Steven Spurrier is well known to Decanter readers. But what many might not know is that he’s now making English sparkling wine. John Livingstone-Learmonth explains how this particular vineyard adventure was third time lucky
Bride Valley: the first harvest
In 2007, an initial joint venture with Duval-Leroy didn’t work out. But a personal approach to the powerful Boisset family with its vast wine empire did. They duly sent their top sparkling wine man, Georges Legrand, to make detailed soil and climate analyses on 30ha of potential vineyards.
These revealed that the proposed vineyard lay on an ancient seabed. It also became clear that only 10ha or 12ha were perfect for the classic Champagne varieties. The rest was either too steep or too exposed.
The ball then transferred to Pepinières Guillaume, France’s top vine nursery supplier, whose famous clients include Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Leflaive, Bollinger, Roederer and many more. Planting began in 2009 and finished in 2013. Now the completed vineyard is composed of 55% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier.
As ever, it wasn’t plain sailing. For instance, the Meunier didn’t flourish at first. ‘It’s a bit of a wimp with the weather,’ says Bella. ‘And it only got going in 2014, when its vines groaned with fruit.’ Thankfully, the Chardonnay got off to a much better start. Especially those vines on a beautifully exposed west-facing block whose grapes invariably go into the racy Blanc de Blancs.
When Spurrier celebrated his 70th birthday in October 2011 with friends from around the world, the vines were blessed by local vicar Bob Thorne. ‘He called them “the little children of god”, and lo and behold, we were harvesting them two weeks later,’ Spurrier recalls, ‘That crop made the first 490 bottles of Bride Valley sparkling wine.’
Then as now, the wine is expertly vinified by Ian Edwards at Furleigh Estate just 8km away as the crow flies. in 2012, vineyard manager Graham Fisher joined the team from Nyetimber. But it wasn’t an easy or auspicious start. he arrived just in time for a complete washout of the harvest after six weeks of midsummer rain.
The 2013 vintage was much better, but still only yielded just over 200 cases. ‘To be honest, 2014 was our first proper harvest,’ says Fisher. ‘We produced 3,000 bottles of Bride Valley Rosé, 6,000 of Blanc de Blancs and 11,000 of the Brut Reserve.’
In many ways Bella is more actively involved than her husband. ‘She’s in the vineyard every day and does the pruning and picking. she’s very much la vigneronne,’ he points out.
It hasn’t always been easy for Bella, who has experienced mixed emotions since she exchanged her sheep for vines. ‘I sometimes met nice people who were about to retire, and they would tell me “Oh, we thought we’d plant a vineyard…”. At which point I would practically shout “For goodness sake, don’t – it will take all your money and time and probably kill you before your time. Go on a nice cruise instead, please!” And then, of course, 2014 comes along, with its 31 tonnes of crop, and you forget all that.’
So now the good ship Spurrier has been well and truly launched. More importantly, it’s already steering an ambitious course. ‘Having taken the best advice and bought vines from the world’s leading nursery, that permits an aspiration,’ says Spurrier. ‘The best machinery and label design are also part of the piece.’
But what of the style? A clue lies in the two sparkling wine producers he would most like to emulate: in Champagne, Pol Roger; and in England, Ridgeview. given his preference for lightness and elegance, he regards Bride Valley very much as an aperitif wine.
As a result, he favours a dosage of nine grams per litre. ‘For now, 8g/l is too green, but as the vines mature that may be possible.’ Spurrier is most hands-on with the assemblage and the dosage. ‘Mentally and emotionally I am 100% on this part of the operation.’
He says the Brut Reserve 2014 is likely to end up as one third each of Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay and will be blended in June. ‘The Pinot Noir provides weight, while the Meunier gives it spice and vitality. I also think it will allow the blend to mature a little earlier.’
Edwards is delighted to have someone as precise, knowledgeable and expert as Spurrier to work for. His leaning is definitely towards a drier style, and he points out that the Bride Chardonnay differs quite significantly from his own Furleigh Estate Chardonnay. ‘Steven’s has much lower acidity and starts with a chalky character that diminishes over two years. At Bride, the chalk has very little topsoil above it, whereas we are on green sand over clay.’
Bride Valley is still in its infancy, but the Spurriers are confident of breaking even by 2018. ‘We need to achieve a production level of 25,000 bottles each vintage to do that,’ says Spurrier. ‘From our current plantings, we can average 35,000 bottles per harvest, which will take us into profit.’
Of course, success is equally contingent on quality and market reaction. ‘So far, the professionals and amateurs I’ve shown it to have been impressed,’ says Spurrier. ‘I am aware that Bride Valley benefits from my being well-known in the wine world,’ he adds. ‘But I’m thrilled that people want to try it. That experts like [World’s Best Sommelier 2010] Gerard Basset have commented on its lightness, vivacity and elegance is a source of much personal pleasure.’
For now, Spurrier is preparing sales around the world, buoyed in part by the arrival in Dorset of his daughter Kate, who helps with the marketing. Liberty Wines will distribute Bride Valley in the UK and Boisset will be the major importer into France, the US ‘and whatever other markets they want it for’, says Spurrier. ‘There’s no formal business relationship with Boisset,’ he adds. ‘It was and still is very much a “hands across the Channel” feeling. But without their help, input and encouragement, we might well not have started on this adventure.’
It’s also a very long way from those earlier stumbles in Vacqueyras and Bordeaux. As Spurrier observes, ‘I can’t imagine a better or more satisfying culmination to my career in wine than this.’
John Livingstone-Learmonth is an awarded wine writer, author, speaker and judge, and a close family friend of the Spurrier family