Sparkling wine – quintessentially English
In my fifteen years of serious engagement with wine, I have only visited a handful of the vineyards on my doorstep. This summer, with the restrictions on travel due to Covid-19, was an ideal opportunity to put this to rights. But first a bit of local context. When I cycle from home towards Stockbridge I pass multiple vineyards that now jostle for space with woods, fields and orchards on the chalk downs of southern England. It is a green and pleasant land, quintessentially English. The vineyards are absolutely not hobby vineyards, as was often the case in the past in England. These vineyards belong to the John Lewis Partnership on the Longstock Estate that aims to be self-sufficient in English sparkling for its Waitrose high-quality supermarkets, to Nyetimber, pioneer and probably England’s leading brand and to the ambitious Black Chalk. Quite a transformation has taken place in the last decade.
Over three days, with three actual visits (hurray!) and one tasting and Zoom call, I visited Nutbourne Vineyards, Wiston Estate and Rathyfinny, The tasting and video conference was with Brad Greatrix of Nyetimber. It was a real honour to have an hour and a half of his time. It turned out that these were four very different faces, four very different expressions of the burgeoning English wine scene. Here is what I took away from these meetings and tastings. I am grateful to Mike Best MW, a former colleague of mine at WSET for introductions to these wineries. He is an expert on the English wine scene, having done an MW dissertation on the place of cellar doors for this emerging business.
The economics of English sparkling wine
While England is often compared with Champagne, the economics could not be more different. Yields are so much lower in England with an average yield of under 25 hL/ha in the ten years to 2018 (WineGB), roughly one-third of those in Champagne. As a business, you probably have to budget for one year in six of a very low or no yield due to heavy frosts and/or persistent rain in the months from flowering to fruit set. To take the extreme examples of the last decade, the bumper year of 2018 was eight times higher in terms of hectolitres per hectare than the disastrous 2012 (same source).
Exactly why yields are so low remains something of a mystery. It is about 1.5ºC cooler on average in England and that will play a part. Stephen Skelton MW, who has 45 years of experience as a grower and then a consultant to English wineries, believes that the most critical issue is low vineyard density. Most vineyards are planted at 4,000 vines per hectare in England in comparison to the 8,000 per hectare in Champagne (reported in The Fruit Grower.) But with all the planting that is going on now, this could easily be put to rights. Brad Greatrix of Nyetimber thinks it is more a combination of factors: England is more prone to spring frosts, the weather at flowering and up to fruit set is less reliable (which reduces berries and bunches in the first year and results in fewer and smaller bunches in the following year) and the overall cooler weather leads to smaller bunch size (personal communication). For him, less dense planting means that the vines can support more buds and bunches in the same space. This is such an important issue for the financial viability of the industry that the newly re-formed WineGB should consider commissioning research into addressing the low yields of UK vineyards.
On the other hand, vineyard land is hugely cheaper in England. In the middle of the 2010s, prices quoted were £25,000 for a hectare in England and an eye-watering £1.2m in Champagne. If you put those two together, to produce the same amount of wine you need to farm far more hectares in England than in Champagne to produce the same number of bottles, adding cost. Those low yields mean that there is currently no inexpensive sparkling wine, meaning that everyone is aiming for the same premium price point. In addition, of course, just about every English winery is still in the phase of initial investment in land and in production facilities or paying a contract winery to make its wine.
Massive planting but is there a plan about how to sell the wines?
Vineyard planting, building wineries and making wines are an unusual agricultural and technical pursuit. It attracts massive interest from wealthy individuals and companies who fall in love with the romance of wine. Dermot Sugrue, the winemaker at Wiston, put it best: ‘I make millionaires’ dreams come true … and make them heroes in their social circles’. That’s all fine until you have the same investment going on by multiple individuals who have probably spent a lot more time dreaming about having a wine estate than working out where they are going to sell their wine. Nor have they thought about the combined effect of those individual investment decisions. Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, a former supermarket buyer, calculates that we are heading for massive over-supply of premium-priced English sparkling wine. Plantings doubled in terms of hectares in the decade from 2009 to 2018 (WineGB) and continue to accelerate. Production has outpaced sales for every year with the exception of the ridiculously wet 2012. Stocks of wine are mounting alarmingly. And that’s not counting the one-third of all English vineyards that have already been planted and are not yet in production. Let’s just hope that WineGB’s aspiration that England can be as successful as Oregon’s Pinot Noir boom has been … but you also have to remember that Oregon’s home market is vastly bigger than the UK.
