English Sparkling Wine Comes of Age

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Issue 00 | pp14-22 | 01.04.2019

English Sparkling Wine Comes of Age

The announcement late last year that Champagne Taittinger had bought a substantial parcel of land in Kent in a multi-million dollar investment was the best Christmas present the English wine industry has ever been given. For a house of this renown to endorse English wine in such unequivocal terms is a massive boost to the industry. Taittinger aims to produce 25,000 cases of “Premium English sparkling wine” from vines that are yet to be planted.

The only people who weren’t surprised were the British wine press. We were told the news by Pierre-Émmanuel Taittinger in an upstairs room at London’s Westminster Abbey. He explained that the wine will be named Domaine Evremond in honor of the 17th century poet, bon viveur and Champagne ambassador Charles de Saint-Évremond, who is buried alongside Chaucer and Charles Dickens in the south transept of the ancient church. The general reaction was, “it had to happen.”

There will be more. Champagne Vranken-Pommery Monopole has just announced it will be making an English sparkling wine with Hampshire vineyard Hattingley Valley (established 2008), and any substantial English wine producer expects regular calls from Champagne. One of the biggest names in the business told me he had been offered £6.7 million ($9.8 million) by a major Champagne house.

Big investments in English wine are not unusual, of course. In 2004 Eric Heerema, a Dutch millionaire with a penchant for fast cars bought a 900-year-old estate in Sussex called Nyetimber. The estate was based around an ancient, crooked- roofed manor house and a five-century-old barn of astonishing beauty. Then there is Mark Driver, who made his pile in hedge funds, then decided to go into wine, planting 250 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. The Rathfinny estate is a beautiful slice of rural England, its acres of spindly young vines complementing the fecund loveliness of the South English Downs, where rolling hills and sparsely wooded valleys fall away to the sea. Driver is typical of the new generation of investors in English wine. Rathfinny will be one of the biggest vineyards in the country, with at least $13 million invested and a purpose-built, gravity-fed winery with capacity for 1 million bottles, of which he expects to export at least half.

Wine has been produced in England for hundreds of years but only in the last few decades has there been any sort of coherent commercial wine industry—and only in the last ten years has serious investment brought production up to international standards. Its modern era dates from 1988, when a couple from Chicago, Stuart and Sandy Moss, first planted their vineyards in Sussex. They won a gold medal for their 1992 Blanc de Blancs, thereby alerting people to the potential of English sparkling made under the traditional method.

Another landmark date is 2010, when the East Sussex winery Ridgeview’s Grosvenor 2006 won world’s best sparkling wine at the internationally recognized Decanter World Wine Awards. Since then the sector’s tally of international tasting triumphs has grown exponentially.

Today there are 470 vineyards operated by 135 wineries, producing some 5 million bottles from 4952 acres of vines (the majority planted within the last ten years). The market was worth $230 million in 2014. While there are vineyards as far north as Yorkshire, and as far west as Cornwall (the Lindo family’s excellent Camel Valley is a pioneer on the peninsula) the climate and soils of the southeast are most conducive to grape growing, with the most renowned vineyards concentrated in the counties of Kent, Hampshire and Sussex.

Around half of all plantings are devoted to Champagne’s three varieties, though in the top vineyards this proportion is far higher. Some produce no still wine at all. While there are some very good aromatic still whites made from grapes such as the German hybrids Bacchus and Ortega, and even Chardonnay, they are generally far more expensive and less reliable than their counterparts from elsewhere, such as New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Italian Pinot Grigio. Many commentators see little future in still wines. “The only opportunity for growth is in sparkling,” notes Mark Pardoe of Berry Bros. & Rudd.

Commercially, English sparkling wine is on a steep upward curve. Supermarkets Marks & Spencer and Waitrose reported massively increased sales for Christmas 2015. Berry Bros. & Rudd CEO Dan Jago reckons the category is, “Within a whisper,” of being taken as seriously as Champagne. Professionals such as head sommelier, Francesco Gabriele, of the luxury hotel Chewton Glen in Hampshire, whose 80-strong list of English wines consists of 95% sparkling wines, says the best are extraordinarily fine, precise, delicately fruited and persistent in length. “They have this wonderful acidity and mineral elegance. There is finesse of bubbles, and a richness along with this bold heart of acidity.” He sells, “About a hundred bottles a month.”

Exporters are optimistic too. Red Johnson, son of Hugh, is pushing a handful of wines—Hush Heath, Camel Valley and Bolney—to Hong Kong, Japan and the US. He’s optimistic about the future, but acknowledges that the exporting is still in its early stages. “The main issue is price. We’re coming up against Champagne, and English wine isn’t the cheap option” (Ridgeview retails for between $37 and $45.) Johnson is also keen to update English sparkling’s image. “It shouldn’t have that ‘Agatha Christie’ idea of Englishness. It’s fashionable and desirable rather than twee and old-fashioned. It’s more Shoreditch than Mayfair,” he says, referencing the ultra-hip regenerated East London district.

