Wine column for week of 10 March 2014: One of the joys of writing about wine is the chance to walk through a sunny vineyard while talking with the person who grows the grapes, and then taste the wine with the winemaker.
A visit to Nyetimber in West Sussex in the United Kingdom was both a privilege and a revelation. It looks like a Walt Disney movie set designed to showcase the beauty of the English countryside.
Horses amble along bridle paths and deer frolic in vineyards. The sixteenth century estate is nestled between the majestic North and South Downs national parks.
An American businessman, Stuart Moss, set up Nyetimber, which means “newly-timbered house,” in 1986. The first vines were planted in 1988. Moss had the progressive idea of planting the grapes of Champagne – chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. In the United Kingdom the most commonly-planted grape for sparkling wine is a German hybrid, seyval blanc. It makes ordinary wine, though it has the advantage of ripening early.
Songwriter Andy Hill bought Nyetimber in 2001, using royalties to expand the estate. Hill sold to Eric Heerema in 2006. Heerema, originally from the Netherlands, has lived in the UK since 1999. He plans to boost production to more than 500,000, the equivalent of a medium Champagne house like Jaquesson. The estate currently makes about 400,000 bottles. Nyetimber’s majesty reflects Heerema’s aesthetic tastes.
Viticulturist Pascal Marty, who has worked in France, Chile and Australia, said the current 150 hectares grow 65 per cent chardonnay, 30 per cent pinot nor with the rest pinot meunier. Nyetimber has eight properties and Marty believes they are perfect sites for these grapes, with excellent drainage and soil.
Marty employs young sheep from local farms to mow the grass. The sheep contribute fertilizer for the grapes, and their hooves aerate the soil.
Nyetimber’s headquarters is nestled at the end of a narrow road and one needs a GPS to guarantee finding it. But the journey is more than worth the effort.
Cherie Spriggs is the winemaker. She joined Nyetimber in 2007 after studying at the Wine Research Center in Canada and Adelaide University in Australia. Spriggs said the estate’s aim was to make sparkling wine to rival the best champagne. She has succeeded. Her wines are exquisite.
We began with the 2009 Classic Cuvee. Aromas of fresh lemon, brioche, melon and a hint of vanilla leapt from the glass. The bubbles from the base of the glass, known as the bead, are fine and wonderfully textured. The flavours balance superbly with zingy acid, and the finish lingers.
A feature of all Nyetimber sparklings is the amount of time the flavours stay in one’s mouth. Days later I can close my eyes and remember them. The cuvee is still a young wine yet it has sufficient balance and structure to age for many years to come.
Spriggs described 2009 as one of the best vintages of the past decade. “I just needed to get out of the way to let the grapes do their thing.”
Next we tasted the 2007 Blanc de Blancs. Champagnes based on 100 per cent chardonnay can be something of a connoisseur’s wine. This is a magnificent sparkler, with the most wonderful mouth-feel.
The aromas are delicate, even shy. I had an image of a child smiling at me from behind its mother’s skirt, an idyllic mix of beauty and potential. What follows is an explosion of green apple flavours and lemon acidity along a backbone of minerality that integrates joyously. Spriggs described this blanc de blancs as “the essence of purity”. I think it is superb.
The 2009 Rosé is 45 per cent chardonnay and 53 per cent pinot noir with a touch of pinot meunier. The colour is fascinating – what Spriggs called a “vibrant antique rose with hints of copper”.
It smells like a big bed of strawberries and red currants bathing in the sun in a country garden, with a touch of quince paste. Add hints of cherry and cardomom and the soft texture from the bead and you are left with a sense of bliss. The feeling in the mouth exudes elegance and the flavours just roll on and on.
We finished with the non-vintage Demi-sec, which Spriggs designed as a sparkling to have with dessert. “It’s brilliant with wedding cake.” Nyetimber is the first English winery to make a demi-sec (which means semi dry). I loved the balance of sweetness and acidity that means the wine is not cloying despite the high level of residual sugar (44 grams per litre). This wine offers richness on the back palate and wonderfully earthy aromas with hints of honey and dried fruit.
Nyetimber have just released a single vineyard sparkling, the 2009 Tillington named after the village near Petworth in Sussex from which the grapes come. It is a blend of pinot noir and chardonnay. We did not taste this wine. Only 2,500 bottles will be released.
Spriggs said the decision to make Tillington came after she tasted the quality of the pinot noir grapes from the site. “We don’t make a blanc de noirs [a wine made from 100 per cent pinot noir]. I liked the idea of a pinot-dominant sparkler. The 21 per cent chardonnay adds lovely freshness, elegance and acidity,” she told a wine magazine earlier this year.
Our visit occurred on a sunny spring day. When wine and weather shine, life is simply wonderful.
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