We can debate the figures, especially the projection of 20 years of stock in ten years time. For the sake of comparison, Champagne typically has around four years of stock in its cellars at any time. Thus, it is absolutely clear that the questions are: who is going to buy English sparkling wine and at what price? As a result of this presentation, I made my visits with these questions in mind. And, as is so often the case, there were four different answers.
Nutbourne Vineyards – small scale with a direct route to market
Nutbourne Vineyards is an utterly charming, homely estate, just outside Pulborough, West Sussex. It is owned by the Peter and Bridget Gladwin. Peter is a chef and has two sons who run restaurants and a catering business and a third who farms the estate (beef cattle and the vineyards of course). Bridget manages the vineyards.
With just under eight hectares in production (19 acres if you prefer), the production is not huge, an average 50,000 bottles a year. Two factors explain how the business works. First, about half the wine production is still wine from a range of varieties, including Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but also Pinot Blanc, Bacchus, Reichensteiner and Huxelrebe. Unlike traditional method sparkling wine, still wine can be sold within a year of production and so there is no long wait for a return on investment. Second, this is a vertically integrated business. In normal, pre-Covid times, much of the production, including the more valuable sparkling wine, can be sold through the company’s other activities – catering, restaurants and cellar door. With small volumes, a balance of still and sparkling wine and an outlet through its other businesses, you can see that Nutbourne has a well-thought-out business plan. The wines are good too with delicate fruit, low alcohol, contained, refreshing acidity and small amounts of balancing residual sugar (4–8 g/L in most wines).
Some production points
- With rich greensand soils, the Scott Henry, double cordon, training system, in which shoots are trained up from the top cordon and down from the bottom cordon can be better than Guyot and carry higher yields successfully (12-4 ton/ha, rather than 8 tons/ha). See the picture on the left above. The image on the right is Meunier changing colour.
- As elsewhere in England, the keys to healthy fruit are relatively open canopies and timely spraying.
- For the Pinot Noir, a small-berried Burgundian clone is best for the still wine and the larger-berried Champagne clone for sparkling wine.
- As this is a relatively small operation, it makes sense to hire their longterm winemaker, Owen Elias, as a consultant through the year and then for two months around harvest.
Wiston Estate – aiming for the heights
Arriving at Wiston Estate at the moment is to head straight into a building site. There is no sign to help you find the older building that is the winery, while an impressive new edifice is being built at the front of the property. What has not been left to chance, however, is the aim to make England’s finest sparkling wine, which is in the capable hands of talkative head winemaker, Dermot Sugrue. While outside the rain poured down in late August, he generously spent four hours with Janet and me. We covered a huge amount of ground. The estate is small, 6.5 ha at Findon Park and another small vineyard was planted in 2017. There are two keys to the business here: lavish attention to detail and, crucially, a significant contract winemaking business that accounts for around two-thirds of the wine made. Wiston’s own wines are superb, including the starting point, a brilliant Wiston Brut. This is a classic three-way Champagne varieties blend, 20% reserve wine, a substantial three-and-a-half years on the lees and 8 g/L dosage. it is such an elegant, precise and balanced wine with effortless complexity and lively acidity. By the time we reached the Blancs des Noirs 2010 in our tasting, we were not surprised to learn that this had won both best in category and supreme champion at the WineGB awards.
What makes for truly outstanding English sparkling wines?
In the vineyard
- The choice here is for the lean, initially austere and elegant wines made from fruit grown on chalk, less exotic and fruity than grapes grown on greensand but develops beautifully in the bottle.
- Chalk soils are preferred for their permeability and ability to hold water without causing water-logging. But chalk also has its problems. Rootstocks must be highly calcium-tolerant to avoid chlorosis (41B, Fercal are the preferred choices). On chalk, it will be windier and cooler as, by definition, there will be some elevation, and the soils needs feeding with compost to reduce the pH. But chalk both drains well and holds water. This was really helpful, for example in the long, dry and hot summer of early 2020.
- It is vital to spray against botrytis in June and July, before bunch closure, as otherwise, the fungus will spread out of sight and out of the reach of sprays and then suddenly erupt later in the season.