US sommeliers are learning fast. Ridgeview is the only producer with any presence at all, though all the big producers are looking across the Atlantic: Gusbourne is now imported by Broadbent Selections of Virginia, and Heerema will launch Nyetimber in the US in late 2016, for example. Andrew Stover of Siema in Washington, DC has sold “multiple pallets” of Ridgeview since September (he has placed its Bloomsbury, a Chardonnay-dominant blend of the three Champagne grapes, in the British Airways lounge at Washington Dulles airport). He says the level of awareness regarding the category is growing rapidly. Another retailer, Liz Willette of Grand Cru Selections in New York, says, “It’s no longer a novelty. It’s now widely known that there are great sparkling wines coming out of England.”

Stover adds that the interest among sommeliers in DC is “overwhelming,” while consumers have absorbed articles such as The Washington Post’s recent piece on the Queen serving Ridgeview to the President of China at Buckingham Palace. “Many consumers have heard about English wine but have not yet tried it. Others cannot imagine grapes being grown in England, citing the overcast or rainy weather that predominates in typical consumer images of England.”

Be that as it may, there is far more to the terroir of this small, temperate island than rain. The most frequently-quoted fact about English vineyard land is that it lies on the same band of chalk that forms the Paris Basin, which runs up through Champagne and northern France to form the North and South Downs. Vines love chalk because it drains well, but there are many vineyards—Gusbourne in particular—that are planted on greensand, shallow marine sandstone which underlies chalk, and still more on limestone. All the main soil types have their advocates. Ian Kellett, who bought Hambledon in 1999, loves chalk for its drainage; others, like Bob Lindo at Camel Valley in Cornwall, whose soils include ancient slate, reckons chalk is, “Too austere” for the English climate. Gusbourne has just taken on a site in West Sussex with predominantly flint soils, and it is producing juicy Pinot Noir. “It’s an exceptional wine,” winemaker Charlie Holland says, “with bracing minerality and mouth-watering acidity.”

Climate is another vital factor, and for many, it’s more important than soil. Southern England is situated two degrees latitude north of Champagne, and there are key differences in climate. While July temperatures are about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit cooler in England, September temperatures are warmer than Champagne. Most quality vineyards are between the 50th and the 51st parallels, meaning longer daylight hours in summer. Crucially, bud-break is a week earlier, harvest generally two to three weeks later (at Nyetimber in 2015 harvest was a full five weeks later than Champagne). “We have a longer growing season,” says Tamara Roberts of Ridgeview, “so we have more phenolic ripeness.” This gives richer wines that still retain their acidity.

Visit an English vineyard and you are constantly impressed by the focus of the viticultural team. At Gusbourne, it’s a question of, “Fine-tuning the viticulture,” former chief executive Ben Walgate said. The vineyards are dotted with weather stations, constantly compiling and logging seasonal data. Working with 99 acres of sandy loam and clay on an ancient coastal escarpment in Kent and 49 acres of excellent West Sussex land, the winery will reach capacity at 500,000 bottles. Gusbourne is planted to Champagne varietals, and the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines consist primarily of Burgundy clones, with the aim of achieving lower yields and riper fruit. Holland is a restless experimenter (he’s got half a dozen small, square fermenters in which he’s giving certain parcels an extra month’s skin contact) with keen focus on detail. Clones and parcels are fermented separately in tanks as small as 1000 liters, with some 70 different components produced for blending. “A key aim”, he says, “is to find parcels capable of bottle-ageing at least seven years; the 2007 was kept six years before disgorging.”

A preoccupation with age-worthiness is one indication that English wine producers are growing in confidence; another is an increasing interest in producing non-vintage wines. While the majority of English sparkling wine is vintage—financial pressure has usually forced producers to bottle and sell every- thing they make from small harvests—many are now building up reserves for non-vintage wines. Economics comes into this decision, of course: the unpredictability of the climate makes keeping some wine in reserve a sound decision for lean years (Nyetimber, for example, made no wine in 2012, a disastrously rainy season). But there is also the desire to establish a house style while bringing depth and complexity to the blend. At Hambledon, Kellett reckons he will hold back some 30 percent of the 2016 harvest. “There are things that Champagne gets absolutely right and one of them is their expertise in assemblage. That’s something the English ignore at their peril.” The great advantage of non-vintage, he says, is the ability to add complexity. “We aim to bring between 50 and 80 components to the blending table.”

If there is one word that sums up the mood of English sparkling wine producers, it is “confidence.” More than anything else, this is born out of realization that this island terroir is worthy of much deeper study. Perhaps the most exhilarating part of the whole adventure is that there is so much more to learn. Vintners have only just begun to study the soils, the climate, the rootstocks and the clones. Vines that are not even adolescent yet are producing world-class wine. In the words of Randy Bachman: you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Reprint from TEXSOM presents SOMMELIER Volume 00, pages 14–22