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Jefford on Monday: England’s Marlborough moment

Andrew Jefford tastes English sparkling wines from Wiston Estate and Sugrue Pierre.

‘A harmless eccentricity has become one of the wine world’s most promising developments.’

Where will it all end? On the morning after the UK’s hottest September day since 1911 (34.4°C, on September 13th), I found myself in a Sussex vineyard under a cloudless sky, looking at a magnificent Chardonnay crop grown by a former British minister and his wife; two hours later, I tasted a set of English sparkling wines which merited scores approaching the mid-90s (see below).

What had once been regarded as a harmless eccentricity has become, over the last decade, one of the wine world’s most promising developments.

Agreed, the quantities are not large (the greatly expanded UK plantings are still only one sixteenth the size of Champagne); agreed, the Champagne-like prices for finished, bottled English sparkling wine can induce breathlessness.  Anyone involved in growing vines in the UK will confirm that every season is daunting.

Those high prices, though, mean that what’s in the glass is given beady-eyed scrutiny and fierce benchmarking.  It still impresses.  We may be witnessing what might be called ‘a Marlborough moment’: the growing realisation, in other words, that some new place on earth can produce a particular wine style whose innate qualities and rightness seem certain to assure it classic status in the decades and centuries ahead.

Where is it all going for English wine?

So what might the UK prove to be?  Given five more decades, how about a rangy northern echo of the Côte des Blancs?  Chardonnay strikes me as generally more successful in the UK than the two Pinots.  Those latter varieties (especially Meunier) struggle, at least at present, to express the developed, refined orchard perfumes, structured palate resonance and dark freshness of flavour which are possible in Champagne.   Chardonnay itself in England, by contrast, can often beguile with its bladed nuance, its sinew and its and taut, stony austerities: totally true to form.  There are extensive untapped acreages waiting for planting; propitious UK farmland changes hands at much lower prices than do classified Champagne vineyards.  A growing advantage due to anthropogenic climate change is not certain, since warmth might come at the wrong times and wild weather at any time – but it’s at least possible.

That recent visit was to the Mount Harry vineyard of Tim and Alice Renton (Baron Renton of Mount Harry, to give him his full title: a former Arts Minister and Conservative Chief Whip) with one of the UK’s most talented young winemakers, Irishman Dermot Sugrue.  I’d last seen Dermot Sugrue in August 2008 when, after a meteoric rise from Plumpton College via Nyetimber, he had just taken on the challenge of managing the vineyards and making the wines of one of southern England’s most significant farming estates: Wiston, owned by Harry and Pip Goring, at Washington in Sussex.

Eight frantic years later, and Wiston has a beautifully labelled, impressive and occasionally Trophy-winning range; and Dermot Sugrue also has his own label called Sugrue Pierre (one of the best-performing English sparkling wine in Decanter tastings thus far).  It was initially based on fruit from a monastic vineyard called Storrington Priory, but now includes Mount Harry fruit, too; and he also makes wines for others, including the admired Jenkyn Place at Bentley in Hampshire and the promising Black Dog Hill, lying just under Ditchling Beacon in Sussex.  And all of it comes into being in one of the most unlovely buildings I’ve ever seen turned to winery use: a former turkey-killing shed next to the thundering traffic of the A24.  Not the least of Dermot Sugrue’s achievements over the last eight years has been to redeem the karma of this once-grim but now much merrier building.

He’s done it in part by laughing a lot – and that sense of humour has been needed, not least in 2012, when after the beautiful 2011 season the meteorological lottery delivered “the coldest, wettest and darkest summer since 1912.  The really big problem in the UK is trying to cope with what is unmanageable — the variation in yields,” he says.  By way of example, he gave me the figures for the chalk-soiled Wiston Estate alone, which varied from a colossal 324 tonnes in 2014 to just 11 tonnes in 2012.  Champagne yields are far more consistent than the UK’s for the time being, perhaps due to a measure of continentality.

‘It is not so much the precise soil type as the very long, drawn-out season itself which counts most in England’s favour.’

Much has been made of the fact that the English downlands are based on the same chalk formations as Champagne – though it’s important to remember that many of the great pioneer wines, like Nyetimber and Ridgeview, began in greensand soils.  I’m sure that some of the purity and finesse of the Wiston wines can be attributed to chalk, but in the UK context it tends to imply a riskier site choice than some of the alternatives.  If you are on chalk downland, you will usually be at altitude, with less protection from what are often devastating winds, and from the rain and gales that gallop along with them.  From an economic perspective, the safest sites are probably former hop gardens and apple orchards, which were habitually planted in protected sites — even if they are on sand or clay.  (Champagne has plenty of sand too, remember.)

