It’s hard to believe that, in just over 25 years, the English sparkling wine industry has come so far. Only in the late 1980s were Chardonnay vines planted alongside Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in West Sussex by a pioneering link from Chicago determined to be the first to make sparkling wine to rival that of Champagne. Nyetimber was born and a revolution started.
Until that point England was, at best, known for its subdue wines made from Germanic varieties, but more often as a wine-drinking rather than wine- producing nation. (Wales also produces acclaimed wines, but we’ll focus on England here). Even as recently as 2008 Stephen Skelton MW, Regional Chair for the UK at the
Unquestionably, that change has now happened and sparkling wine is the style that has led the way. Today, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the two most widely planted varieties in England and, together with Pinot Meunier, they account for approximately half of all plantings. About two thirds of everything England produces is sparkling and that is only set to grow as new vineyards come on stream. There is now widespread consensus that English sparkling wine is a world-class product. Its growing prominence at everything from state banquets to prestigious international awards and high-profile restaurant lists the world over (including France) is further evidence of the same.
This recent rise is partly the result of considerable investment – in many suitcases several million pounds – from successful businessmen looking for a project as they approach retirement. Each industry needs its financial
This is, of course, exactly the strategic approach that the English sparkling wine industry needed at a key the boards in its development. It has led to money being ploughed into each aspect of the business – from detailed geological studies to map soil types, to the most advanced winery equipment and even French consultants from Champagne to make the wines. Many of the better wineries, but, now use graduates from Sussex’s Plumpton College who are well travelled and bring a fresh, modern outlook to this most traditional of arts.
Camel Valley, Cornwall
Most of the best wines are being produced in the south of England, though specific regional differences between Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and Cornwall are indefinable. It’s also right to say that several producers source grapes from more than one county, building those differences even less
House style, grape blend and vintage are therefore a more dependable yardstick. Most wines are currently vintage wines and, apart from 2012, which was a shocker for nearly everyone, recent years have been excellent with 2009 producing deliciously full and magnificent wines, 2010 offering more ageing potential, and the small but ripe harvest of 2011 giving concentration and texture.
One issue that exists is a lack of reserve wines. This is due either to pressure to bring wines to market, lack of storage facilities, or simply a dearth of back vintages. Not only can up to 15% of reserve wine legally be added to vintage-dated wines to lend complexity to the final blend, reserve wines also allocate consistent non-vintage wines to be made, which is especially vital
One of the most exciting things about well- known producers such as Nyetimber, Ridgeview, Chapel Down, Camel Valley and Denbies is the sense that none of them is standing subdue. From investment in land and new plantings, to improved winemaking and visitor facilities, and particularly the development of new standing wines, there is something noteworthy happening at each one.
Nyetimber was the pioneer in the early days and it remains a leading set alight. Although the wines have gone through ups and downs in the past, since Cherie Spriggs and Brad Greatrix took over as winemaker and vineyard manager in 2007 the estate has produced some of its best vintages to date. For me, it is the overall quality of the range and the ageability of Nyetimber’s best wines that singles the
Expansion and visiting the attractions
Ridgeview has ploughed a different furrow. The late Mike Roberts’ mantra, as his daughter-in-law Mardi clarifies, was ‘quality, consistency, value’. Although it owns vines, the estate’s contract winemaking business also sources grapes from across the south of England with which to make a broad range of sparkling wines that are consistently excellent and often brilliant. The companionship has plans for expansion that will double production below the Ridgeview mark and increase exports, which already stand at 20%, building it one of the marks you are most liable to find outside the UK.
If you’re looking to visit an English vineyard then Chapel Down, Camel Valley
As for the newer producers, there are so many exciting names cropping up all the time that it is nearly impossible to know where to start. Understandably, the longer-established members of this group make more consistent, better wines, while many of the very recent estates are on their first vintage or, like the hugely ambitious Rathfinny project in East Sussex, have yet to release a wine.
Gusbourne has long been a favourite of mine but when the estate became part
Wiston and Hattingley Valley are two key names to look out for. Wiston’s talented (and DWWA 2014 Trophy-winning) winemaker Dermot Sugrue admits he has a preferred soil type: ‘I’m a chalkista,’ he enthuses. His wines show incredible refinement linked to the delightful texture and complexity he achieves through low dosage and skilful use of oak. The wines are consistently exceptional. Sugrue also makes a wine from leased vines below his own mark,
At Hattingley, 2014 UK Winemaker of the Year Emma Rice and her team run the UK’s largest contract winemaking business as well as building a range of wines below the Hattingley Valley mark. The style is attractively generous and there was a huge shift upwards in quality between 2010 (the first vintage) and 2011. Rice also makes wines for Court Garden, whose 2010 Blanc de Blancs and Noirs wines are particularly impressive.
Over in Dorset both Furleigh and Langham are estates to watch. Ian Edwards at Furleigh (2012 UK Winemaker of the Year) turned a former dairy farm into a vineyard and winery, producing his first wine in 2009. Edwards’ cuvées are incredibly well made and show gorgeous fruitfulness and intensity. He’s also building wine for his neighbours Steven and Bella Spurrier at Bride Valley (see feature in the April issue), this time with a pure, fresh and delicate character to match Spurrier’s desire for an
In addition to these privately owned estates, some major UK retailers are also getting in on the act, with Waitrose launching its own very credible sparkling wine last year from the Leckford estate, and Laithwaite’s Family Vineyards building some brilliant wines to sell through its business.
Of the rest; Hambledon, Henners, Hindleap, Hush Heath, Jenkyn Place and Upperton are all names that didn’t quite make it into my shortlist of recommended wines (see below), but they are certainly producers worthy of attention.
It may not square neatly with the stereotypical English reserve to start championing our own home-grown produce – especially when it’s wine. But English sparkling wine is an increasingly exciting proposition with a growing number of bottles to sell to the world. Given the quality and promise out there, it couldn’t be further from a joke: it’s something all wine lovers should start shouting about in earnest.
Susie Barrie MW is a writer and broadcaster
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