English sparkling continues to shine

At least two in three bottles of English wine are sparkling, an indication of the direction the wine business is heading. For week of December 28

The announcement in December that a Champagne house plans to plant grapes in England highlights the rapid evolution of English sparkling wine. It is the first time that a Champagne house has invested in the UK with the intention of producing premium English sparkling.

The consortium consists of Champagne Taittinger and Hatch Mansfield, a UK wine company specialising in premium wines from independent, family owned producers. Taittinger is the only major Champagne house that remains owned and actively managed by the family named on the label. It is sold in more than 150 countries. Taittinger owns 288 hectares of vineyards in Champagne (about half of their production needs). This makes them the second largest domaine owner and grower in the region.

The group has purchased 69 hectares of farmland at Stone Stile Farm in Kent in south-west England. Forty hectares will be planted with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

The names of individual wines is still being discussed, but the wine company will be known as Domaine Evremond. Charles de Saint-Evremond (1614-1703) was an early ambassador for Champagne in the UK. In 1661 he was exiled to England after his criticism of French policy. During this time he started the fashion of drinking Champagne at the court of Charles II. He remained a darling of London society for more than 30 years, and is buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, which reflects his status at that time.

Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, president of Champagne Taittinger, said his company had been “very excited” for a number of years about the potential of English sparkling wine. “But it has been about finding the right time and place to realise our dream. Taittinger believe they can make a high quality premium sparkling wine in Kent – the combination of soil, climate, topography and time are right. The increasing suitability of the climate in the UK has been a contributing factor.”

Planting begins in 2017. It is a long-term project. The first fruit for winemaking will be available in 2020, but it will not be bottled until 2021.

The 2014 and 2015 harvests in the UK have been the best to date, the former producing 6.3 million bottles. This was a massive 42 per cent increase compared with the volume produced in 2013, itself making a record-breaking figure of 4.45m bottles. By 2020 sparkling production is expected almost to double to 12 million bottles.

England has about 1,800 hectares of land under vine, and 470 vineyards. Sales of English wine reached about £78 million in 2014, and were expected to reach £100 million by the end of 2015.

Denbies in Surrey is believed to be the largest single vineyard in the UK, but Nyetimber in nearby Sussex is the largest vineyard landowner in England, with 145 hectares of vines across eight sites including six in West Sussex and two Chardonnay vineyards in Hampshire.

Nyetimber only uses its own grapes and released its first vintage in 1992, after planting grapes in 1988. Previous columns have focused on Nyetimber’s successes. In early September the 2010 vintage of the house’s flagship sparkler Classic Cuvée was named best English sparkling wine at the 2015 World Championships of Champagne and Sparkling Wine.

Nyetimber’s assistant winemaker Brad Greatrix described Nyetimber’s signature style as showing intensity of flavour “coupled with elegance and a lightness of touch”. Since 2007 his estate has been assembling a library of base wines to be used as reserve wine in their blends. The percentage of wines put aside each year varies from 10 per cent to as high as 30 per cent.

“Some people think we’re making it to lessen the blow of bad vintages like 2012, when we made no wine,” he said. “But it’s really to be able to develop our house style. Vintage has a strong influence on style in England, and if you have a large library of reserve wines you can use them to influence the wine’s style,” Greatrix said.

In September Bluebell Vineyard, based in Danehill, East Sussex, celebrated a decade of making sparkling wine with the launch of a late disgorged blanc de blancs. This release marked the start of a new series of wines aged on their lees for a minimum of 60 months.

The inaugural release, a 2008 Blanc de Blancs Hindleap single vineyard reserve, is aged on lees for six years and will be available in limited quantities. Kevin Sutherland, the winemaker, said he had wanted to develop a series of late disgorged wines. “Leaving the wine to mature on lees longer before disgorging brings a totally different expression to the wine; mature, rich and developed, while still maintaining the freshness and acidity characteristic of our wines.”

The 2008 received a silver medal at the 2015 English and Welsh wine of the year competition. The judges said the wine had a “savoury developed autolytic nose, good mousse with a creamy texture, brioche and red fruits, lime zest and a long finish”. Autolytic is a technical term for the aromas in wine based on the fact they are left on lees for a long time.

We found the 2008 subdued at first but several hours later this sparkler had improved. We also tasted the 2010 Hindleap blanc de blancs at the same time. It is a much better wine based on a comparison with the 2008. It has intense aromas of a range of citrus, especially grapefruit, combined with subdued acidity and a pleasant mouthfeel. The 2008 does not offer the same presence in one’s mouth.

The 2010 Hindleap blanc de blancs spent a year on lees. It offers a subtle yeast and brioche aroma that reminds one of warm toast on an autumn morning, with citrus tang and a long finish. The fine bead and slightly oxidised nature of the chardonnay, which gives the wine opulence and a sense of richness, are highly attractive. This feels more like a champagne because it lacks the sharp acidity of English sparkling.

One favourite was the 2011 brut rose. It is a champagne-style blend of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay but it feels like the pinot contributes a major part of the cepage. This impressive rose has a striking and earthy bouquet of mushrooms and wet earth, which the cognoscenti often refer to as “sous bois” – the aromas you get from compost under trees. Its weight makes it a versatile wine that could be consumed as an aperitif, but could also work well with meat such as lamb, or paired with sashimi.

Another well-made wine is the non-vintage Classic Cuvee, with its subdued acidity and thoughtful mouthfeel. Like the other Bluebell wines tasted, it does not have the searing acidity typical of English sparkling but it does taste lovely.

Sutherland said Bluebell had plans to extend its range of sparkling wines to include an oak-aged blanc de blancs and a blancs de noir (made only from pinot noir), along with a new range of still wines. “With the new vineyard plantings coming on stream over the next couple of years we will have the flexibility to experiment and explore different styles.”

Bluebell’s vineyard and winery were established in 2005. The estate has gained more than 40 national and international awards since its first release in 2007. Sutherland said attention to detail in the vineyard and winery and a philosophy to “let the fruit do the talking” meant Bluebell hoped to produce wines that evoked the “flavours and aromas of England”.

Words: 1,223

Categories: English wine, Not home, wine

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