The track leading to one of Sussex’s newest vineyards is winding and just a little bit rough. I find myself humming the Jeff Beck classic “Going down a bumpy hillside, in your hippy hat”. Not that I’m wearing a hippy hat – the breeze on a mid-May Sunday is too brisk – and anyway it wouldn’t match my stout walking shoes.
We’re here to meet the vineyard’s owners, Kristina Studzinski and Ann-Marie Tynan, whose shared passion for good wine led them to establish a vineyard together.
In recent years most English wine has been sparkling white or rosé, using grape varieties that are most suited to the UK’s cool climate. But other vineyards have recently had success producing red wines and that’s what Kristina and Ann-Marie intend to do.
“We were originally looking to buy some land in France,” Kristina admits, “but one day Ann-Marie, who really loves red wine, was sipping a glass and remarked how she was looking forward to producing wine just like this. When I told her it was from Sedlescombe Vineyard, over near Hastings she couldn’t quite believe it. At the time I was studying for a foundation degree in wine production at Plumpton College and I became convinced that if we got the right land and the right vines we could do the same.”
“My view is why try to reproduce what the French already do with champagne. I know the big French wine producers are looking to the UK now as the soil and climate work well for these varieties but we wanted to experiment with reds and rosés. Anyway that’s what we like to drink, so that’s what we’re going to produce!”
Red and rosé wines from Sussex
It took a while to find the right place but in November 2013 they bought 13 hectares of land in the Sussex weald, just north of Hellingly.
“We want this to be very much our own hands-on operation so we sought advice about how much two people could handle. Producing wine is a long, slow process and you need to make sure you get a good crop as soon as possible, but we’re doing this all ourselves so we planted 3 hectares at first.”
They have plans for the other fields, hoping to plant another with vines next year but aren’t sure yet about the third one, currently nick-named “Weird Field” as it isn’t quite right.
“We feel we are custodians of the land as well as business people so we want to do all we can to keep the place natural and beautiful. We have three ponds here, which are a lot of hard work to keep clear and tidy but they really add to the feel of the place.”
“We’re not an organic producer but we want to keep pesticides to a minimum so are investing in disease resistant varieties and are trying to make sure all our interventions which keep the vines healthy have minimal impact on the rest of the land.”
The grape varieties are ones not seen so frequently in the UK – rondo, dornfelder, pinot noir (“I can’t wait to sip a glass of my own pinot noir,” Ann-Marie chuckles) and regent.
“We want to use external contractors as little as possible so it’s a real labour of love.”
That means a small rented cottage in nearby Heathfield until they get established and a caravan on site for those inevitable night watches where they battle a vineyard’s great enemy – frost.
“We were lucky this year. there was a bit of frost but it was all in the air, not a ground frost. So all we had to do was keep the air moving around the vines at the coldest part of the night.” But that meant sleeping in their caravan and getting up in pitch dark to drive the small tractor up and down the rows, disturbing and warming the air so it didn’t damage the tender young vines.
The buds are just beginning to show.
“We’re hoping for a small crop. We don’t know if we’ll have enough to make it worth while sending it on to a contractor to make wine. We’d like to do it if we can, just so we can see something for all our efforts, but it might be more economical to sell the grapes and wait for next year when we will be able to do it ourselves.”
That’s the exciting part for Kristina and Ann-Mari, work is about to begin on replacing their current tractor shed with a winery of their very own.
“It’s how we want it to be, us in charge at every step of the way. That makes it our grapes, our wine, our bottles and our labels.”
More information about Off the Line Vineyard
The vineyard produces 3 wines. Dog Rosé – a fruity blend of three different English grapes. Hip Rosé – from Pinot Noir and Dancing Dog Rosé – a blend of Regent, Pinot Noir and Rondo.
For more details see their website
More information about English wine
Wine Cellar Door – the independent guide to visiting vineyards in England and Wales.