You wouldn’t think that being called a ‘peasant’ by such an august publication as The New York Times would be much cause for celebration. Yet for Hugo Corney, it’s a personal badge of courage.
As bubbly as the product he so lovingly produces, Hugo is the winemaker at Court Garden Vineyard in East Sussex. Originally sheep farmers, Hugo and his father began their wine-making business in 2005 and now have six hectares under crop, making vintage sparkling wines. It is this pursuit that prompted the seemingly-derogatory newspaper comment.
“A journalist wrote an article on what we were doing here,” enthuses Hugo. “They called us Sussex peasants making wine a bit like champagne.”
A few decades ago you wouldn’t have heard the words ‘English’ and ‘wine’ used in the same sentence but the Corney’s are flourishing, winning more awards than they can display in their reception-cum-tasting room at their property in Ditchling. They are even giving the French a run for their money, with nine varieties now on offer, all grown, picked, harvested and bottled on the premises.
“We don’t want to copy what other winemakers are doing,” says Hugo. “There is more weight in making wine that is unique to you and your country.”
This approach certainly resonates with the locals, who come together as ‘Friends of Court Garden’ every year to help harvest the grapes. Visitors to this neck of the woods in September or October who fancy a day out in the vines can find themselves picking grapes opposite a high court judge, a policeman or a fireman. And the best bit? They remunerate their grape-pickers with wine.
“One couple went away with enough wine to almost cover their wedding. We have a big party once the harvest is gathered, but we only pick what we can process.”
Visitors can tour the winery and see how that process takes place and if you’re in Ditchling at the right time of year, they also host operatic performances that raise money for charity.
Purely in the interests of this article I tried as many of their varieties as I could and thoroughly recommend the Classic Cuvee and the Blanc de Blancs. Subtle, elegant and thoroughly drinkable, they were a delight for the palate, a testament to the great wine-growing soil in these parts and the Corney’s dedication to doing something just a little different down on the farm.