Sipping Syrah in the vines overlooking the Apalta Valley in Chile. Tasting Pinot Noir in Central Otago on New Zealand’s South Island. Dining in a medieval Tuscan Castle with vertical vintages of Chianti. Just three of the many memories over my 22 years of escorting wine tours around the world.
So it was wonderfully different to simply walk out of my front door, and after a five minute stroll to meet the train from London and welcome my clients on our first Love Wine Food private tour in Southern England. From the LWF HQ, which nestles in the heart of the South Downs National Park and surrounded by nearby vineyards, I’d designed a two day exploration of English Vineyards for the members of a London Livery Company.
Hambledon Vineyards are located in the eponymous village in Hampshire and is the oldest commercial vineyard in England. Vines were originally planted in 1952 on the property by Major General Sir Guy Salisbury Jones, with valuable help & insight from the De Billy family who own the famous Champagne House of Pol Roger. At a time when English wines were virtually unheard of, Hambledon enjoyed prestigious clients, such as being served by the Queen at official functions as well as Embassies. The modern story of Hambledon was reborn in 1999 when it was bought by Ian Kellett, who had absolute belief that Sparkling Wines were the future of the estate, thanks to the chalk on which the vines are planted. The Classic Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinots Noir & Meunier were planted and the relationship between Pol Roger and Hambledon was rekindled.
Last year, they undertook a huge new planting of 230,000 vines bringing the total of land under vine to a substantial total of 85 hectares. Their expansion investment also includes an impressive vast new cellar, mostly underground so it will have a permanent natural cool temperature with no need for air conditioning. The obvious slight problem was the solid chalk which although so beneficial for the vines, is less than amusing to dig out in such large quantities, hence the chalk “mountains” dotted around waiting to be backfilled in around the cellar hiding it almost from view.
Hambledon have just launched their fourth wine, the Première Cuvée Rosé and we were privileged to be the first guests to the estate to taste it. In an eye catching bottle shape, it’s rather unusual to be made with 100% Pinot Meunier, which normally only makes up a smaller percentage of the sparkling blend, so it was fascinating to taste a pure expression of the variety. Made with Zero Dosage, it was bone dry with attractive raspberry notes. Only 4000 bottles were made in its first outing, so somewhat of a rarity. It compliments their Première Cuvée made from 73% Chardonnay and 24% Pinot Noir (the rest a splash of Meunier), it was beautifully rich and lots of toasted brioche notes thanks to an extended 42 months lees contact. The Classic Cuvée was reminiscent of sherbet with its lively freshness and the Classic Cuvée Rosé version made from 90% Chardonnay with 10% PN red wine was all strawberries & cream in the glass.
Although many people go to wine tastings, it’s not very often that consumers have the opportunity to do a comparative dosage tasting. Dosage is the addition of wine & sugar back into the wine after the yeast sediment has been disgorged in Champagne and Sparkling Wines. The numbers of grams of sugar per litre governs the taste and texture of the final wine. Taking four glasses of Classic Cuvée, one with Zero Dosage, 4 gms, 6 gms and 10 gms. It is truly incredible how much difference such an infinitesimal variance has on the wine, creating more roundness or less for a racier acidity and vital to get this spot on to truly establish the House Style.
Staying on the chalk soils of Hampshire, our lunchtime appointment was at Danebury Vineyards, close to the picturesque village of Stockbridge. Originally the property was part of a famous racehorse yard, patronised by Royalty during the 19th Century. Danebury is owned by an Austrian family, who cherish this pocketsize estate. Often the term boutique vineyard is bandied about, but is most apt for Danebury’s small 2.8 hectares of vines.
Being suitably British in our studious ignorance of threatening rain clouds, we started with a vineyard visit in the company of Patrick, who tends this immaculate grassy vineyard to hear about the challenges and benefits of making wine in England following organic principles. Kicking off with a welcome glass of their Sparkling Cossack, named after the winner of the Epsom Derby in 1847, which was trained at Danebury. Made from Auxerrois Blanc and Pinot Gris rather than the classic Champenoise varieties, it has a gentle mousse and hints of citrus fruits.
A canter through their white wines, starting with their Madeleine Angevine, a variety that hails from the Loire valley, which has a delightful nose of elderflowers leading into crisp hints of lime. An extremely attractive and dangerously drinkable wine which is perfect for Spring. Their Schönburger (the variety is a cross of Pinot Noir & Muscat), was more full bodied and aromatic. The Danebury Reserve, a blend of their four white varieties displays a savoury aspect on first taste, which when combined with food comes into its own with riper stone fruit notes coming through and went well with the delicious luncheon of chicken poached in white wine with braised lettuce. Danebury is a wonderful small hidden gem of an estate set in the beautiful Hampshire countryside.
A reviving break to give palates time to recuperate with some free time in beautiful Winchester, the first Capital of England, with its impressive Gothic Cathedral and 12th Century illuminated bible.
Our evening visit was to Coates & Seely, a small scale artisan producer of Sparkling Wines located not far from Winchester. One aspect of wine tours is that after two decades of vising wineries around the world, LWF understands well that it is vital to avoid endless repetition at wine cellars. Nothing is more depressing for a vintner than seeing visitors eyes glaze over when faced by yet more barrels or another gleaming avenue of stainless steel tanks. So all praise goes to the wonderful Nicholas Coates, co-owner of Coates & Seely, who nixed the idea of a cellar visit (though looking forward to going back another time to see the concrete eggs!), and instead invited us to relax in a delightful setting with a glass or three of their gorgeous sparkling wine – a much more enjoyable way to listen to their history and philosophy. Charming, with a slight maverick streak, Nicholas is the epitome of an English Gentleman, who along with his business partner and old friend, Christian Seely, have a passionate belief in making great sparkling wines in England and labelling them as Britagne wines.
