Alison and Nick Nightingale from Albourne Estate share the story behind their recent success
PUBLISHED: 09:00 12 November 2014
Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036
We are told never to mix wine and beer, but one couple in West Sussex is doing just that...with harmonious results
I arrive at the Albourne Estate in the midst of a minor emergency. A fox has been at the guinea pig hutch in the night and Alison Nightingale is clutching the pet while repairs are made. The challenges of running a successful vineyard are many, and especially so when it is also one’s family home.
Set in verdant West Sussex countryside, Albourne is one of the rising stars in English wine production. An arable farm when Alison and her husband Nick chanced upon it, the couple planted a 10-hectare vineyard in 2010 and produced their first vintage earlier this year. Their three daughters were swiftly employed in pasting medal stickers on the bottles. The Bacchus picked up two silvers and a bronze and was praised by judges for its “elegant aroma” and “intensity of flavour.” The gold-winning White Pinot Noir was described as “well-defined...clever” while the Estate Selection, a blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Bacchus, won three silver medals for its “vibrant blossom notes” and “balanced grassy freshness.”
It was the realisation of a dream that began when the couple were living in Singapore and would spend holidays exploring the vineyards of Australia and New Zealand. At the time, Alison was working in marketing: “But we always said it would be fun to do something different when we came back to the UK.” By 2002, when they had left the Far East and moved to Hurstpierpoint, Alison was a mother-of-two and seeking more flexibility in her working hours. She began part-time studies on Plumpton College’s renowned Viticulture and Oenology course and became hooked.
Encouraged by Sussex’s burgeoning reputation for wine (in this year’s International Wine Challenge Awards, 25 came from local producers), the couple began looking for a site to establish their own vineyard. They searched as far as Devon before finding the answer on their doorstep. South-facing and based on well-draining sandstone ridges, Albourne shares the geology of France’s Champagne region. Its proximity to the sea means the area is less prone to ground frosts, and it was equipped with a number of old barns for storage and production. Then there was the beautiful, centuries-old farmhouse at its heart, perfect for a family home. “Obviously it was a gamble,” says Alison. “There had never been a vineyard there before and we didn’t know for sure whether it would work. But Nyetimber and Ridgeview had established themselves nearby and we wanted to try.”
In 2009, the family moved in and their adventure began in earnest. The land was prepared and more than 40,000 vines planted, while the old grain store and cattle shed was converted into a winery, complete with an insulated store to hold 120,000 bottles. While Alison mastered tractor-driving, Nick decided to try his hand at brewing. “Craft-brewing is quite a big thing in Australia and we’d often seen them attached to the vineyards we visited. A group of us were chatting about it in the pub in Hurstpierpoint one night when it occurred to me that we could do the same thing at Albourne. We had a whip-around and formed a co-operative.” Bedlam Brewery was born, its name taken from a Bedlam Street that had run through the estate in Roman times.
Four years later, Bedlam produces a range of ale, bitter and porter and is stocked in around 30 Sussex pubs. It has recently established its own brewery tap at the newly refurbished Bull in Ditchling, whose owner Dominic Worrall is a member of the Bedlam collective. “Considering much of the co-operative were involved mainly for bragging rights, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well it’s doing,” says Nick.” With a vineyard and a brewery to their names, the couple must be popular at parties. “We’re definitely well-stocked,” he laughs. “But you almost have to forget it’s there when you’re at home, otherwise you’re on a road to ruin.”
This autumn marks Albourne’s second harvest, when a team of 20 will spend around two weeks picking more than 80 tonnes of grapes. Over coffee in the farmhouse Alison is outwardly calm about what lies ahead. But she admits she is monitoring the weather forecasts “obsessively” as she waits for the perfect moment to strike. Pick too early and the grapes won’t be as ripe as they could be, but leave it too long and there’s the risk of a frost destroying months of hard work. Running a vineyard is not for the faint-hearted. “You need a lot of patience and stamina,” Alison says, “and there’s a lot to learn.”
One of her goals at Albourne is to shed some light on the process. In September, she launched the first public tours of the vineyard and winery, concluding in the old dairy, recently converted into a tasting room. “The wine industry can often be rather snobby and I want to make it approachable – it’s just glorified fruit farming when it comes down to it. Wine tasting is especially elitist but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t need to agonise over whether or not you can pick up on all the nuances of a wine when you taste it. You can just decide if you like it.” From April next year she intends to run tours of the estate at least once a week as well as offering cellar door sales. Eventually, the couple hopes Albourne will be part of a Sussex wine trail being developed by the South East Vineyard Association to reflect the county’s growing contribution to English wine production. Back home that evening with a bottle of their Estate Selection, I raise a glass to that. The Albourne Estate, Albourne Farm, Shaves Wood Lane, Albourne, Hassocks | www.albourneestate.co.uk | www.bedlambrewery.co.uk