Once derided as plonk, English wine is showing it can compete with the big boys, thanks to a growing breed of Sussex-based producers making quality sparkling wine.

It wasn’t too long ago when the notion of drinking good English wine was as far-fetched as the England team winning the World Cup. These days, there are fewer laughs and more laurels—for English vino, not the football team.

Over the past decade, English wines have been garnering major awards at international wine competitions. Earlier this year, a Bacchus from Winbirri Vineyard in Norfolk picked up Decanter magazine’s Platinum accolade for best-value white wine. The number of English wines receiving awards at the International Wine & Spirits Competition (IWSC) has also more than doubled over the past five years.

The Nyetimber vineyard - English sparkling wine

The Nyetimber vineyard

But it is English sparkling wine that has been flying the flag high for the English wine industry. Last year, at a Paris blind tasting organised by the UK’s Wine & Spirit Trade Association, English sparkling wines, such as Nyetimber from Sussex, were preferred over champagnes by a majority of the French panel, much to tasters’ surprise. In 2015, champagne powerhouse Taittinger bought 69 hectares of farmland in Kent, southern England, with the aim of releasing its first English bubbly, Domaine Évremond, by 2023. The first vines were planted in May this year.

Taittinger’s vote of confidence in English terroir is a boon for English bubbly producers. After all, English winemakers have always looked across the Channel for inspiration. “Being close to France has been one of English wine’s strengths. A lot of money has gone [to France] to get their expertise,” says Chris Foss, viticulturist and wine curriculum manager of Sussex’s Plumpton College, a college known for its wine degrees and research. “The other positive aspect is our similar geology: the chalk hills of Champagne can also be found in Southern England.”

From German to French

There are 133 wineries in the UK—a majority of them are in the southern, hilly regions of Kent and Sussex—producing an average of five million bottles a year. At present, there are 2,000 hectares under vine, and the English Wine Producers Association expects this figure to grow by a further 50 per cent by 2020. The top two planted varieties are the Champagne favourites of chardonnay and pinot noir (23 per cent and 22 per cent respectively of total vine plantings), a choice that reflects the current craze of English sparkling wine production.

But chardonnay and pinot noir did not always reign on English soil: they are the agents of English wine’s second renaissance in the country’s short history of modern winemaking.

After invading Britain in AD 43, the Romans introduced vines to British lands: grape vine pollen was found in an archaeological dig at a Roman-British site at Wollaston. But any efforts to grow more vineyards were believed to have been lost during the turbulent times of the Dark Ages. In the 10th century, winemaking resurfaced in the form of monastery vineyards. The two world wars of the 20th century then brought viticulture to a halt.

Interior of Nyetimber Estate's restored medieval barn- English sparkling wine

Interior of Nyetimber Estate’s restored medieval barn

In the 1950s, new vineyards were planted, and the UK’s wine industry segued into a modern, commercial phase. German grape varieties like müller-thurgau, reichensteiner and dornfelder became the grapes du jour. “When the English wine industry was being revived in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the climate was considerably cooler than it is now. Winemakers found that it was easier to ripen German varieties than the classic French ones,” explains Foss.

But the tide turned against German grapes in the late ’80s. A few wine producers—namely Carr Taylor and Nyetimber—decided to dabble with sparkling wine production, making bubbly with classic French champagne-making méthode champenoise, where secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle. In 1988, Nyetimber planted their first vineyard with the Champagne grape varieties of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. It was iconoclastic at that time, but the winery’s success at ripening these grapes encouraged other vintners to follow suit. A new era had begun for English wine.

A Bubbly Mood

“When the first owners of Nyetimber—Americans Stuart and Sandy Moss—planted the Champagne varieties, people told them they were crazy,” says Virginia Goldsack, Nyetimber’s brand ambassador. But the Mosses “put Nyetimber on the map”. The winery’s first vintage, a blanc de blancs 1992, was released in 1996. Today, the winery owns 220 hectares of vineyards, and is known as England’s top sparkling wine producer.

Nyetimber’s estate in West Sussex is the country home that most city folk dream of. Flanked by vineyards on south-facing slopes, the property consists of a timber-lined manor, a restored medieval barn, and a brick house-office that is fringed by creepers. Acorn scrunch under my feet near a pinot meunier plot. At dusk, the light sheathes this rustic world in an amber patina, evoking some fuzzy scene from The Wind in the Willows. Apparently, Badger himself does live around here: Goldsack tells me the weasel-like animal has a fondness for pinot noir grapes.

One of Nyetimber's popular sparkling wines - English sparkling wine

Just one of Nyetimber’s popular sparkling wines

Grape-loving wildlife are the least of Nyetimber’s concerns this year, though. A frost in April wreaked havoc on English vineyards, as well as those in Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy. “We may lose about 50 per cent of our crop,” remarks Goldsack. “With a ground frost, you can use heaters or—if you are a chateau in France— helicopters to help displace cold air and bring in warm air. But this time, it was an air frost that swept in from the Arctic, and there was nothing much we could do.”