- In really bad years, for example, the extremely wet 2012, it is just not worth picking. Remember that it costs a great deal to handpick and ‘searching for grapes’, many of which will have to be sorted out, does not repay. 30 pickers will have to be paid £12 an hour eight hours for five days … that’s more than £14,400.
- One advantage of growing in England is that you just don’t have to worry about over-ripeness. The Champagne harvest started in late August this year. By contrast, Dermot’s motto is to pick as late as you dare. It is the threat of disease or bird damage that forces you to pick. If it’s Chardonnay, pick the day before winter starts, he says, for example, 25 October. Brad Greatrix at Nyetimber, see below, makes a similar point.
In the winery
- Pick for full ripeness, see above, into small, 15kg, boxes to avoid oxidation and press asap. All the clients for the contract winemaking must book in to ensure that their fruit is quickly processed.
- Respect the juice fractions (i.e. don’t try to extract more than is consistent with quality), don’t try to rush the processing (3.5 hour cycle, 40 minutes to load).
- Always use the first 50 litres to wash out the mould and unwanted particles on the bunches, add SO2 to avoid oxidation, settle and rack, e.g. 48 hours at 5ºC. Dermot’s preference is for some white lees to help with the fermentation and for good aromatics. Chaptalise to 11% potential alcohol. It’s a cool climate and the natural level ranges from 8 to 11 per cent. If it’s the standard wine, add granulated sugar, if a luxury wine, caster sugar!
- Add selected yeast, the preference here being IOC 18/2007, a Champagne strain. It ferments at low temperatures in the presence of alcohol and high acidity and allows the character of the fruit to shine with no off-flavours. Use the same yeast for tirage. Maximum fermentation temperature of 17–18ºC to avoid the fruitiness and thiols associated with lower temperatures.
- Ferment to dry. Malolactic conversion is pretty much standard (climate again) and now that Wiston has a larger winemaking team it has the capacity to inoculate and supervise the process.
- The base wine is then cold stabilised and lightly filtered with diatomaceous earth and blended for the next stage.
- Before bottling (i.e. tirage and starting the second fermentation in bottle), build up your yeast starter over 3–5 days and acclimatise it to the wine. If you are confident in your starter batch, you can ferment at the desired 12ºC. If you started at 20ºC, you would damage the wine. And remember what is at stake: you might be making 370,000–400,000 bottles!
- Time on the lees is typically three to six years according to the style of the wine. Disgorge, dosage and finish the process.
- Dermot has strong views about time on the cork. He recounts that the wine of a lifetime was a 2002 Roederer Cristal in a magnum that had spent six years on the lees and eight years on the cork – we would all have liked to have been there on that occasion! The point is that, in his view, the wine needs as long on the cork as it had on lees to express itself fully. This would be supported by some of my Champagne-loving friends who buy good quality but not expensive wines (e.g. Waitrose’s Bredon) and deliberately keep it for a year or two before drinking it.
- In addition to the superb Wiston Estate range, Dermot also has his own line, Sugrue South Downs, The Trouble With Dreams, rapidly becoming cult wines.
Rathfinny Estate – a man and a woman with a plan
My final real, old-fashioned arrive-in-a-car and greet-a-person, visit was to the spectacular Rathfinny Estate, in East Sussex The estate office has one of the finest views in England, especially if you are a geographer with an interest in topography. Janet was in her element, admiring the spectacular meanders of the river, the centrepiece of Cuckmere Haven.
Into this magnificent setting, Mark and Sarah Driver have inserted a very ambitious winery with a clear business plan. Mark was an owner of a hedge fund and when he sold that business he did a very unusual thing. Many rich people buy a country estate or a winery. He is the first that I have heard of who went to do a full professional training in winemaking before embarking on the pursuit of his dream, in this case at England’s Plumpton College. Now that is commitment and shows a rare sense of purpose.
Rathfinny was an unusual opportunity to buy an entire estate, formerly a wheat and barley farm. With its south-facing slope and proximity to the sea it is highly suitable for high-quality grape growing. The soils are predominantly chalky, the slope makes for great sunlight interception and the proximity to the sea it is always windy avoids the late spring frosts. 93 hectares have been planted, not yet all in production, and no further planting is envisaged. The idea is to make premium sparkling wine to be sold in luxury hotels around the world (Mark’s first exposure to fine wine) and to make up to one million bottles. That is a clear plan and obviously has been well-funded. This answers the most important points about wine production in England. Where are you going to sell the wine? Are you prepared to fund the sales part of the operation in a way that matches the investment in the land and the winery?
