I recently ran a tasting for Andover Wine Friends which a decade a go would have been scarcely conceivable. In order to test the progress of the quality of English sparkling wine it pitted the wines of Nyetimber, West Sussex against the grand marque Louis Roederer, historic Champagne house. On the face of it this could be a huge mismatch: Roederer has been going since 1760, while Nyetimber was only founded in 1988. In its nineteenth century heyday, the Champagne house was asked to send one quarter of its entire production to the Russian Imperial court. By contrast, while Nyetimber as a place name was mentioned in the Domesday Book and vines were planted there 900 years ago, the first release of the English sparkling wine was less than two decades ago in 1996.
The rise of English sparkling wine has been remarkable. It was spearheaded by Nyetimber and Ridgeview and these brands have been joined by a clutch of wineries including local Whitchurch-based firm Coates & Sealey who bought and replanted the former Wooldings vineyard. Caviste stocks their wines along with Jenkyn Place (also Hampshire) and Hambledon. The large scale planting of the John Lewis partnership can be now seen on the south-facing slopes of the gentle chalk hills between Andover and Stockbridge: Waitrose’s aim is to supply all its own English sparkling wine. In other words, we have gone from zero to a major supermarket chain planting its own vineyards in two decades.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Back in the beginning, it took the vision and sheer determination of Stuart and Sandy Moss, an American couple looking for a retirement home, to demonstrate the quality potential of Southern England for sparkling wine. Earlier versions of wine with bubbles had been made in England but from German hybrid grapes which were deemed to be the only ones that could withstand the wet drip of the English climate. Not surprisingly these wines did not really catch on, though the local Danebury Vineyard continues to make good examples. The Mosses listened carefully to the viticultural advice of the day (Germany hybrids) and decided to ignore it. In order to make a world class sparkling wine they planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the varieties which are grown in Champagne. They were rewarded for their entrepreneurialism by immediate critical acclaim, their first vintage being chosen for the Queen’s Golden Anniversary lunch in 2002. (As with the Roederer story, there is nothing like the endorsement of a court to give prestige to a product!) The real critical acclaim followed in the next decade with Nyetimber Classic Cuvee – no accents please, we are British! – winning competitions as the best sparkling wine in the world in Italy in 2009 and a regional trophy from Decanter in 2011.
Before comparing the wines of Nyetimber and Roederer, it is worth asking why Nyetimber has succeeded. We have already paid tribute to the mould-breaking attitude of the founders of the estate. But its success is also due to the investments and determination of the next two owners of the property. First, English song writer Andy Hill re-invested money from his lucrative work for, among others, Celine Dion and Ronan Keating, in the estate. Then, crucially, Dutch business man Eric Heerema acquired the estate in 2006 and took two bold steps. First he bought new vineyard land on a large scale. The original Nyetimber estate was just 14 hectares (34 acres); it now grows fruit on eight high-quality sites in Sussex and Hampshire on a total of 162 hectares (nearly 390 acres), increasing production ten-fold. You cannot impress the world with the quality of English sparkling wine if you only a handful of bottles to release. Second, Heerema employed Canadian winemaker Cherie Spriggs to head up the wine making. She brought with her an expertise in cool climate viticulture having previously worked in Central Otago, Oregon and Vancouver Island. As a result the wines are now of a consistently high quality.
Thirdly, Heerema and Spriggs have only made wine when the grapes have been of the highest quality. While Champagne and the Downs do indeed share elements of the same geology, the famous chalk, the climates are subtly different. Champagne is the ideal sparkling wine region climatically because it is cool and dry, but it is a marginal climate for growing grapes. Southern England is a touch cooler and wetter than Champagne. The result is that really tough years in Champagne can become impossible vintages in England. Thus Nyetimber had bumper years in 2009 and 2010 (more than 900 tons pressed), but only picked 200 tons of fruit in 2011 of which only 60% was up to standard. Then, after the memorably awful ‘summer’ of 2012, Nyetimber took the bold decision not to make a single bottle of wine. In order to maintain their reputation it skipped an entire year’s production and therefore income because the quality was not good enough. Quality is an absolute prerequisite. Even with rising temperatures, English sparkling wine makers will have to learn to live with extreme vintage variation – and rejoice in the occasional outstanding year such as the 2014 we have all just enjoyed.
And what of the wines themselves? At one level there was little to compare. Nyetimber does not make a multi-vintage blend and so its wines reflect the vintages in which they were made exactly. Roederer’s non-vintage blends up to eight vintages and thus benefits from a good proportion of oak-aged reserve wines. In the glass, the Nyetimber Classic Cuvee 2009, 55% Chardonnay, 26% Pinot Noir and 19% Pinot Meunier, is very good and comes from a year in which the weather precisely mirrored the average temperatures across the season. It showed pretty ripe green and lemon fruit, a fine acidic seam, good length in the mouth and a long, crisp finish. While the overall impression is of fruit grown in a cool climate, it is by no means unpleasantly tart or harsh. Roederer Non Vintage by contrast may be made of a similar blend of varieties (slightly more Pinot Noir, less Chardonnay) but is more complex, more rounded and has a long, balanced finish. It oozes the complexity which can be achieved with high quality multi-year blends.
The most extreme wine of the evening was the 100% Chardonnay, Blanc de Blanc 2007 from Nyetimber. This was pure under-ripe lemon juice on the palate and zippy, sherbet acidity offset by a touch of sweetness. It is a remarkable wine and will probably last for ever – if you enjoy racy acidity (pH of 2.9 or 13 g/l total acidity; most Champagne is 3.1-3.2 pH and 8-9 g/l total acidity.) Sadly we did not have a bottle of the reputedly excellent Roederer Blanc de Blanc for the comparison. To make up for this, the Nyetimber wine which really convinced was Classic Cuvee 2002 which showed that the best sparkling English wines can age … just as a great Champagne can do. It had taken on a golden tint from age and was full of honey and dense fruit notes with that fine acidic structure intact. On this evidence it would be well worth buying some top English fizz and ageing it.
The two Rosés were chalk and cheese. Nyetimber Rosé Brut 2009 was a deep pink colour but while it had a ripe fruit core the finish was rather unforgiving. Perhaps we did not have a very good bottle but it did not go down well. By contrast the much more expensive Roederer Rosé Brut 2008 was close to perfection: a perfect hint of red fruit surrounded by delicious toasty and savoury notes, extraordinary finesse, long in the mouth, refreshing and subtle.
The evening finished with two outstanding bottles for which there is as yet no English peer: two prestige cuvées. Roederer, Cristal 2006 was like a tightly coiled spring with its remarkable lemon fruit concentration, finesse and sheer power. Being the wine of celebrities since Czar Alexander II, this bottle’s fate, as is far often the case, was to be drunk before it had really expressed its potential, delicious though it was. And then there was special treat, the fully mature Dom Perignon 1999. It opened up with intriguing iodine and smoke notes on the nose. The palate was full of candied citrus fruit and a touch of sweetness from ageing; broad and effortless. As the English sparkling wine sector comes of age I have no doubt we will see some prestige cuvées from top estates; indeed Nyetimber have just released its first single vineyard wine. Overall, although Nyetimber and Roederer have many, many differences what this tasting showed was that English fizz has announced itself as a really high quality wine. We just need a little patience to wait until 2016-17 to taste what will be the amazing 2014s!