Bluebell Vineyard interview
Hi Collette, welcome to the English wine Collection’s Vineyard focus! Could you tell me about the team at Bluebell, who’s in the team and what do they do?
Bluebell Vineyard was established by the Tay family in 2005 and they manage and run the Estate today. Over the last few years the team has expanded somewhat and we now have Kevin Sutherland, our head winemaker and vineyard manager, myself as wine development manager and assistant winemaker, and a very hard-working team of vineyard workers who keep things on track out in the fields, including Jack, a former Plumpton College graduate, and Lawrence, one of Kevin’s sons. We also have our tours and events team Zoey and Marielle who welcome visitors to the Estate and run the tours and tastings and Andy who generally oversees everything that’s going on and has been there from the start. Nothing gets past Andy!
How did you get into the wine business and what led you to English wine?
I am a bit of a late convert to the wine industry, like many working in English wine today. It was 2010, I was living and working in central London working on PR campaigns and I realised I didn’t want to be doing the same thing for the next 30 years. I knew I wanted to move from promoting products other people had developed to actually producing something of my own. I had travelled extensively and fallen in love with the wine industry so I started looking into the burgeoning UK wine scene, and came across Plumpton College. I joined Bluebell Vineyard after in early 2015 after graduating from Plumpton College in 2014.
Where did the name ‘`Hindleap’ ‘ Bluebell’’come from?
We are based in East Sussex in a beautiful area of the countryside known for its bluebells. The vineyard itself is set amid acres of woodlands that are full of carpets of bluebells every Spring, and we are also only a couple of miles up the road from the historic Bluebell Steam Railway so it seemed like a natural decision to call the Estate ‘Bluebell’. However, the wine is sold under the brand ‘Hindleap’ and is our premium, vintage sparkling wine. A ‘hind’ is a deer and we are surrounded by leaping hinds as we are on the edge of the Ashdown Forest. The hind is featured on our wine label and is a nod again to our Sussex provenance. Future still wines, for example, will not fall under the Hindleap brand.
Could you tell us about the story behind Bluebells decision to go from a pig farm to a winery, as it’s aptly put - ‘swine to vine’?
The Tays bought Glenmore Farm in 1982 when it was one of the largest pig farms in the area and home to thousands of Large Whites and Landrace pigs. The transition from swine to vine actually began as a hobby and an eye-opening visit to Romaneé Conti in France. After the farm closed the owners, who were scientists and chemists by training, wine lovers and farmers realised that as an agricultural site the farm was crying out for something different, and the English wine industry was beginning to take off. They saw an opportunity to combine a passion for wine, with a love and knowledge of the land. Planting began in 2005 and since then the Estate has continued to flourish, growing from 15 acres to 100 acres under vine.
With such a wonderful hot sunny summer, we’ve had probably the best start to the growing season for the English vineyards. How is everything looking at Bluebell vineyard, when do you think you’ll start to pick and harvest the grapes?
It’s looking good, but this is England and you never assume it will be ok until the grapes are picked and the juice is in tank! In terms of growth and ripening we are easily two weeks ahead of where we would normally be and we're already someway through veraison. We had perfect conditions for budburst, flowering and fruit set meaning there are now lots of bunches of grapes on the vine, and if this weather continues there is the potential to harvest grapes at full ripeness which will also mean excellent quality.
Unusually you have decided to only produce ‘vintage’ English Wines. Could you tell us why you have decided to do this? What extra challenges do you face with this decision?
Vintage wines are a true reflection of the season in which the grapes are grown and therefore a true reflection of what mother nature has given us, which makes vintage wines pretty special. It’s exciting as every vintage is unique and you can track the different vintages through the flavour profile of the final wines. However, it can be challenging in equal measure as no two summers in the UK are the same! Obviously, the Champagne houses developed non-vintage wines to establish a consistent style and effectively blend out vintage variation. While there is a house style for Hindleap, we allow our vintage wines to be different every year; we aren’t trying to make a vintage wine with the consistency of a non-vintage wine, we allow each year to be different.
