Sitting on a terrace in the mid-September sun, under blue skies and overlooking rows of vineyards, a glass of sharp, crisp bubbles is poured.
Butterflies dance among the wildflowers at my feet and I can just about make out the sea in the distance.
I could be in the south of France, or in the rolling fields of Emilia-Romagna, but instead I’m just over an hour hour away from London at the Tillingham vineyards, near Rye.
And at the rate I’m draining their delicious wines, it’s looking increasingly likely I’ll need to roll into one of their 11 on-site boutique bedrooms later.
While some of us have spent this cursed year grappling with sourdough starter (guilty) or tending to some fledgling windowsill tomato plants, the main pursuit most of us were dabbling in was alcohol.
Over half of Britons have admitting to drinking more during lockdown, whether it was happy hour Zoom calls or swig-along online wine tastings, and the enforced downtime has meant a lot of us are experimenting with more than the two-for-a-tenner bottles from the offy.
Like our other new shopping habits, we’re going fully local, from the grape to the glass.
Tillingham saw ‘a 100-fold increase’ in sales of their wines during quarantine (‘we had to limit bottles to one per person,’ co-founder Ben Walgate tells me), while over at Albury Organic Vineyard in the Surrey Hills there’s been a rush on their Silent Pool Rose, as they promptly sold out. Once you’ve popped the cork, it’s easy to see why.
Recently, I’ve loved checking out British natural wine – bottles of lively, tangy young drinks from grapes grown without chemicals or pesticides.
Drinks like Tillingham’s sparky, earthy Qvevri or Ancre Hill’s Orange Wine have turned me into a natural wine fan, as my Instagram is now reveals. Yes, that a repurposed bottle turned into a candle holder you see in the background.
The best British wines to try
1. Bolney Estate Dark Harvest: A great value, medium-bodied wine with hints of cherry and oak that pairs well with tuna or steak.
2. Hush Heath Balfour 1503 Rosé: A delicate, rose-petal shade, this lively sparkling wine has notes of wild strawberry and pink grapefruit.
3. Chapel Down, Kit’s Coty Chardonnay 2017: An award-winning wine with peach and melon flavours, matured in French oak barrels.
4. Nyetimber Classic Cuvee MV: Bursting with fine, gentle bubbles, this contains honey, almond and apple flavours.
5. Ashling Park Sparkling Rose 2014: A full-flavoured wine with fruity intensity, made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes grown on the chalk slopes of the South Downs.
Over the past few years, British wine has taken big strides and finally managed to shake off the unfair reputation of being the lesser cousin of Europe’s big wine producers.
Increasing temperatures and hot, dry summers have meant areas like the Surrey Hills, Hampshire, East Sussex and Wales have become literal hotbeds for the vines and a shift to more conscientious or organic farming methods means the fermented fruit shines through.
5.5 million bottles of UK wine were sold last year, and judging by the bin-men’s looks when emptying my street’s recycling, it’s likely to spike even more this year.
Today, the UK’s 700 vineyards and 175 wineries make for a perfect staycation visit, especially now, with harvest season about to get into full, grape-crushing swing.
Despite the country’s wineries doing stellar sales of their wine online, their hotels, guestrooms, cafes and restaurants have obviously lost a lot of revenue this year.
Now I know there’s so many on our doorstep, I’m willing to Drink Out To Help Out.
It’s the least I can do, I think selflessly, as I eye up other nearby vineyards on my map, and order another glass of East Sussex’s finest.
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