The second source of (eventual) income and an important part of the brand-building was the decision to have a high-quality restaurant and a relaxed boutique hotel on site. if you can get people to visit you, spend a day walking the countryside, dining and even staying, you have a likely longterm customer for your wines.
Some production points:
- All the vineyards here are young and double-Guyot trained. There have been experiments with high and low graft. If you use a high graft (i.e. plant a vine with a trunk already and then graft at the top of the trunk), it is quicker to fruit, there is no bud rubbing to be done and it has better frost protection. If you go for low graft, the advantage is that the roots establish better but there is bud rubbing to carry out (as you only want one trunk to grow) and you need to use tree guards. Not against rabbits here but to provide shelter to very young plants. There is no clear winner.
- 2017 was a great year here as the sea-facing vineyard was virtually without frost damage in complete contrast to those further inland.
- The estate will keep sheep in the future to do the mowing. Less fuel required and less compaction of the soil in comparison to tractors.
- The winery is a technological dream. The wines are clarified and stabilised by an expensive set up of a cross-flow filter, electrodialysis for tartrate stability (big investment but then uses less energy, is much quicker and higher quality than cold stabilisation) and final cartridge filter. This is what the tool kit looks like:
The scale of the operation can be judged from the 340 miles of netting for the vines against birds, see above. The netting is initially laid out by tractor but has to be erected by hand (!) The other clue is the size of the winemaking hall and correspondingly large bottle-ageing cellar.
They currently make just four sparkling wines here, Classic Cuvée in white and rosé, and Blanc de Noirs (the flagship) and Blanc de Blancs. The wines are of a high quality, Classic Cuvée 2016 white being Pinot Noir dominant and has spent three years on the lees. It has attractive bread and honey notes and what the French like to vinosity, ‘wineiness’, underpinned by trademark brilliant English acidity. With a pH under 3 and only 5 g/L residual sugar, it is definitely on the dry and racy end of the spectrum, perhaps a bit surprising for the intended luxury hotel market. I am sure the wines will only get better as the vines mature and as the estate comes to understand its vineyards fully.
Nyetimber – pioneer, standard-bearer for English sparkling wine, building a luxury brand
My final ‘visit’ was a video conference with Brad Greatrix who had kindly sent me samples of three of Nyetimber‘s main wines. Much has been written about this estate that put English sparkling wine on a Champagne model on the map. You can read my summary here. Since starting out as an estate property in West Sussex, Nyetimber has bought what is now 327 ha of vineyard land with currently 258 in production, mainly in Sussex and Hampshire but also with recent acquisition in Kent. The strategy here is building a luxury brand, very well funded by the owner Eric Heerema, with a view to long term success, as spelt out by Patrick Schmitt MW here.
Their first love, as it were, was greensand but they have now also bought chalk vineyards, not least the sloping Hazeldown, close to Stockbridge featured in the introduction to this piece. This has turned out to be a ‘home-run or strike out’ vineyard in Brad’s Canadian parlance. It is frost-prone – when it is 4.5ºC at home in Horsham, W Sussex it will be close to zero at the bottom of the slope in Hampshire. But when the frost does not strike, the fruit is of spectacular quality and goes into the Prestige Cuvee, called 1086. The place-name Nyetimber is mentioned in the Doomsday Book of that date, though sadly there is no mention of the quality of the alcoholic beverages available back then.
In the vineyard
We love greensand says Brad, which is a mineral-rich, free-draining soil, good in a wet year. It is named after the glauconite that goes green when first exposed to air. Geologically, it is one layer below the chalk that used to cover it before the latter was eroded. Vines on greensand produce wines of high fruit intensity and power (in the context of sparkling wine). Other winemakers refer to this as the English banana-belt, due to the relative exoticism of the fruit.
As all the green sand sites are relatively young and vines are also young, there is more vigour than is really helpful. This means paying a great deal of attention to the canopy and, on some sites, growing a second cane, pointing in the same direction, above or below the usual cane. Similarly, cover crops may be planted in every row to reduce fertility.
I asked whether the English weather really lives up to its drizzly reputation with constant high humidity. Brad does not think botrytis is any worse here than elsewhere (because its cooler or windier here?) Yes, there is a bit more rain than Champagne, but it falls on the same number or fewer days (i.e. more falls on any one rainy day) and often in winter when it helps to build up water reserves.
