The opportunity to visit this much lauded vineyard in West Sussex was a great excitement. I had chosen an extremely inconvenient moment. Not only was it a very short time until the harvest so that the winery was awash with cleaning agents and all the staff had that hunted look of the extremely busy, but the whole estate had just changed hands and the new owners were due the next day. Their possessions were already stacking up in the house.
The innate hospitality of the people at this extraordinary place didn't waver for a second. I was welcomed as if they were pleased to see me. By the end I practically believed them.
I met the new General Manager, Christopher Varley, in his office in the main house. This really is some house. Mentioned in the Doomsday Book when it was given by William the Conqueror to Earl Godwyn the house has had about as distinguished a history as is possible. In the best tradition of wine making houses, in the 12th Century it provided wine to the Cluniac Priory at Lewes. After Henry VIII it passed through the hands of Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Essex, and then to Anne of Cleves. It clearly played a central part in some of England's most turbulent times. This house is not changing its habits.
In 1986 it was discovered, after something of a search, by an extremely wealthy Chicago venture capitalist and his wife, Stuart and Sandy Moss. It was their intention to create a world-beating sparkling wine and they chose this sleepy valley in Sussex. They saw here the perfect soil, a fold in the earth's crust that surfaces also in the Champagne region of France, an ever improving climate for the growing of vines, and a pretty sceptical English wine trade. It was a romantic notion, for which we can all be grateful. Over the next few years he planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the three grapes that go to make the fizz across the channel, built a small but modern winery, and quickly a strong following amongst the ever less sceptical trade.
Nyetimber, which means, incidentally, "new timbered house", started winning awards. Even the French, not always the most open-minded of people when it comes to competition, started to take notice. A seriously high quality English sparkling wine was born.
In 2001 the estate was bought by songwriter Andy Hill and his wife Nichola. Under their patronage it could be said that the feel of the place changed a little. Trappings of the modern grand lifestyle were introduced. Big swimming pool, pool house and so on. The wine, however, under the dedicated watch of wine maker Dermot Sugrue, continued to thrive. Andy Hill's keen enthusiasm for the wine and his continuing royalties kept everything on track.
Meanwhile the success of the vineyard had attracted the notice of another very keen wine amateur. A couple of years ago, after approaching Andy Hill to see if the estate was for sale and getting no joy, Eric Heerema, a Dutchman whose career in the venture capital business (why does this estate attract these professional money men? It must say something) had left him with the wherewithal to indulge his passion, started buying suitable land in the same area to plant vines. He also saw the opportunity of making top class fizz. To date he has bought 130 acres of excellent land and this year he has planted 216,000 vines. Also this year, after Andy Hill had a change of heart, he bought Nyetimber. It is he and his family that are moving into the house as I speak, and it is this estate that will be the flagship of the company.
This is almost certainly the best thing that could have happened to Nyetimber. The romantic notion of which I spoke earlier really was exactly that. Thirty six acres of vines and a small winery would always have been a serious struggle to maintain. Only the wealthiest and most passionate could have kept it alive. This new expansion with all its economies of scale should cement the future of one of the most exciting developments in the wine making industry in England. Obviously it will be several years until we get to taste the wines from the new vines, and in the meantime it is a huge and brave risk by Mr Heerema but he has every intention of keeping up the standard set by the Moss family. He will extend the winery to take the extra volume and it is even possible that they might produce a non-vintage wine to allow those of us with slighter means to enjoy their efforts.
The romance doesn't show any signs of diminishing however. This fantastic countryside is nothing but enhanced by the presence of these beautiful vineyards. The hedges are still full of wild plums and blackberries. The folds in the land are home to large communities of badgers, given away around the edge of the fields by the shallow scoops in the soil in which they neatly go to the loo; mushrooms pop up all over the paths around the vines and buzzards mew in the sky. Without wanting to be in any way trite, if there are any advantages to be gained from the effects of global warming surely the presence of world class vineyards in our midst has to be one of them. It is rumoured that some of the most important Champagne houses are taking a close interest in the area, and if Christopher Varley's enthusiasm is anything to go by, so they should be. The poor fellow commutes from Edinburgh; There's confidence for you.
Nyetimber is not open to the public, so you can't visit, but you can taste the results of their dedication. The Oxford Wine Company list Nyetimber Classic Blend 2000 at £21.95 and Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2000 at £23.95.