From South Africa to South Downs

Having grown up in the Franschhoek wine region of South Africa, when Pip Goring moved to West Sussex with her husband Harry Goring in 1972 to take on the Wiston Estate, there was little to remind her of home.

As early as the plane journey to England Pip suggested that they might plant some vines, but the concept of diversifying into viticulture was perplexing for Harry as the Wiston Estate, which had been in Harry’s family since 1743, was already well established with 6,000 acres of farmland being utilised for arable, beef and sheep production.

Over the next thirty years Pip persisted to encourage Harry to plant vines and the idea of creating wines on the estate never left her.

“It wasn’t that Pip had a business strategy plan, she was just passionate about seeing what this land could produce,” said Kirsty Goring, Pip’s daughter-in-law and marketing director at Wiston Estate. “Pip wanted to be reminded of home and was inquisitive to see if wines could be produced here.”

With the geology of the South Downs almost identical to the Côte des Blancs, in 2005 the estate was approached by two Champagne houses who wanted to rent the land. Realising the estate’s potential, Harry started to take the idea of a vineyard seriously and it was agreed that they would plant in 2006. The vineyard and winery are a now a legacy for the Goring family.

The original vineyard, 16-acres of Pinot noir, Pinot meunier and Chardonnay, was planted on Findon Park Farm, one of the estate’s eight farms, and with 6,000 acres to choose from the site was carefully selected.

“We were very spoilt in being able to choose from 6,000 acres, some of which is on chalk and some on Wealden clay,” said Kirsty. “With the estate having been in the family for so many generations Harry was able to select the site knowing the growing history.”

Understanding the vision

Keen to see what a Wiston cuvée would taste like, Pip was adamant that they needed to find the right contract winemaker who would produce a wine which truly reflected the terroir. On visiting the estate’s closest producer, Nyetimber Estate, Pip met with Dermot Sugrue who instantly understood her vision.

“Dermot wanted to see the site and wanted to know the type of land they were planting on,” said Kirsty. “Although it wasn’t planted Dermot saw the potential of this chalk land with south facing aspect. He fell in love with the vineyard site and the family’s passion and believed that this amazing combination had the potential to produce England’s best sparkling wine.”

Even from his early teenage years, Dermot Sugrue had always taken a keen interest in winemaking. After leaving his previous career as an independent financial advisor to work at a winery in Suffolk, Dermot went on to study at Plumpton College before completing several vintages in Bordeaux and Champagne, rising to head winemaker at Nyetimber in 2004.

“I had planned to study in Australia but discovered the course at Plumpton College,” said Dermot Sugrue, head winemaker at Wiston Estate. “It gave me a fantastic background in winemaking but it is working in wineries beside experienced winemakers which gives you most experience.”

Embarking on a new challenge

In the early stages, there was never an intention to build a winery at Wiston. An unprofitable dairy on the estate had been sold to fund the planting of the vines and there wasn’t much investment remaining.

Having clicked with the Goring family and seeing the estate’s potential Dermot was keen to embark on a new challenge. Dermot recognised that there was a disproportional number of new vineyards being planted compared to wineries being established and so approached Harry and Pip with the idea to start a winery with the capability to offer a contract winemaking service exclusively for sparkling wine production.

“There were no plans in place for the winery but Pip knew that she had found their ideal winemaker,” said Kirsty. “So, Dermot, with the then estate manager, toured the estate and found a building which had once been a large turkey farm. As well as having two levels there was also the potential to adapt the insulated walk in fridges and freezer for storing wine at a steady temperature.”

Transforming the ex-Turkey farm with minimal expenditure, Wiston’s winery was renovated in time for the estate’s first harvest in 2008.

Exceptionally gentle pressing

While conventional presses were incredibly costly, a combination of having worked with a traditional Coquard basket press in Champagne and an understanding of Pip’s desire to treat the grape juice as gently as possible led Dermot to purchase a second hand Coquard, which remains to date the only traditional basket press in England and only one of four in the world located outside of France.

“The Coquard ended up being this amazing thing at Wiston because not only has no one else got one but Pip was wonderfully excited by the fact that it sounds like an African drum when it is in use,” said Kirsty. “When she saw it working for the first time, the slow thud was so evocative of her homeland.”

Wiston’s grapes are delivered to the first floor of the building and after 15 minutes of loading, the press’ sides come down with the Coquard’s large surface area and exceptionally gentle pressing allowing for the extraction of the very highest quality juice.

“It will take four tonnes and the pressing cycle can last up to four hours,” said Dermot. “It is very labour intensive, requiring three strong labourers with forks to break the cake manually. It takes a long time too, but the quality of the juice that we get from the Coquard is absolutely beautiful.”

Pure, simple and straightforward

With the juice then gravity fed to the tank hall downstairs, the heart of the winemaking philosophy at Wiston is to maximise the purity of the juice followed by little interference so the wine can truly reflect its origin.

“Traditional method sparkling wine production is naturally quite an interventionist process because there are so many different phases of production,” said Dermot. “But I do believe in trying to let the grapes express their vineyard origin as much as possible by keeping the winemaking simple and straightforward.”

As well as keeping the component of the blend separate, natural settling, long temperature controlled fermentations and keeping additions to an absolute minimum, Dermot also bottles quite late in the season, usually in July, which gives the wines an opportunity to reveal their character.

