Pruning vines at Sedlescombe.
Biodynamic British bubbly
12th December 2013
The UK's first biodynamic sparkling white wine is available in time for Christmas. Hazel Sillver visited its creator, Sedlescombe Organic Vineyard in East Sussex, to find out more.
Unlike traditional champers, Premier Brut is made from Johanniter and Seyval Blanc grapes. The result is a lovely bubbling froth with a dry, fresh and fruity taste.
The long rows of vines in front of me slope down the rolling hills beneath an amber autumn sun. I am standing at Sedlescombe Organic Vineyard, north of Hastings in East Sussex. The plants have been harvested of grapes, which are now undergoing the long magical process of turning into wine, and neatly tied, ready for the winter sleep.
While we used to associate wine growing with the continent and California, over the past few years, more and more English wines have sloshed successfully onto the market and vineyards like this are an increasingly familiar sight in the southern half of the UK.
Homegrown wines are proving just as tasty as their established European rivals and, of course, with no air miles involved, they are much better for the planet.
The UK's first organic vineyard
But unlike most vineyards in England, Sedlescombe is not new. Its owner Roy Cook planted vines here in 1978. "I was already settled here, living off the land", he recalls.
"I enjoyed being self-sufficient, like in The Good Life! I started growing grapes as a hobby and never thought of using spray chemicals because it's such a health risk." And so Sedlescombe became the UK's first organic vineyard.
Roy taught himself, learning only from books, and obviously had the knack because in 1982 he had produced enough wine to start selling it. "People thought it was a bit mad", he laughs.
"First they thought there's no way you can make wine organically and second they didn't think vines would grow in England. In fact wine has a long history here - during the Middle Ages there were vineyards in English monasteries."
The key difference between a non-organic and an organic vineyard is the way the soil is fed. Solvent chemical fertilisers are typically applied to vines in the conventional system. But on an organic farm the plants are fed indirectly - microorganisms in the soil are fed and through them active nutrients are released that the plants then absorb.
One of the ways this is done is via 'green manure' plants. Now that it is the dormant season, lines of these grow between the rows of vines in front of me.
Roy points out vetch (which will deliver nitrogen into the soil), rye (whose vigorous roots break up the heavy soil) and field bean (which fixes nitrogen and improves soil structure). "By mid-spring these little plants are huge", smiles Roy. "Their flowers look great but they also attract wildlife."
The first biodynamic bubbly
The festive period wouldn't be the same without a glass (or two or three or four ... ) of bubbly. For the first time, this Christmas, we can sup organic biodynamic fizz courtesy of Sedlescombe.
"We can't call it 'Champagne' because that label denotes the geographical area it is grown in", explains Roy. "But essentially that's what it is." Instead English bubbly is known as 'sparkling white wine'.
While there are already other organic English sparkling whites out there, Roy's new Premier Brut (£35, 75cl) is the first one produced to biodynamic standards.
"Biodynamic methods are never a substitute for good organic practices", Roy says. "Instead they are something additional you do to improve the soil."
For example, Roy's vineyard soil is treated with 'horn manure', which is produced by stuffing cow manure into cow horns, which are then buried over winter; once the mixture has 'cooked', rain water is mixed into the fermented manure and the resulting juice is added to the earth.
But this is just one of many biodynamic methods and Roy employs others, such as advanced composting. They obviously do the trick because, after just a month on the market (having been launched in May this year), Roy's biodynamic Premier Brut won Silver at the International Organic Wine Awards. The judges described it as "elegant".
Unlike traditional champers (which is made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes), Premier Brut is made from Johanniter and Seyval Blanc grapes. The result is a lovely bubbling froth with a dry, fresh and fruity taste.
Cork for less carbon
But Roy has not had enough of awards for this year because he's just won another one! Sedlescombe has been awarded the 2013 Golden Acorn Award by the cork industry, for its long standing use of cork stoppers, and in turn its support of cork forests.
"We buy our cork from an eco-sound producer in Portugal. There are a lot of ecological advantages to cork forests - for instance they soak up a lot of CO2 and they have a unique ecosystem, which supports a wide range of plants and animals. They also provide a livelihood for Mediterranean communities."
The festive cellar
If you fancy stocking your cellar with eco-friendly plonk for Christmas, Premier Brut is highly recommended. Sedlescombe also sell a wonderful organic pink fizz called Rosé Brut and a delicious velvety biodynamic red called 2011 Regent, which won Silver at the International Organic Wine Awards.
Roy's green team also offers tour gift vouchers, which make great gifts for wine lovers.
If you live in the area, you will receive a warm welcome in the Sedlescombe barn, which is cosy and decorated with festive lights in winter – there you can peruse and taste the wines. You are also welcome to stroll about Roy's vineyards, which adorn the hills here and at neaby Bodiam Castle.
For more information and to order wines, contact Sedlescombe Organic Vineyard. Wine to be sent out via mail order for Christmas must be ordered by 19 December.
Hazel Sillver is a freelance journalist and long-standing contributor to The Ecologist Green Living section. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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