Could English sparkling wine replace Pimms as England’s favourite home-grown drink? The signs look so good to Steven Spurrier that he’s planning on making some himself…
By the time you read this article on English sparkling wine, my wife and I may have persuaded Champagne Duval-Leroy to agree to a joint venture to plant Champagne grapes on our farm in south Dorset to produce the first of 100,000 bottles or so of Bride Valley Brut.
When we moved to a little village about 6km from the sea between Dorchester and Bridport, I noticed that much of the soil on the 80ha (hectare) farm that went with the house was very chalky. In fact, the lane that runs alongside the farm is called Chalk Pit Lane. I asked Michel Laroche of Chablis to take a look and he had some soil samples analysed at Auxerre and pronounced it suitable for Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc. I had thought of planting Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois, but after our first summer, a rainy 1987, I concluded they would rot before they would ripen.
Fast-forward 20 years and the combination of chalky soil, a globally warmed climate and the idea of making sparkling wine, where the grapes don’t need to get any riper than 9.5? potential alcohol, spurred me on. The fact that the sheep who currently occupy the land have regularly lost money despite all the farmers’ markets my wife can attend and running the place on a shoestring, was another incentive.
I called Stephen Skelton MW, former owner of Tenterden Vineyards – one of the early wineries established in Kent, and advisor to many current players – to come and study the lie of the land. He isolated 20–30ha that could be planted. I identified Duval-Leroy as a potential partner, only to be told that a few years back it had been looking in Sussex and Kent for land to buy and had come away empty-handed. Over a dozen soil samples were analysed, to which Duval-Leroy gave the thumbs-up. The Independent got to hear of it and wrote two pieces, the last being in late March – a two-page spread stating ‘English Wine Comes of Age’.
The reasons are clear. Global warming has given southern England roughly the same climate Champagne had in the 1950s and 1960s, and anyone as old as I am can remember great vintages from those years. ‘English Wine’, which was a joke (as long as one didn’t have to drink it) 20 years ago, has made tremendous strides to win prizes all over the world, especially for the sparkling variety. Nyetimber from West Sussex was the forerunner and I can remember being offered a glass of its sparkling wine in the early 1990s and being asked to identify it. ‘Easy,’ I said, ‘Grand cru blanc de blancs, probably Cramant.’ Now Ridgeview from East Sussex is a rival and I prefer its crisper style, while Camel Valley in Cornwall is another strong contender, particular for its Pinot Noir Sparkling Rosé. Everybody, from supermarkets such as Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, to Chapel Down in Kent, which already has 130ha under vines and is continuing to expand, agrees that English wine’s future is sparkling.
Nor am I alone in Dorset to think of grapes. John Winfield-Digby has been at it for over 20 years near to Sherborne, and just north of Bridport ex-actuary and currently Plumpton College graduate Ian Edwards has planted 5.5ha and expects his first crop this year. Nearby at Wooton Fitzpayne, Nigel and Mary Riddle have 16,000 vines planted, purely for sparkling wine. While Skelton worries about a glut of grapes if everyone jumps on the bandwagon, Edwards says the demand for English sparkling wine is going to outstrip supply for at least the next decade.
So far, I have not mentioned quality, and this may be the stumbling block to many people’s ambitions. The ‘buying local’ boom and the rise in sales of cider have proved the English like to buy English produce, and buying at the cellar door is fun. This will support many little operations where the wines are genuine, but are not perhaps subjected to the scrutiny of a supermarket buyer or a Decanter taster.
For this article, Decanter selected nine white English sparkling wines and five rosés, which I tasted blind. I have to admit that only one of these, Ridgeview’s Fitzrovia Rosé, would have gained four stars on my notes (17/20). That said, a Champagne (Pannier NV) had been slipped in without my knowledge and I gave this 16/20, the same as I gave to Camel Valley’s Pinot Noir Brut. Neither of the Nyetimber 2000s was in good condition, the Classic Cuvée being a little better than the Blanc de Blancs. My notes, which could equally well apply to a range of non-vintage Champagnes from lesser brands, read too often ‘some character, lacks finesse… high acidity even after a heavy dosage… too frothy, slightly hard finish, but not bad.’
The temptation is that, given suitable soil and climate to plant grapes, even selling average-quality fruit to short-of-supply wineries is far more profitable than any other legal form of agriculture. You don’t need planning permission and you may even get a grant for diversification. If you have barns on your farm, as we do, you don’t even need planning permission to build a winery. Few people have the skills and investment available to make a really fine wine. This is what made Nyetimber stand out. The then owner, Chicagoan Stuart Moss, was a perfectionist and did everything by the Champagne book, buying the best equipment and employing the best people. For the nascent English wine industry to grow, profit has to be the driving factor, and profit usually only comes after investment in quality.
The worst thing that could happen to the English sparkling wine industry is that too much mediocre stuff is produced on which brands cannot be built. The best thing that could happen is that English growers concentrate on quality, which sells. Sparkling wine is one of the most capital-intensive, technology-driven in the world. Small is not beautiful, for sparkling wines are made not in the vineyard but in the cellar. You need expert advice and money – and then more money. That is why I contacted Duval-Leroy.
Ridgeview, Fitzrovia Rosé, East Sussex 2004 HHHH 17/20
Salmon pink. Wild strawberry fruit. Fine, elegant flavours, pretty. Drink now. £21.84 (2003); ScC
Camel Valley, Pinot Noir Brut, Cornwall 2005 HHH 16/20
Faint pink. Ripe wild strawberry. Drink now. £16.95–17.33; Cme, WCw
Camel Valley, Pinot Noir Brut Rosé, Cornwall 2004 HHH 16/20
Pale salmon. Fruity and elegant. Almost sweet but good. Drink now. £22.95; Cme
Denbies, Greenfields Cuvée, Surrey 2003 HHH 15/20
Lemony-yellow. Sherbetty, lifted, a touch of mint. £17.06; JsG
Stanlake Park, Sparkling Wine, Berkshire NV HHH 15/20
Pale gold. Bready, biscuity. Broad fruit. Drink now. £19; DkH
For UK stockist codes, see p146.