise intervention and the use of pesticides. Their vineyard managers also provide advice and help to all of the other growers around Sussex and beyond producing grapes for Ridgeview wines, in order to maintain quality.
Next should have been one of my favourite parts of a tour – a walk around the vines. Of course it was a bit muddy after recent weather, but we’d put on our wellies. Sadly, others had not and a good half of the people had on regular outdoor shoes, so we didn’t go further than a few metres from the building. For heaven’s sake, guys, wear your wellies to a vineyard!
We headed back indoors for a good tour of the winery. Having seen a few by now, the main thing that was different for me was the sheer scale of the operation. Ridgeview have fields outside of the immediate area and make wine for a good number of contract clients, too. The cellar was incredible – each wine has a different coloured cap and they’ve been struggling to find enough colours to differentiate around 20 wines! Gyropallets have largely replaced riddling and the substantial bottling line is due to be replaced by an even larger one.
Then upstairs for a tasting. It was certainly very generous, but having one glass and moving through the wines made it difficult to compare, especially for people who might be trying to understand the difference between blanc de blancs and blanc de noirs, for example – I do love the way they put a simple note of the grapes and percentages on back labels, though. It was a fantastic opportunity to try almost all of their wines and our display of empties was very impressive! Having only tasted the wine Ridgeview produce in conjunction with M&S before (Marksman), I was keen to try some more. I’d been told to look out for the Knightsbridge 2010 (50% Pinot Meunier, 50% Pinot Noir), which was excellent – it’s made exclusively from grapes in the vineyard we had just seen. The Victoria rosé (63% Pinot Meunier, 37% Pinot Noir) was a standout for me, too.
It was a very big group for Mardi to manage on her own, both logistically and in terms of being heard. I can totally see that they don’t want to turn into a tourist attraction, but it was a bit like a school room. News that they are planning a big upgrade of their visitor area with a terrace overlooking the vines is certainly welcome. I would suggest that they look at the facilities at José Ferrer in Mallorca as that’s the best model I have seen of the type of ambience I think they want to create.
So did I get value for my £15? It was definitely interesting and I’m all for the more up-market producers of English sparkling wines opening their doors and sharing the knowledge and their wines. For me, the group was too big and it felt more like an academic exercise than the joy that is a visit to, say, Sharpham or the understated elegance of the terrace and tasting room at Hush Heath.
My advice to potential visitors would be to try some different Ridgeview wines – their cellar door is open most of the time and they are well-stocked nationwide and online – to quote Jancis Robinson “You can learn a great deal by studying only one wine but you can learn at least five times as much by tasting two and comparing them.” As far as visitor experience is concerned, I would recommend waiting until the new facilities are open before travelling a long way to go on a tour.
Update May 2015: I had a chat with Mardi recently, who tells me that that the new tasting room at Ridgeview should be open in September. We look forward to seeing it!
FEATURED / PINNED POST
Use our map to find your local vineyards, a great place to meet that friend you've been meaning to catch up with, somewhere to hold your next business meeting...