East Sussex probably isn’t the first place that springs to mind when you think of wine but Roy Cook, owner of the Sedlescombe Organic Vineyard, is a man on a mission to change all that. And it isn’t just putting an end to the irritatingly enduring stereotype of English wine as a bitter, nasty brew that’s on his mind either because Cook’s vineyard has just introduced the UK’s first biodynamic wine: 'First Release'.
Formerly a German teacher, Roy has packed in a lot since starting his vineyard in the 1970s. Then, English wine really was rather dreadful and the concept of organic barely a twinkle in the environmental movement’s eye, so decamping to leafy Sussex to start a vineyard, wife Irma in tow, was at the very least, a gamble. ‘It was partly a good life thing,’ says Roy. ‘I’d been looking for something to do on top of teaching, so we got hold of this site and I was originally planning to grow tomatoes in polytunnels. After a while, we realised that we’d got a nice, warm plot, so we decided to try vines instead. I never realised we’d end up with 22 acres!’ But although Sedlescombe is now flying high and farming fields at the nearby Bodiam Castle in addition to its own, Roy admits that it hasn’t always been easy. ‘It’s been pretty tough at times but I think most farmers are in the business for the love of the land as much as anything. It’s a real privilege to live in the countryside and to work so close to where you live. It makes up for all the difficult bits.’
Growing a mixture of Bacchus, Solaris and Regent grape varieties, Roy uses plants such as clover and vetch as a natural ‘green manure’ growing them in between the vines to boost organic matter in the soil and reduce pests. The vineyard also includes a large patch of woodland, home to Roy’s nature trail, which he says is absolutely glorious in April when it’s full of bluebells. Unfortunately, this was January and wandering around the vineyard, with feet slipping out of wellies stuck in the mud, blooms were in short supply. All that was forgotten once we reached the barn-cum-distillery where Roy’s wines are made. Following a similarly organic trajectory to the cultivation, Sedlescombe’s wines are made – and harvested - by hand.
Bearing a slight resemblance to one of Heston Blumenthal’s kitchens, the barn is filled with large silver vats and a faintly alarming-looking pulping machine. Up some stairs and through another door, and we’re in the shop, cellar and wine tasting area. It’s here, as well as on the vineyard’s website, that the first batch of Roy’s pioneering biodynamic wine is being sold. ‘The main thing to remember, is that biodynamic wine is first and foremost, organic,’ explains Roy. ‘There’s a huge list of specific things we can’t do and a whole army of things we should do, but the basic difference is that more attention is placed on prepping the soil, especially things like the type of compost you can use, the use of specially dynamised water and so on.’
Biodynamic agriculture first originated from the work done by German anthroposophist, Rudolf Steiner. Similar to organic farming, it follows the lunar calendar and emphasises the need for a holistic relationship between soil and crop. In Sedlescombe’s case, this means using the special BD500 preparation or horn manure as it’s more commonly known, and spraying the vines with a specially prepared quartz dust to prevent moulds. If this all sounds faintly loony, then consider this: in the recently published conclusion to a 21-year study by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Switzerland, researchers said that not only was biodynamic agriculture a more sustainable way of farming, it also proved to be more efficient than conventional agriculture. ‘It [the vineyard] certainly seems to be doing well,’ says Roy. ‘I was really impressed by the producers from Return to Terroir [a biodynamic winemaker’s group which organises tastings all over the world] had to say about it. They are real pioneers and part of what convinced me was the calibre of the producers switching to biodynamic growing techniques; if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.’
Of course, the real measure of a successful wine is the taste. ‘What you want from an English white is something summery, light and fresh with a decent flowery bouquet,’ says Roy with the confidence of a man who really knows what he’s talking about. So how did the Sedlescombe blend measure up? It was light, very fresh and with a gorgeous hint of elderflower; more than good enough to give anything produced in France a run for its money. ‘Lots of people would love English wine if they gave it a chance,’ enthuses Roy. ‘English wine is a bit like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio but is lighter and has a better bouquet. With light summer food, it’s perfect.’ So does Roy think that an increasing awareness of the need to eat – and drink – locally is helping? ‘Well, I always think that if you’re eating local, then you should drink local too. After all, what’s the point of importing it from California or wherever when there are great wines here? You never know, you might even enjoy it.’ We did.
To find out more and to get your hands on some of Sedlescombe’s biodynamic wine, organic wines and fruit liquors, go to www.englishorganicwine.co.uk. The farm is open to visitors all year round: for more information see www.visit1066country.com
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