It's always a joy to discover a new part of the UK and the South Downs is an area I've never really explored previously, so I was delighted to be invited down to Nyetimber Manor in West Sussex last week to enjoy a vineyard tour, lunch and wine tasting with Nyetimber during their harvest season.
The first vines were planted on the estate's gently undulating south facing slopes in the shelter of the South Downs back in 1988 and today Nyetimber's seven vineyards - there are five in West Sussex and a further two in Hampshire - cover more than 150 hectares.
Owner Eric Heerema and head winemaker Cherie Spriggs are committed to producing English sparkling wine that rivals the very best in the world, including Champagne, and the house's wines have been served at prominent royal functions, including the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
Joining a small group of other guests, and with a glass of Classic Cuvee in hand, I pulled on my wellies and we headed off to the vineyards to learn about the different types of grapes that are grown at Nyetimber. The company's wine is made from the three grape varieties found in Champagne - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier - and the chalk seam that supplies the perfect soil conditions for the grapes grown in the Champagne region is also found here in West Sussex, running under the lee of the South Downs.
The house itself is first mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086, Nyetimber meaning literally new timbered house, and the estate was once part of the largest monastery in Southern England. After seizing it during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, Henry VIII gave it to Thomas Cromwell, a historical note I found fascinating as I recently devoured Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies - the first two novels in Hilary Mantel's excellent Man Booker prize winning trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. When Cromwell fell out of favour with the King, Henry repossessed it and gave it to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Today it is the home of Nyetimber CEO and owner Eric Hereema who bought it in 2005, adding further vineyards in 2006, 2007 and 2009.
We enjoyed lunch at a Canteen table designed by Piet Hein Eek in the beautiful White Barn overlooking the medieval courtyard style garden and lake...
...where Diva, the canine grand dame of the manor, kept a watchful eye on us throughout the meal and wine tasting, which included the Nyetimber 2009 Rosé , the Demi Sec and (my own personal favourite) the 2007 Blanc de Blancs.
The barn's contemporary interior, which features a stunning display of clustered lanterns, was designed by Joris Van Apers.
Previously closed to the pubic, the vineyard held its inaugural open day in September 2014 and I understand there are plans to run a limited number of open days again in 2015, although the dates have yet to be confirmed.
Thank you Nyetimber for a wonderfully enjoyable afternoon.
(Photography Credits: 1, 2, 3, 4, 8 courtesy of Nyetimber, 5, 6, 7 Design Hunter).