Exploring Wiston Estate: The Banana Belt Republic

By | 17 April 2024

The story behind the Goring family’s stylish West Sussex sparkling wines.


Margaret Rand

Margaret Rand visits a part of the South Downs famed (and nicknamed) for its warm climate, where the Goring family is making fine sparkling wines of tension and generosity on their sustainably managed farm at Wiston Estate.

It used to be called the banana belt, this stretch of the South Downs where so many top wine estates are now found. It was warm, and the crop grown there was good—though that was long before the crop was grapes for sparkling wine. Dermot Sugrue told me that, when he was winemaker at Wiston Estate. His own wine comes from the banana belt, and so does Wiston’s, from the southwest corner of a 6,000-acre (2,430ha) property owned by the Goring family. Wiston was mentioned in the Domesday Book. The banana belt, obviously, didn’t feature.

The entirety of the chalk-based vines cover a total of 37 acres (15ha). Additionally, there are 1,000 acres (405ha) of woodland, while 2,000 acres (810ha) are tended to by the estate, with the balance of the land rented out. The estate also includes a selection of chalk pits used for commercial quarrying and a sandpit. The estate is divided equally between the Downs and the Weald, and from its elevated position, view of Isle of Wight is possible during favorable weather conditions. The Chanctonbury Ring, an Iron Age fort adorned with beech trees planted in 1760 by Charles Goring, is situated on Wiston land. Although the Downs might seem barren and uninhabited now, it has been a home to humanity for an extended period of time.

Water availability on the Downs remains the same as it was in previous years. Wiston estate refrains from irrigation. In the spring of 2022, vines were planted on the estate but fears arose that the young plants might not survive the following dry, hot summer. However, the chalk soil did wonders for plant survival.


In spite of repressive death duties that downsized the estate from 20,000 acres (8,093ha) to its current measurements and the leasing of Wiston House to the Foreign Office under potentially unfavorable terms, the estate has endured. The estate is responsible for the external maintenance of the building, which is decidedly the most cost-intensive aspect.

But let’s jump to 1972, when Harry Goring married Pip Broadbent. Being South African but with an English father, Pip was brought up in Franschhoek. She missed the warmth of her homeland and the vineyards. Despite her repeated persuasions to Harry to plant vineyards, he refused. Planting vines in England during the ’70s and ’80s was considered eccentric and economically unviable. Instead, Wiston had a turkey farm, cattle, sheep, and arable crops. But Pip did eventually get her wish. The first vines were planted in 2006. How did that happen?

It certainly wasn’t because of Pip’s persuasive business plan; she didn’t have one. However, she was persisent. The turning point came in 2005 when Champagne houses started to show interest in renting some land. The advice of Stephen Skelton was sought and this led to their decision. As per Skelton, there were only around 1,000 acres in England favorable for vineyards.

The first vineyard, Findon Park, was planted in 2006 and covered 16 acres comprising Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. Since then, additional plantings have included Broadwood (exclusively Chardonnay), North Farm Vineyard (only Pinot Noir), and North Farm Valley (a mixture of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir). It is Chardonnay that shines here; its wines being notable for their fine but strong structure. Wiston has successfully navigated past the initial austere days and now the wines have matured to offer depth and richness without losing their purity.

As Kirsty Goring, the daughter-in-law of Pip and Harry explains, time and the accumulation of reserve wines have made a difference. The wines age well and develop a beautiful richness with time. Their first Non-Vintage was launched in 2015, and their NV Blanc de Blancs contains about 20 percent reserve wines. It’s clear that Wiston is on the rise.

Back then, it still felt risky. Champagne cultivator Jean-Manuel Jacquinot became a consultant to the emerging project. He and Pip toured Nyetimber, another site in the banana belt and met its winemaker, Sugrue. Sugrue is reticent about the transition, but soon afterward, he shifted to becoming the winemaker at Wiston from Nyetimber.

This was not a venture with boundless funds. There was no winery and no plan for one. The financial burden of planting the vines was tackled by selling a dairy herd and equipment. However, Dermot figured a winery could be self-sustainable through contract winemaking. A fundamental winery was established in the old turkey shed. An old Coquard press was procured, secondhand barrels were collected, and an array of tanks of all sizes due to contract winemaking. Apart from Wiston production, Dermot made his own wines from the 1.5 acres of vines he rented near Storrington. He also produced Digby, Jenkyn Place, and others. In 2017, Dermot was making up to 20 different wines each year. In 2024, Wiston will bottle between 200,000 and 220,000 bottles for six contract clients and 140,000 bottles of their own wine.

In 2006, right after the vine planting, Richard Goring and his wife Kirsty returned from Canada. Richard was the next in line to inherit. Time for a flashback.

Kirsty and Rick met at a church holiday camp when they were 14 and 16 respectively. According to her, he instantly knew that she was the one. They kept in touch when he attended Edinburgh University while she went to Oxford, and studied history at Magdalen, where she first encountered Château d’Yquem—and developed a liking for it.