In 2012, severe rainfall and low sunlight severely suppressed fruit growth in English vineyards. While other wineries decided to work with whatever yield they could obtain, Nyetimber opted not to produce any bottle of wine at all. Current owner and chief executive officer Eric Heerema wasn’t willing to compromise his vision of making quality sparkling wines from only the best available grapes.

Heerema, who was once a lawyer, took over Nyetimber in 2006. He also brought on board two experienced Canadian winemakers, Brad Greatrix and Cherie Sprigs, who introduced the idea of doing a non-vintage bubbly to counter the vagaries of the English weather. The tipple formally became the winery’s classic cuvée. The pale gold sparkler offers a lovely profile of biscuity accents, apple strudel notes and zippy acidity.

Bolney Wine Estate's vineyards in winter - English sparkling wine

Bolney Wine Estate’s vineyards in winter

Acidity—that desirable, invisible fine thread that holds up a vino—is something English quaffs seem to have in spades because of the region’s cool climate. But the cold and wet conditions also mean riper, fruit-forward notes can take a backseat. Thus, only a few wineries actually make still red wines, some of which may lack the fragrant strawberry or raspberry flavours we have come to associate with certain grapes. Bolney Wine Estate’s Pinot Noir 2016, for example, leans towards an almost pinkish hue, offering a gentle character of floral and soy notes. To avoid masking its light flavours, the wine is aged for just one or two months in old French oak.

“Our Pinot Noir is meant to be drunk much younger, within the first four to five years,” says Nick Hutchinson, sales executive of Bolney Wine Estate, on the difference between his English pinots and those in the Old World. To reduce the potential of getting mildew, the pinot noir vines on the estate’s sandstone plots are trellised to almost two metres tall to encourage better air circulation. The height also deters roe deer from nibbling on the fruit.

Bolney Wine Estate was established in West Sussex in 1972 by Rodney and Janet Pratt. They bought over a chicken farm and planted a hectare of German varieties. Today, they have 16 hectares, with vines dedicated to the Champagne varieties as well as pinot gris. Their daughter, Sam Linter, took over winemaking duties in the mid-90s. In 2012, the estate was named by IWSC as the UK Wine Producer of the Year. This year, the winery’s premium blanc de blancs was also chosen by British Airways to be served in its First Class cabins—the first time an English sparkling wine was ever served on board the airline.

Ridgeview Wine Estate's Limited Edition Collection - English sparkling wine

Ridgeview Wine Estate’s Limited Edition Collection

Much to Learn

Occasionally, a peculiar aspect of the English environs sneaks into the wines. In the case of Sussex-based Ridgeview Wine Estate’s blanc de blancs 2013, it’s a whiff of saltiness; the gentle lick of the sea on a windy day at the beach. Mardi Roberts, the winery’s communications director, says that’s a characteristic of being near the Channel. “We are in the chalky South Downs, which also protect us from the harsher elements and give us a lovely micro-climate here,” she says.

Tamara Roberts, Mardi’s sister-in-law, is the winery’s chief executive officer. Her brother, Simon, is the head winemaker. Ridgeview Wine Estate has remained a family business since it was established by Tamara’s parents, Mike and Chris, in 1995. Today, they have seven hectares under vine, and produce about 200,000 bottles annually. A new winery facility is on the cards: they intend to double their production to meet demand in the next five years.

Simon Roberts, head winemaker of Ridgeview Wine Estate - English Sparkling Wine

Simon Roberts, head winemaker of Ridgeview Wine Estate

Underground cellars, a common feature in the Old World, are still quite a novelty in England, and Tamara reckons they are the only one in the country to have a subterranean ageing facility. Hers is a simple, modern-looking chamber, with none of that Tolkienesque air you’d find in the limestone caves in Champagne. Here, Ridgeview’s Bloomsbury non-vintage bottles are aged on lees for a minimum of 15 months, while the vintage sparklers spend up to at least 36 months on the lees. This mirrors the practice in Champagne where a non-vintage cuvée must be aged for at least 15 months in the bottle, including at least 12 months on lees. The minimum lees-ageing requirement in the UK, however, is nine months.

“Our wines are a combination of early-drinking and cellaring types. Our vineyards are 20 years old, and they are still growing up. As they mature, they will develop more intense flavours,” says Tamara. “I think the next 10 years will be really interesting times for English wine as we continue to attract more talented winemakers.”

Hutchinson thinks it’s important that the industry not get too carried away. “France has been making wine for more than 500 years, we have been making wine for only 50 years,” he muses. “We have to go through a trial-and-error process but we will get more knowledgeable.”

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This story was first published in Wine & Dine’s Dec 2017 issue – The Festive Issue.

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