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Oastbrook Estate founders Nick and America Brewer with Simon Huntington of Marasby

Winery Profile

Oastbrook estate

A bottle of wine that might just change your life.
Everyone who works with wine has a story about the bottle that changed everything. A ‘wine to Damascus’ moment that made the scales fall from their taste buds, turning them onto a world of vinous experience.

For Nick Brewer, co-owner of East Sussex wine estate Oastbrook, it was a Burgundy Pinot Noir.

Nick was 18 years old, and had travelled to Beaune to work at Pickwick’s, the town’s famous English pub. Nick had a friend who knew the owner Alex Dale, another young Englishman, and Nick and Alex hit it off. When Nick split up with his girlfriend a few months later, Alex consoled him with a bottle of Burgundy Pinot. “Here, try this. It’s much better than a girlfriend,” Alex told him.

It turned out, at least in the case of this particular girlfriend, that Alex was right.

For the next thirty years, Nick pursued his passion for Burgundy purely as a consumer. Nick’s career took in global commodities, running an NGO and a mine clearance company, working internationally. Back in London, he met his future wife – an equally career-driven, wine-loving Brazilian named America. The spark for one of English wine’s most exciting future partnerships was lit.

Quality and Character

We meet Nick and America in Oastbrook’s tasting room, which must be one of the most beautifully designed – and unusual – in England.

Everything is built from natural materials, principally English oak, and with its vaulted ceiling it feels like a cross between a cathedral to wine and a Saxon longhouse.

Nearby is a ‘hobbit house’ for guests – a human-sized burrow built into the hillside in homage to The Lord of the Rings. This too is built with incredible design quality and even in mid-winter, it is wonderfully warm. It’s all due to air-source heating and insulation, Nick tells us, “we don’t use grid energy to heat or cool anything here.”

It’s clear that a certain message is being conveyed to the visitor. Everything at Oastbrook is done at the highest-possible quality level. Yet Oastbrook isn’t the kind of corporate, trophy winery you might see in Bordeaux or alongside the main road in Napa. It’s open to doing things differently. That includes leaning into, rather than trying to work against, England’s temperamental climate.

Nick’s philosophy is “clear view winemaking.” What’s clear view winemaking? Nick explains: “you’ve either got to have frosted view or clear view. Frosted is having the same recipe every year. Clear view is looking at the vintage, looking at the terroir, and trying to express it as best you can.”

That means that Oastbrook’s 2021 range is much lighter than their 2020s – yet it also produced great wines. 2022 will be completely different again.

“We get lots of variability in England. You can either try and compensate for it, or you can celebrate it. We’re of the view that you should celebrate it.”

Oastbrook Estate founder Nick Brewer in front of winery

Prevention is Better Than Cure

Oastbrook Estate vineyard

So far, it’s all been about Nick, but visit Oastbrook and it’s clear that his massively high-energy Brazilian wife America plays just as important a role. She’s fresh in from a walk-through of the vines, yet she’s immaculately dressed, from head down to open-toe platform sandals. The estate’s integrated approach to vineyard management is all down to her.

America explains that vines are particularly susceptible to diseases like powdery mildew. The nearest vineyard to Oastbrook’s is 1km away and disease is unlikely to be spread by wind, so she asks visitors if they have recently visited any other vineyards. Those that have won’t be let too near her vines. This rigorous prevention of disease means that she won’t have to spray chemicals at a later point.

Clover is allowed to grow between rows, which helps to fix nitrogen into the soil, so Oastbrook doesn’t have to use any fertilizer. The vineyard used to have a problem with deer, until golden retriever Laura, who was “the most useless guard dog ever”, turned out to be brilliant at scaring them away. Now Laura has access to the vineyard whenever she wants.

We head into the winery, where Nick and America take us through what’s currently in tank. They’re keen for us to know that everything is done in-house: “people want to know about the provenance of wine, but there’s the provenance of the winemakers as well. People want to know if wineries are making their own wines. Here we do absolutely everything ourselves.”

We start with Oastbrook’s 2022 Chardonnay, in tank just a few months on from harvest and still pre-malo. Oastbrook will make 2500 bottles of still Chardonnay in total this vintage, to be split between stainless steel and barrel aged cuvées. Right now it’s electric – creamy with notes of honeysuckle, yet incredible vibrant, intensely mineral and saline. It could definitely stand up to some high-quality oak – but not too much, Nick says. “In 2022, fruit quality will tempt some winemakers into throwing way too much oak at their wines. We won’t make that mistake.”

Next up is the 2021 Pinot Noir mentioned earlier. It’s much paler and lighter-bodied than the 2020, reflecting the vintage in a clear-view winemaking way. Yet it still has deeper colour than many other ’21 Pinots we’ve tasted. It’s all black cherries and spices, rather than the simple red fruits of some this vintage, and has great intensity. It’s rather reminiscent of a Cote de Beaune Pinot Noir Nick might have enjoyed at Pickwick’s.

The 2022 Pinot Blanc is next, and it is like biting into a really juicy nectarine. It’s made from the same type of Pinot Blanc that’s planted in Alsace. It is incredibly gluggable and fruit-forward, yet it’s balanced by body, mouth-feel and minerality. It’ll sell out fast.

Finally, we taste Oastbrook’s 2022 Pinot Meunier – a Champagne noble variety, yet destined to be a still white wine. At the moment of tasting, it’s really quite brisk, but Nick assures us that over time it will develop into a soft, richly textured wine. I ask Nick why he chose to make it into a still, rather than a sparkling wine. “For the challenge of it,” he says.

“I love English sparkling wine – we make it ourselves – and it has developed a world-class reputation. The next step is for England to build its reputation for still wines. We have visitors from Denmark and Sweden who are superfans of English still wines, like some people are fans of craft beers. But it needs to break into the mainstream.

“We’re in this wonderful period where there isn’t a rule book that’s 25ft tall. We can experiment with grape varieties and soil types. But the really exciting bit will come when we define these natural terroirs, which will specialise.”

What does Nick mean by natural terroirs?

“The river Rother runs down to Rye, past where Oastbrook, along with Oxney, Gusbourne, and Artelium have vineyards. All these vineyards sit predominantly on clay and silt soils, and all make outstanding still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

“The new Sussex PDO takes in the whole county, and that necessarily means wines that come from many different soil types. In the future, perhaps the clay soil of the Rother Valley – likewise the clay of Essex’s Crouch Valley – will be recognised as a natural terroir that’s particularly suitable for still wine production.”

It’s an intriguing possibility, yet for now, Nick and America are focusing on making great wine, on welcoming visitors to their estate (just don’t touch the vines), and on telling their story. It’s a love story, for each other and for wine, a story of top-notch quality matched by a little twinkle in the eye. It’s an international story, yet somehow, it feels uniquely English.

With all this in mind, perhaps there’s the possibility that a bottle of Oastbrook will be your life-changing wine.