The Buyer
South African team is USP for new English wine producer Leonardslee

South African team is USP for new English wine producer Leonardslee

Leonardslee Family Vineyards, which had its official launch this week, is a new English sparkling wine producer with a difference – the key players are all from South Africa with the rosé even containing English-grown Pinotage. It is a masterstroke, writes Geoffrey Dean, for owner Penny Streeter OBE to have recruited distinguished South African winemaker Johann Fourie and viticulturist Barry Anderson to steer the wine side of the project which includes 38 acres under vine, a luxury restaurant and hotel and world famous gardens. Dean talks to Streeter, Fourie and Anderson about the site and the strategy, plus gives an in-depth account of the first three cuvées.

Geoffrey Dean
7th June 2024by Geoffrey Dean
posted in Tasting: Wine ,

To the growing list of English producers of world-class sparkling wine can be added another: Leonardslee Family Vineyards. The spectacularly beautiful Sussex estate, which planted its vines in 2017 and 2018, has just released its maiden labels - a Blanc de Blancs 2020, a Brut Reserve 2021 and a Brut Rosé 2021 - all of which made a big impression on buyers and critics who were invited to the early June launch at the winery, four miles south-east of Horsham.

Leonardslee Family Vineyards: 70,000 vines planted

Leonardslee Family Vineyards

The proprietor, Penny Streeter OBE, who was born in Rhodesia, as it then was, is a resident of South Africa where she also owns leading Walker Bay winery, Benguela Cove. Her winemaker there, Johann Fourie, is one of South Africa’s most respected, and her decision to persuade him to make the wines at Leonardslee was a masterstroke.

So too was her recruitment of distinguished South African viticulturist, Barry Anderson, who himself spent 15 years at another top-notch western Cape estate, Gabriëlskloof, in the Bot River ward near Hermanus. While Anderson has moved full-time to Sussex, maintaining meticulous watch over the 38 acres under vine, Fourie travels from Cape Town several times a year for key periods.

Leonardslee Family Vineyards

Penny Streeter OBE and Adam

Streeter’s son, Adam, runs the estate where he also lives. A hugely successful entrepreneur, Penny, flew in to join him for the launch and declared to those present that she does not ‘do’ mediocrity. That was the last word that could be associated with what is a majestic triumvirate of Leonardslee sparkling wines.

The key to them is the quality of the vineyard sites, which happen to be centred on and around some of the old fairways of Mannings Heath golf club. With the Streeters’ purchase of the Leonardslee house and estate came ownership of the club and its two 18-hole courses. Exhaustive soil analysis of a number of holes revealed they were, as Anderson put it, ‘the perfect place to grow grapes.” Accordingly, nine holes were sequestered and planted with vines, while still leaving the club with an 18-hole course as well as a 9-hole one.

“We identified some great sites which ticked all the right boxes,” Anderson declared. “They were south-facing with the right altitude of 60 to 90 metres, and beautifully protected against cold winds by Leonard’s Forest, allowing the soils to retain their warmth.” These are made up of silty loam topsoil with clay loam subsoil.

Leonardslee Family Vineyards

Johann Fourie, Leonardslee launch, June 5, 2024

Fourie added that much of what applies to winemaking in South Africa cannot be here.

“It’s very important in England to have vineyards on a slope to guard against frost and allow the cold air to slide down,” he said. “Whereas back home we want wind to cool the vines, here you want trees to protect against it and keep the heat inside.”

Leonardslee’s mantra is sustainability through regenerative vineyard practice, working with nature rather than against it.

“We believe healthy soils lead to healthy vines and better wines,” Anderson continued. “The soils were quite infertile when we did initial tests, with only two earthworms per square metre. Now, we have 30 per square metre. We’re bringing in short-legged dolly sheep who will eat the cover crop but not the vines. That helps reduce soil compaction and provides natural fertiliser.” Runner ducks are also being introduced to consume snails and slugs.

Chardonnay is the grape that has particularly flourished at Leonardslee, with the grape accounting for around 55% of the 70,000 vines planted. Pinot Noir comprises 34%, Pinot Meunier 8% and Pinotage just under 2%. The latter varietal, a South African creation after Pinot Noir was crossed with Cinsault, is extremely rare in the UK, with Leonardslee thought to be the first, and possibly only, winery where it is grown. Fourie explained why Pinotage makes up 10% of the Brut Rosé 2021. “It produces a fruit profile in Rosé that Pinot Noir doesn’t,” he said, “and gives colour contribution, bringing out a beautiful tint in the wine.”

Finally, to the Leonardslee label. Like it or not, labels can influence sales, and the Leonardslee one is very appealing: a swallow framed against a blue background. Local artist Will Parr designed it.

“We didn’t want to follow the traditional route with labels,” Anderson said. “It represents Penny’s journey between South Africa and England. The four smaller swallows on the back of the neck represent her four children. And Sussex is the first county where swallows touch down after flying up from South Africa.”

How were the wines tasting?

Leonardslee Family Vineyards

Leonardslee Blanc de Blancs 2020

12.7% abv, dosage 6g/l, RSP £60

100% Chardonnay with 36 months on the lees mostly, though some got more. Disgorged two months ago. Notable tension and freshness (pH 2.99, TA 8.5g/l, no malolactic fermentation). 25% fermentation in barrel gives texture and richness, enabling dosage to be limited to 6g/l. Lime, hazelnut and autolytic notes with toasted bread and creaminess. Elegance and finesse with a very long finish. A superb maiden offering from what was a stellar vintage when, in Anderson's words, all the stars aligned in a warm, dry year with no frost.

Leonardslee Brut Reserve 2021

11.9% abv, dosage 7.5g/l, RSP £45

70% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir, 10% Pinot Meunier. A tougher vintage with late frosts, some very wet weather and limited sunlight hours. No disease pressure though at Leonardslee unlike other estates. Very high levels of acidity (TA 8.9g/l) led to 100% malolactic fermentation. 26-30 months on the lees, with some reserve wine from 2020 used. Vibrant yet elegant with green apple notes and hints of yeastiness and brioche. Lovely mouth-filling texture with no edges. Another cracker.

Leonardslee Brut Rosé 2021

12.7% abv, dosage 9g/l, RSP £45

56% Chardonnay, 31% Pinot Noir, 10% Pinotage, 3% Pinot Meunier. 24 months on the lees, with a bit more for later disgorgements. Partial malolactic fermentation (pH2.99, TA 8.5g/l). Rose gold hue with no need to add in red wine base thanks to extra colour from Pinotage. Violet, rose petal and red berry aromas with notes of pomegranate, strawberry, nougat and Turkish Delight. High percentage of Chardonnay due to its exceptional quality. Elegance, finesse and purity in this delightful Rosé, completing a remarkable hat-trick on debut for Leonardslee and Johann Fourie.

All three wines are listed by Taurus Wines.