“Wiston’s pure, focused, dry style wine fits with Pip’s vision,” said Kirsty. “As well as wanting people to be able to appreciate the unique quality of the estate, the Goring family have always been passionate about food and with two of Pip’s children working as chefs having a wine which pairs with food was a real dream.”

Integrating the acidity

In 2010, Wiston experienced a dream harvest, with a good sized, effortlessly ripe, clean crop producing pristine sparkling wines with a long ability to age. The 2010 Blanc de Blancs, one of the wines which Dermot is proudest of, is a good summary of his style having been produced from 100% Chardonnay with half barrel fermented and aged and the other half having been kept in stainless steel tanks.

“I think the quality of what we can achieve with Chardonnay here in the UK is just astonishing,” said Dermot. “It is particularly suited to our chalky soils and the level of finesse we can achieve with those styles of wines, allied to their ability to age over long periods of time, means we can really make great Blanc de Blancs, which is very fortunate as it is a style I adore!”

Sourcing French oak from Burgundy, Dermot looks for barrels around three to five years of age which have lost their initial flush of oak flavour and are almost neutral. There is a little bit of oak flavour but the most important contribution is the textural development of the wine with a very slow micro-oxygenation process helping to integrate the acidity and allowing the wines to express themselves.

Coming of age

While the Goring family want their exclusive vintage wines to be fully appreciated when they are showing at their best, the estate also wanted to create an accessible range of non-vintage wines.

In 2014, Wiston Estate came of age and launched its first non-vintage range of wines produced from both grapes grown on the estate and Pinot meunier grown by Chris Nicholas at Sandhurst Vineyard, Kent.

“I am a huge fan of Pinot meunier in our Brut non-vintage blend,” said Dermot. “Few people have planted meunier but I think it is a fantastic sparkling wine variety to grow in England. It can be a little bit inconsistent but it makes wines which are ripe and have an early aging profile and this is very useful in non-vintage blends.”

As well as helping to create consistency in England’s marginal climate, the non-vintage range has also helped the estate reach more customers with an accessible price point of around £25 per bottle.

“The Brut non-vintage as a house style is a dry, zesty palate enlivener,” said Kirsty. “The freshness appeals to a lot of today’s drinkers and because we have some control over the quantity we can make them more affordable.”

For Dermot, building up the reserves has been both important and fascinating and while he admits that there are challenges of building good stocks of reserve wines in England, with fluctuations in yield, the blends provide depth of flavour and accelerate the maturity of the non-vintage wines in quite a profound way.

Unlike the vintage wines, the non-vintage blends are produced solely in stainless steel tanks and are packaged in a standard sparkling bottle instead of the unique, glossy black Italian bottles used for Wiston’s vintage wines.

“We wanted the vintage to be clearly different because they are exclusive and premium,” said Kirsty. “The Italian bottles require a lot more work in the winery. We have to put in special riddling cages, source smaller corks and packaging, and the disgorging machine needs to be adapted, but overall it really helps to show off the wines.”

Reflecting Pip’s passion

As well as expressing the purity, precision and focus of the wines with bold, incisive colours, Wiston’s packaging truly reflects the story of the estate, from the inclusion of the Hugenot cross on the neck label, which symbolises Pip’s faith, to the detailing on the label which replicates the plasterwork in the Great Hall at Wiston House.

“It was Pip’s idea to plant the vineyard, so the packaging needed to be something which resonated with her and reflected her passion,” said Kirsty. “We appointed Stranger and Stranger and when they presented the designs they had used Pip’s favourite colour, taken from a photograph of her wearing a turquoise scarf and earrings.”

Modern winery development

Wiston Estate now produces around 40,000 bottles per year divided between 25,000 to 30,000 non-vintage and 15,000 bottles of vintage, yet the estate’s own production only accounts for one third of the winery’s output with contract jobs making up the rest.

Working with Ashling Park Estate, a new estate near Chichester, Black Dog Hill, Coldharbour, Digby Fine English, East Meon, English Oak, Jenkyn Place and Dermot’s own project Sugrue Pierre, the estate offers a full contract winemaking service from pressing and fermenting, to bottling and storing, riddling and disgorging and finally labelling.

With the Coquard press being reserved for Wiston grapes only, the winery has three additional conventional presses, including a six tonne Bucher, a four tonne Pera and a smaller one tonne Willmes.

“We have a relatively modern winery development and are able to handle lots of different grapes at the same time with three presses often working simultaneously during harvest,” said Dermot.

“The tank room is the engine room of the winery equipped with lots of stainless steel tanks with different sized compartments. We also have a Belon which is where the juice goes to settle immediately after pressing. It allows us to separate the première cuvée from the première taille and the deuxième taille which facilitates more considered winemaking.”

A collaborative process

Having worked with the same estates for a number of years, Dermot has developed an understanding of their vineyards and has been able to build on their style year on year, trying to replicate but also improve their house style wines.

“It is very much a collaborative process,” said Dermot. “Initially it can be difficult to predict what you will have from the first harvest, but the longer I work with clients and make their wines every year, I can hone in on their style and truly understand the fruit quality from their vineyards.”

With a huge haul of trophies, medals and awards collected over the years, Dermot and the Goring family are keen to continue the success of the last ten years. As well as expanding the vineyard, having planted a further nine acres in 2017, the Gorings are also developing a sophisticated cellar door experience, with a shop and café expected for late 2019.

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