Terry Kirby raises a glass to those early pioneers who had the foresight to plant champagne grapes in English soil – to great success
In the dozen or so years I’ve been writing about wine for The Independent (and the former Independent on Sunday) one of the great running stories has been the growth in English wine which of course, means the rise and rise of English – and now Welsh – sparkling wine.
It is a glorious and now well-told story of how a very few pioneers saw the potential of planting the champagne grape varieties of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier – instead of clones of largely German varietals – on the chalky hillsides of southern England and, when their wines gained critical accolades and awards, many others followed suit.
Old vineyards of still wine grapes were ripped up and new ones planted. Massive investment followed and an often somewhat-amateurish approach was replaced by expensive, state-of-the-art wineries and imported experienced winemakers from around the world; at the same time the fruits of the longstanding wine training centre at Plumpton College in Sussex had matured into a cadre of homegrown expertise.
Much of this has only come to fruition in the last few years, with many new wines entering the market. Mostly this is because sparkling wines usually take about three years from vinification to be ready to drink, therefore reflecting the product of investment decisions a decade previously.
Our sparkling wines are now found on the menus of Michelin-starred restaurants, private clubs and airport VIP lounges, a recognisable British brand alongside Scotch whiskies. At the same time, the high street supermarkets have got into the act, stocking the big names and commissioning their own label wines, which can now be found for £16 or less.
And the industry has got its marketing act together, with the creation of the Wine GB marketing body and the now well-established English Wine Week, which starts today and heralds a week of promotional events. According to Wine GB, the growth is still exponential: now there are more than 500 vineyards and 160 wineries while the total acreage of vineyards is now three times that of 2000. And, of course, almost 70 per cent of production, about 10 million bottles, is sparkling.
The recent International Wine Challenge, which claims to be the most rigorously judged wine competition in the world, sprayed around the gold stars for English sparkling in its most recent awards, with one of those early pioneers, the remarkable Nyetimber, based in Pulborough, East Sussex, leading the way with golds going to its brilliant, widely praised all rounder, Nyetimber Classic Cuvee 2009 (£27 normally £36.99 until June 18, waitrosecellar.com; £38,99 or £32.99 as part of mixed six-bottle purchase, majestic.co.uk; widely available elsewhere).
Nyetimber has also recently relaunched its demi-sec, off-dry, 100 per cent chardonnay wine, Nyetimber Cuvee Cherie (£36 henningswine.co.uk; £36.95 bbr.com), named after its lauded chief winemaker Cherie Spriggs, which is simply the perfect accompaniment to English strawberries and cream or rich cakes, for a particularly special afternoon tea. The second pioneering vineyard to receive a gold was the estimable Ridgeview, near Lewes, for its Ridgeview Blancs De Blancs Brut 2014 (£52.00 thewinesociety.com; 2013: £60.00 theenglishwinecollection.co.uk) which, as the Society says, has “precision and finesse” that develops haunting flavours with bottle age. A very special occasion bottle.
Golds also went to two relative newcomers. Augusta and Robert Raimes are the fifth generation to farm their land near Alresford in Hampshire and have become one of several traditional farms to plant their own vineyards after becoming aware of the potential of their soils and position. Its grapes are vinified at nearby Hattingly Valley winery and the gold went to only its second cuvee Raimes Classic Brut 2014 (£26.95 conceptfinewines.com; £27.99 farehamwinecellar.co.uk), a delightful mix of toasty oak and creamy citrus flavours. Greyfriars, on the Hog’s Back near Guildford, had been a low-profile “hobby” vineyard since 1989 but was taken over, extended and revamped with a new winery in 2010 by former oil businessman Mike Wagstaff and his wife Hilary. Its pinot noir/pinot meunier blend, Greyfriars Rose Reserve Brut 2014 (£21.00 greatbritishwine.com; £25.99 waitrosecellar.com), a lovely, rich red-fruit and spice-inflected pink, also took gold. A perfect and well-priced aperitif or for fishy canapes.
Not far away in the Surrey Hills, Denbies was one of the early wave of 1980’s vineyards, with a large acreage and producing a wide variety of red white and sparkling wines. It is now also producing top-notch sparklers, launching two new “premium” bottles a couple of years ago, including the Cubitt Blanc des Blancs 2013 (£33.50 thechampagnecompany.com; £34.00 denbies.co.uk) which took silver in the International Wines and Spirits competition last year: a pure, green-apple and citrus flavoured wine, which is “zero dosage” – ie unlike most other sparklers, there is no sugar syrup added before bottling, which many now believe detracts from the natural flavours. For a more traditional and more economical English sparkling experience, try the wine made by Denbies for budget supermarket Lidl, the excellent Broadwood’s Folly English Sparkling (£14.99 lidl.co.uk), a terrific party wine.
Another remarkable zero-dosage and also zero-sulphur sparkler comes from Smith and Evans, based not far from Glastonbury in Somerset, whose brilliant Higher Plot Sparkling 2013 (£28.99 waitrosecellar.com) I recommended last year (and still do). But now it has come up with a special blend of its first three harvests at Higher Plot in 2010, 2011 and 2012: the Smith and Evans Triology One (£40 smithandevans.com) is rich, rounded, full bodied, nutty, very dry but with nicely balanced acidity and very distinctive. A great wine for salty canapes.
Such zero-dosage wines represent a new confident spirit among domestic winemakers, willing see how distinctive our sparklers can become and challenge conventions about how you make wine, supported by what has now become a substantial industry. Last year at this point I wrote about Plumpton-trained winemaker Jacob Leadley, who works at Hattingly Valley – which makes its own wine as well as those for other vineyards – and who has just released the second vintage of his own label wine, the Black Chalk Wild Rose 2016 (£40 blackchalkwine.co.uk).
It’s an exceptional, distinctive and elegant wine, with champagne grapes sourced from across Hampshire vineyards and made at Hattingly. And it’s a testament to the success of English and Welsh wine that not only would that have been impossible in the past but also that it barely raises an eyebrow now. I’m very happy to raise a glass to it.
Next week: the new still wines from England and Wales