Her grandparent expressed doubts about her suitability owing to a lack of practical knowledge and advised she pursue a cooking course. “I knew of Ballymaloe through a friend who attended,” mentions Kirsty. “I was apprehensive but willing to give it a go.” Naturally, she grew fond of it and Wiston’s wines are now listed at Ballymaloe. Subsequently, she worked in the charitable sector while also running a cooking business as a side gig, servicing private parties primarily. “I embraced the challenge of pairing wines.” Tasting, in her experience, was an acquired skill that she could easily grasp. “I’ve always had a heightened sense of smell,” she discloses, to a point where she would find the company of her brother’s adolescent comrades challenging. She inherited this sense from her mother and passed it down to her younger son, describing it as a “high-tensile ability.”

Kirsty and Rick married at 24 and 25 respectively, and after one year in London, they relocated to Canada. They joined an initiative named Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms that enabled people to work on farms for several months. Participants join to learn and work. Once their time at one farm ends, they transition to another. Ballymaloe’s organic farm steered Kirsty toward organic agriculture and she envisioned the year in Canada as a period of practical learning and intensive work, building on her newfound direction. Kirsty muses, “Our friends were partying it up in London meanwhile.” The couple yearned for a place where they could blend into the society, learn from the culture and communicate in the local language. They chose Canada, and specifically the far west since the farmers there were trailblazers. Kirsty shares, “These explorers headed west, and kept going west.” They made it to Vancouver Island, Cortes, Hornby, Queen Charlotte Island; places where the next destination would be Alaska. They encountered people sustaining themselves off-grid, completely reliant on the food they grew. “Their sustainability was not a fashionable trend, rather a necessity since they didn’t know when the next shipment of supplies would show up. They recognized that they were not the priority during emergencies and needed to become self-sustaining… Rick was pretty much the handyman since he was trained as a carpenter in London and had experience in renovations with architects when Londoners had a more flexible financial situation.”

She reflects, “When we left London in 2004, recycling was not institutionalized yet. Here people were going green, recycling multiple times, it broadened my perspective on life.”

What was planned as a one year stint in Canada gradually became 18 months. The couple debated whether they could apply what they learnt about sustainable living upon returning to London. Concurrently, it was anticipated that Rick would assume control over the estate. So, ultimately, they returned to Wiston.

Rick grew up in a remote area with not many people around and moved to London as there was not a strong rural economy. One of their goals has always been to create something sustainable that would encourage young people to stay and thrive. Back when Rick was a child, the farm produced wood and reared cattle, but none of it was sold directly to consumers, which made the place isolated. Their aim was to create a vibrant spot and bring people in, and this became a part of the sustainability plan. Learning directly from experienced individuals like their head forester was more enriching than any previous experience.

Rick’s transition to taking over Wiston was not immediate. Although he didn’t have formal training in land management, he gained a wealth of experience working in different departments at Wiston, and for a neighboring estate in Angmering. Kirsty, on the other hand, worked at a small start-up called Higgidy Pies in product development and marketing. Rick’s business growth course from Cranfield School of Management greatly helped him when he took over Wiston in 2011. Their vision was to promote regenerative farming. They believe in interacting with people and spreading their mission, hence they often conduct tours and work with schools. They have chosen to offer more than a cellar door, they have a restaurant too, to reflect the quality of the wine they are passionate about. This has resulted in Chalk, a place of delicious and local seasonal food.

Viticulture is practised in a sustainable and organic manner but is not certified for practical reasons. Over time, the winery has expanded and upgraded, with the addition of new machines and building modifications. They put effort into ensuring everything is sustainable – solar panels on the winery roof, insulated bottle storages, recycling cardboard, and reusing old barrels for smoking.

The wines have evolved over time, always maintaining their distinctive quality of purity and high acidity, influenced greatly by the land itself. The ideal wines undergo six years of lees aging and six months in a bottle post-disgorgement before release. Pinot Noir adds richness. For instance, the 2016 Cuvée (with 55 percent Pinot Noir) offers a dazzling dark character, powerful and serious, yet lively.

Dermot has transitioned to concentrate on his expanded property, leaving the cellar under the stewardship of Marcus Rayner-Ward. Marcus joined the Wiston team in 2018, spending five fruitful years with Dermot. He believes that the landscape ultimately dictates the style of their product. Since his tenure began at a point where Wiston had already shed its initial austerity, the Wiston he knows is one of balance and generosity, implying that the style is not likely to change during his time.

Jacquinot maintains a consulting role and makes bi-annual trips to taste the entire produce. This often feels like an important inspection visit, as Kirsty humorously describes. On the financial end, the winery is seemingly in a prosperous state. Initially, it was heavily supplemented by income from the arable farm. However, in 2020, the winery reached a point of financial self-sustainability, according to Kirsty. The investment in the initial 16 acres was £250,000, with similar amounts spent on planting three other vineyards. They invested £7 million in redesigning the winery, introducing cellar doors, a tasting room, event space, a new parking lot, and constructing four commercial buildings at North Farm. Restoration of the flint barns was also included in this makeover, which currently houses Chalk. Compared to some English vineyards, this expenditure could seem frugal, but it should be noted they didn’t need to purchase the land.

Intriguingly, no plans have been announced for cultivating bananas, at least for now.

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