A recent visit to the UK left me in disarray. Everything seems to be falling apart. The roads rival those of any third-world country and a drive in the countryside (ha!) becomes an exercise in crawling along streets and lanes designed for the age of the horse and cart, in between dodging potholes large enough to swallow you up along with your car, or at the very least to shred your tyres. Traffic is gridlocked on roads large and small. The M25, designed as London’s outer ring road, is in reality a four-lane car park. Trains are dirty, overcrowded and frequently cancelled. To cap it all, the politics are sordid and shameful, as seen in the ‘hostile environment’ towards immigrants that was institutionalised in 2010, and which led to the disgraceful treatment of the so-called “Windrush generation”. And don’t even get me started on Brexit…
Okay, now I’ve got that off my chest I can report that in the midst of all the tat and grime and gridlock, there are pockets of pure delight. One of them is Gusbourne Estate, just outside Appledore in deepest Kent.
Here’s a bit of the back story to this remarkable venture: the founder, South African-born Andrew Weeber, made his fortune as an orthopaedic surgeon at the Friarage Hospital in Northallerton, Yorkshire (where I left my appendix some decades ago). His wish had always been to own a vineyard (heard that somewhere before?). In 2004 he found and bought Gusbourne, at the time a small arable and fruit farm, whose records go back to 1410. The location (in the Garden of England, traditionally known for fruit- and hop-growing), the terroir (clay and sandy loam on slopes that lean gently southwards towards the Channel – Dungeness is practically visible from the vineyards), the vision (to produce sparkling wines that would hold their heads high alongside the world’s best) and the money (shitloads of it) have combined to produce some exceedingly fine wines.
Today they farm 60 hectares in Kent, with a further 30 in West Sussex. They planted the three classic Champagne grapes (Pinots Noir and Meunier and Chardonnay), and the majority goes to make sparkling wine. In a very short time (first harvest 2008, as I recall) Gusbourne has won plaudits and prizes around the world and gained a following far beyond the confines of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle (their Blanc de Blancs will be served at next weekend’s royal wedding). Today, they export to a total of 16 countries, including the US, Japan, Canada and Australia.
You may be surprised (I was!) to learn that Gusbourne has chosen the Paris-based luxury wine marketing and communications group, Vitabella Wine, to represent them. But it makes perfect sense: Gusbourne fits quite comfortably into the Vitabella client list, which features many of Europe’s classiest wineries, from Champagne to Alsace, Burgundy to the Rhone, as well as top names in Italy and Spain. And while the French may not (yet) be buying English sparkling wine, it’s worth noting that some French Champagne houses (Taittinger, Vranken Pommery) have bought land in southern England to make cross-Channel sparkling wine. Ça bouge dans les bulles en Angleterre.
Full disclosure: I was a guest of Gusbourne. But even if I hadn’t been, it would have taken a curmudgeon (not generally my default position) to remain unmoved by this haven of beauty, precision and peace, far from any madd(en)ing potholes. Everything sparkled, even the weather – not a given in England in April.
Our visit started in The Nest, the spanking new reception centre adjoining the winery, which relates the story of the estate from its 15th-century beginnings to the present day. Later we strolled in warm spring sunshine through the vineyards to our lunch table, set in dappled shade beneath a pair of ancient oak trees.
Corks were eased from elegant bottles and we started work on the Gusbourne range, guided by the home team, CEO and head winemaker Charlie Holland and COO and vineyard manager Jon Pollard.
First came three vintages of their Blanc de Blancs (i.e. pure Chardonnay, £45): 2010, 2013 and 2012, each one pale straw-coloured, rapier-straight, with hints of Granny Smith apples and crumbs of brioche thrown in. All had spent varying lengths of time (between 3 and 4 years) lolling about on their lees (spent yeasts) before disgorgement, a practice which softens sharp angles, adds depth and complexity to the wines and increases ageing potential. Next up was Brut Reserve (55% Pinot Noir, 27% Pinot Meunier, 18% Chardonnay, £35), my favourite of the collection, with bright, fresh fruit aromas, lovely curves and a little more richness than the B de Bs. The rosé (53% Pinot Noir, 41% Chardonnay, 6% Pinot Meunier, £40) is palest pink, a slender lady in a pink and white chiffon dress (think a minimally sweetened panna cotta topped with strawberries and rhubarb).
Our visit confirmed that England is producing some sparkling wines of considerable class these days. If you’re prepared to brave the potholes to get to Gusbourne, do it, and see for yourself. You can check in at the Nest, get a map and do your own self-guided tour of the vineyards; or book a tasting with one of the team to get the full nine yards.
Kent TN26 2BE
Vineyard tours (by appointment) from £25