Growing grapes in a cool climate requires particular attention to site selection and canopy management. In buying land, it is important to look for the marginally warmer and drier spots. To get sufficient sun on the bunches, you can remove the leaves from the fruit zone on the morning, east side, of vines, while leaving them on the west side to give the grapes some protection from the hotter, direct afternoon sun.
Temperature variability is much more of an issue than humidity. Production was hit by frost in 2016, 2017 and 2020, with 50 per cent losses in 2016 with an advective frost (a large mass of freezing air) about which nothing can be done. There are separate teams for the various groups of vineyards and a range of frost-protection measures in place to counter radiation frosts, fixed heaters, mobile heaters, candles and windbreaks. Everything except helicopters, says Brad; the locals would not be amused at 3 am in the morning.
The big advantage that English estates have is the length of the season. Bud burst is at a very similar time to Champagne but the harvest is in late September right through to well into October. A long, slow growing season builds aromatic complexity and allows for phenolic ripeness while the fruit retains the same cool climate parameters, for example, a pH around 3 producing the racy acidity that does so much for sparkling wine.
In the winery
- Are there any specific winemaking challenges to making sparkling wine in England? Winemakers need to be nimble. No two vintages are the same. For example, in a cool year you might have to settle the juice for a longer time so as to have very little turbidity, leaving behind any underripe notes in the lees, and then ferment at a warmer temperature than usual to build back body in the wine.
- Pressing and observing press fractions are meticulous. For example, they divide the cuvée into early and late, 1A and 1B, giving themselves more options when it comes to blending.
- All the wines go through malolactic conversion. Pre-2007, this was blocked but the wines were searingly acidic in cooler years. The new owners/winemakers after 2009 did not release some of these wines, e.g. 2004 and 2005.
- Nyetimber has pioneered the use of inert gas (nitrogen) at the bottling stage, i.e. as tirage is carried out, to preserve primary fruit and freshness. After ten years of experience and confirmation from expert and consumer tastings, they are completely convinced this is an important contribution to quality. They call this the magnum effect in a standard bottle.
- For the Classic Cuvee, the aim is to build complexity, a balance of fresh fruit and savoury notes, through using fruit from multiple sites and reserve wines from a number of vintages. For example, the current Classic Cuvee white is 62% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir and 8% Meunier; 75% grown in Sussex (six vineyards) and the rest in Hampshire; and is a blend of 80% 2015, 9% 2014, 3% 2013, 3% 2011 and a remarkable 5% from the warm and excellent 2009. This shows commitment to storing large amounts of reserve wine in a business that was only relaunched 13 years ago.
- The Blanc de Blancs is always a vintage wine, spends four and a half to five years on lees and comes from top Chardonnay parcels, chosen after evaluation each year that the wine is made. Unlike the Classic Cuvee, the idea is to show the character season. Thus the 2013 vintage is from the mainly cool season with the wine being restrained at the start but with the capacity for longterm ageing. By contrast, 2014 will be ripe and generous from the off.
- With the Rosé the aim is primarily to showcase the fruit. Thus, the current release is 55% Chardonnay, 42% Pinot Noir (of which 15% is still red wine for a relatively deep colour) and 3% Meunier. The wine is 69% 2016 and 31% 2015. Two to three vintages only is typical as they don’t want the influence of the much older, tertiary wines that are used in the Classic Cuvee.
- Nyetimber is exemplary in giving the wine drinker a huge amount of technical detail via the long code on the back label that can be entered into the company’s website to reveal all. Do you want to know the blend of varieties and the exact proportions of each vintage of reserve wine in your bottle? All this, plus bottling, riddling and disgorgement dates are all there for your delectation.
And the market?
Not surprisingly as a leading producer, Brad is more optimistic than Justin Howard Sneyd about the future. There will be innovation in the product, more still wine made and the export market is virtually untapped. Nyetimber, despite being probably the best-known name, only exports 10 per cent of its production. There is a huge educational piece to be carried out but so much to play for.
Reflecting on the past, Brad says with a wry smile, yes, it has been much, much tougher than he, Cherie (chief winemaker and his wife) or the owner imagined. They joke about whether had they known how tough it would be, (for example, a whole year’s work was abandoned in 2012 and no grapes picked) would they have embarked on the adventure? We wine drinkers and the entire UK wine scene can be delighted and thrilled that they stuck at it!