Producing wines in a Sussex-based vineyard good enough to sell alongside the classics is no mean feat. But Bookers is doing just that - and doing it well. Alex Beckett reports

A cup of tea? A pint of ale? A watered down alcopop on a happy hour promotion? Were you to select a drink to represent true Britishness, a fruity red wouldn't spring to mind.

Yet nestled in the idyllic Sussex Downs, Bolney Wine Estate at Bookers Vineyard has not only created a wine range good enough to share shelf space with variants from traditional wine-growing nations, but an award-winning Pinot Noir to boot.

The concept is far from conventional. The English Wine Producers association estimates that no more than five English wineries supply red wine to grocery retail . Nevertheless, Bookers' regional listings in Tesco, Waitrose and Southern Co-op, along with increased consumer concern over food miles, have helped its first quarter like-for-like sales grow 35% to £350,000.

The vineyard has expanded from three acres to 33 since it opened 35 years ago, but it was in 2005 that the family-owned business really took off, says company director and chief winemaker Sam Linter.

Defra awarded Bookers a grant that enabled Linter to buy state-of-the-art fermentation vats, bottling equipment and quality French and American oak barrels. With her vines ideally located on a southern-facing slope with sandstone-based soil providing easy drainage, Linter already had the foundations to make a quality red - and now she had the machinery to match.

Since then, the industry accolades have been pouring in, including a bronze medal at last year's International Wine & Spirit Competition for Bookers' 2007 Pinot Noir - the only English red to scoop an award.

"Over the past decade, English wine has taken a massive learning curve," says Linter. "A lot of suppliers have invested a lot of money into becoming extremely professional and we are now consistently reaching the international quality standard."

You could be forgiven for thinking Britain's notoriously erratic weather is not conducive to producing English reds. In fact, the cloudier and cooler weather makes for grapes with thinner skins, resulting in a lower-alcohol wine that allows the fruit and character of the grape to come through. "It's an elegant flavour that is proving popular," says Linter.

Two wet summers in a row damaged Bookers' crop and reduced production. But Linter is optimistic. "Sales have peaked at about 60,000 bottles, but last year we expanded our acreage by more than 50% and with that significantly increased our production capacity. And since recruiting a dedicated sales manager in January, we have doubled our distribution."

Southern Co-op stocks three of Booker's variants in five stores, while 17 Tesco stores list its 2005 Foxhole Reserve (rsp: £7.95). Waitrose has been particularly supportive of the brand and lists five variants across 36 stores. Further listings are in the pipeline, says Linter, who hopes to double the number of outlets by the end of the year.

With alcohol duty hikes sparking a 20%-plus sales slump across well-known Old World and New World brands, it's a tough time for wine. But, for now, Bookers' vineyard is in a picturesque world of its own.