For the vine, everything matters – but in the end it is not so much the precise soil type as the very long, drawn-out season itself which counts most in England’s favour.  That is what delivers such impressive phenolic maturity allied to modest sugars, high yet ripe acidity and subdued yet complex fruit characters: the magical formula for any sparkling wine which might wish to emulate Champagne.

Tasting the Wiston and the Sugrue Pierre wines was shockingly gratifying. It was gratifying to see wine-making and blending talent expressed in this way; the shock, though, was that English vineyards can now create sparkling wines as complete and as assured as this.

Tasting Wiston Estate

The use of ‘Estate’ on the current label is misleading for the non-vintage wines, which contain some fruit from other sites: this will be altered to ‘Wiston’ alone in future.  All the vintage wines, by contrast, are true Estate wines from the 6.5 ha of Wiston vineyards.

 Wiston Estate Cuvée Brut NV

Fresh lemon and grapefruit scents; frank, keen, clean, drivingly pure flavours with a pressed lemon finish (based on 2013 fruit at present; no malo.  Future releases will contain reserves and do malolactic fermentation). 89 points / 100

Wiston Estate Blanc de Blancs NV

Powdery, sweet-edged, elegant, toasty, pretty scents with a softer, more rounded palate than its Wiston peers, though there’s plenty of stony refinement here, too, and a mouthwatering, vinous finish (based on 2014 with reserves from 2009 and 2013; malolactic fermentation).  92

Wiston Estate Cuvée Rosé NV

A cool yellow-pink in colour, with leafy, savoury aromatic notes.  On the palate, structured, dry, masterful and earthy: a food-friendly style (based on 2010; 50% Pinot Noir, 40% Pinot Meunier and 10% Chardonnay, including 12% red wine; no malo).  91

Wiston Estate 2010 Cuvée Brut

Wet stone and quiet, root-spice perfumes, with a creamy base note; on the palate, a cascade of lemon and apple freshness, driving and searching but ripe, un-brutal and resonant; some saline notes, and a little crackle of sherbet at the close (33% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir and 22 per cent Pinot Meunier, all barrel fermented in older wood; no malo).  93

Wiston Estate 2010 Blanc de Blancs

Outstanding ivy-leaf finesse and a touch of dried wild mushroom, tool: pure, long, refined scents.  On the palate, very light, creamy, graceful, elegant and lifted; virtuoso, resonant acidity, with a faintly saline hint; fine, feathery textures (half fermented in older oak barrels; no malo).  Restrained, fine-grained, convincing.  94

Wiston Estate 2011 Rosé

Pale coral in colour, with slightly sweeter, fruitier scents than the non-vintage version (red apple, plum, strawberry).  Round, elegant and mouth-freshening, with great grace and charm (57% directly pressed Pinot Noir and 10% directly pressed Pinot Meunier, 33% Chardonnay; no malo).  91

Tasting Sugrue Pierre

The 2009, 2010 and 2011 vintages (of which only 2010 has been released so far) were based on fruit from Storrington Priory alone; there is no 2012 vintage; the 2013 includes fruit from Tim and Alice Renton’s Mount Harry.

 Sugrue Pierre, The Trouble With Dreams, 2009

Pale in colour, with expressive, slow-rolling aromas of lemon, woodland leaves and mossy walls.  Large-boned and driving in the mouth with a ripe, festive style despite the acid brace and structural intensity (60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir with 10% oak fermentation in new wood for three months only; malolactic fermentation).  94

Sugrue Pierre, The Trouble With Dreams, 2010

As with the as-yet-unreleased 2009, this much-admired 2010 shows the completeness and generosity of the Storrington Priory style by comparison with the nuance, lift and grace of Wiston Estate: a cloud of citrus, shadowed by broadleaf woodland earthiness.  The palate is drily rich, long and deep, with a structured, sappy, vinous finish (the same blend plus a seasoning of Pinot Meunier with half oak fermentation and no malo; half steel fermentation with malolactic fermentation).  95

Sugrue Pierre, The Trouble With Dreams, 2013

A different style emphasis, as Storrington Priory gave a shy yield this year so the blend is based on 90 per cent Mount Harry.  Beguiling scents: citrus freshness with sweet crushed seeds.  On the palate opens almost juicily, then grows in elegance and refinement as its structure and stony qualities become apparent.  Complete and satisfying (60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir, half oak fermented and no malo; half steel fermentation with malolactic).  94

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