Image credit: Craig Payne
What are the ‘perfect pairings for each of Bluebell’s wines, where’s a good place to start’?
Our wines are fruit-forward with a lively zesty acidity and they are a perfect match for soft cheeses and fish/seafood. We’ve worked closely with our local cheese producer, High Weald Dairy, to identify the best combinations and we’ve found the wines pair deliciously with soft, creamy sheep and cows milk cheeses. Most people think of red wine and cheese, but they are missing out! The structure of the bubble in sparkling wine perfectly complements the soft, creaminess of many cheeses, while the acidity in the wines cut through the fat of the cheese. Pair stronger cheeses with more robust wines and match more delicate wines with milder cheeses, but you can’t really go wrong!
Our blanc de blancs 2014 is a perfect match for fish and chips, scallops and oysters. Again, the acidity in the wine cuts through the light fat of the fish and the citrus profile of the chardonnay grape acts like a squeeze of lemon over the dish. We also have a limited release Barrel-aged Blanc de Blancs 2013 which has more structure, along with vanilla and honey notes which is a perfect match for white meats.
How big is the vineyard at Bluebell and how many different grape varieties do you grow?
We now have 100 acres under vine across three sites in East and West Sussex. We have seven main varieties planted including the classic three Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, but also Seyval Blanc, Bacchus and Ortega. Our more recent plantings include Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, although wines from these varieties won’t be available for many years.
If there were no English Wine available and you had to choose, what would be your favourite wines and why?
I have been lucky to have worked and spent time in several wine regions and as a consequence I have developed a love for the wines of Sonoma County in California and the wines of South Africa. But the wine that stands out is a 2009 Puligny Montrachet that was poured at a wedding in Burgundy I attended last year. If the budget would allow I would drink that wine forever!
Can we come down to visit Bluebell? If so what can we expect from a tour/tasting? What facilities do you have on site?
Yes, we are open year-round Monday to Saturday for vineyard tours and wine tastings. Our tours offer visitors a true 'grape to glass' experience, with an insight into grape growing and winemaking in England. They are relaxed and fun and take visitors through the art and science behind winemaking before a tutored tasting of our wines. We also have a vineyard trail, picnic areas and the opportunity to buy a glass of wine to enjoy while looking across the vineyard. Visitors also tend to be welcomed by our four, fat, happy, smelly Labradors!
What challenges do you face at Bluebell and what plans do you have to overcome them?
The challenge is to continue to raise the profile of English wines. We are in the heartland of English wine so it is easy to think the word has spread nationwide, that England is producing world-beating wines, but recognition can still be relatively low. We are working with a group called ‘Sussex Wineries’ to promote the Sussex Wine region as a place to visit and also to promote the wines of Sussex.
Image credit Craig Payne
How is Bluebell preparing for Brexit?
As we prepare for everything, at the last minute!
Looking to the future where does Bluebell see it’s self in the English Wine industry?
We’ve planted a further 30 acres of vines this year, so there will be winery expansion over the next few years to accommodate this growth and the introduction of a range of still wines. We see wine tourism as an increasingly important part of our business and we are working closely with other vineyards, especially in Sussex, to help promote the wines of England. It's a really exciting time for English wines; quality continues to improve, sales are buoyant and there's a real buzz around the industry.
Anything else you think we should know?
Come and visit us! We like to give people the chance to get involved and we host annual harvest experiences where guests get to pick the grapes in the morning followed by a visit to the winery to taste the freshly pressed juice. We also host annual ‘assemblage’ sessions where guests can taste wines from tank and prepare their own base wine blends. Getting hands-on really brings winemaking to life for people. Check out our website www.bluebellvineyard.co.uk for details!
what a great idea to be able to offer such a 'hands on' experience at the vineyard!