Their wines, always with a French winemaker at the helm, are created with reserve wines for the NV, which gives an attractive depth. Their vintage wines – amusingly called La Perfide – are treated to extended lees contact, anything up to five years which gives wines of great complexity and are only released in the best years. Refreshingly honest, Nicholas was a veritable font of anecdotes of how he and Christian have developed the estate, since in 2008 (over a few bottle of Champagne) they decided to start this new project of English sparkling wines to rival the best in the world. Since they are the only English Wine to have been stocked at the George V in Paris – they are definitely on the right path! Virginia, Nicholas’s wife had prepared a tempting array of local food, starting with Canapés of Blinis with Smoked trout from the River Test and melt in the mouth shortbread made with Tunworth Hampshire cheese. Her beautiful menu continued with venison fillet showing that Sparkling wines can be enjoyed throughout a meal rather than simply as an aperitif.
Such a glorious range of wines, and convivial company meant that my tasting notes of all seven wines rather went by the wayside. The Brut Rosé NV, made by the saignée method was an elegant pale shade with alpine strawberries on the palate and had great balance of acidity. The 2009 Brut Rosé La Perfide was full of complexity and toasty notes thanks to 6.5 years on the lees and a further 3 years bottle aging – this is a wine to be savoured, choose your company well or treat yourself to enjoy alone with a good book overlooking the watercress beds of Hampshire! Brut Reserve 2011 La Perfide in Magnum of 65% Pinot Noir with the rest Pinot Meunier was an absolute delight and still incredibly vibrant in the glass. To finish, in honour of absent friends, we enjoyed Château Suduiraut, the Sauternes estate that C&S’s other owning partner, Christian Seely looks after in his role of head of Axa Millésimes Wine Portfolio (who own Pichon Baron in Pauillac, Quinta do Noval in Portugal et alia). Truly a memorable evening – and looking ahead to my next day at the Races, secure in the knowledge that C&S wines are now listed at 14 of the Jockey Club’s Race courses in England and served from Albion, their 1952 British Charabanc with her British Racing Green Livery.
Our second day of this private wine tour saw a quick hop over the county border into West Sussex to Stopham Vineyard. Welcomed by their head winemaker Simon Woodhead, a blustery walk through the vines was the perfect start to understand the philosophy of the estate. The vineyards are sandy loam, which is free draining (vines hate wet feet!) and made for an interesting comparison to all the talk about chalk soils the day before. Sustainability and responsible agriculture are at the heart of their vineyard practise from careful soil management through to increasing their biodiversity, including planting 400 metres of natural hedgerow. They only use grapes from their own six hectares of vines for complete control over their fruit quality.
Their Pinot Blanc is one of my favourite English still wines, indeed is the one that I tend to take as a gift when visiting wine makers abroad to show them what English wine can achieve. A fascinating visit, with Simon explaining lots of viniculture & vinicultural practises. A very appealing zesty white with slight hints of ripe melon & greengage, the Pinot Blanc works happily as an apèro or with fish and is remarkably rounded considering that it does not undergo malolactic fermentation. But it has competition in the shape of the recent award winning Pinot Gris. We tasted the 2017 vintage which has 15% of Bacchus in the blend. Off dry thanks to a perfect pitch of residual sugar, just enough to give it body & character, with stunning nose of white peaches and spice – truly delicious and would work well with aromatic Asian food. From next vintage, it will be pure Pinot Gris as the Bacchus will be bottled as its own variety – so lots of exciting things to look forward to at Stopham. Their Sparkling is the house Fizz at the V&A in London – is there a better excuse to visit a Museum? The tag line on their bottles is “Made with passion and precision in West Sussex” which sums it up perfectly!
Nutbourne Vineyardshwas our lunchtime appointment, almost walkable across the fields as also close to the village of Pulborough. Owned by Bridget and Peter Gladwin, who took it over in 1991 (although vines had been planted on the estate since 1980), Nutbourne has a wonderful range of wines produced from seven different grape varieties on their 26 hectares of vineyard. Welcomed by their adorable collie Buddy, and a glass of their Nutty Brut Sparkling, produced from Pinot Noir & Chardonnay, Bridget led us up into their windmill, from where it’s a lovely view across their vines. It was interesting to be visiting the vineyards at time of bud burst and fingers crossed that there are no more frosts.
It’s very much a family affair at Nutbourne, as Bridget is an artist, whose ethereal paintings are the labels on all of their wines. Her husband Peter, is an excellent chef (indeed owns a prestigious London Catering Company as well as being a key member of Wine GB), two of their sons run three London restaurants which they supply with Sussex produce foraged on the Nutbourne family estate (as well naturally as Nutbourne wines on the list). As we explored the vineyards, there was a deliciously distracting scent wafting across of Sussex lamb roasting in the clay oven with old vine cuttings. A smoked trout & horseradish mousseline was a great foil for their unoaked Chardonnay. But truly exciting to taste was their Pinot Noir 2018 – still unfinished, so a barrel sample, but it was so vibrant in the glass with cherries, red fruits and an underlying touch of smokiness. To watch out for when it’s released! Dessert was a lemon posset with delicious homemade Florentines which was paired with their Hedgerow Wine. Made from Bacchus and Huxelrebe grape varieties in an off dry style with delightful aromatics, thanks to some daring late harvesting. Nutbourne are hosting a Pop Up Restaurant in the Vines for English Wine Week at the end of May – so do book yourself a ticket for a great day of delicious food & wine.
Our last visit to round up these couple of days exploring English Vineyards was to the Surrey Hills to the small estate of High Clandon Owned by Bruce & Sibylla Tindale, this pocketsize vineyard on Chalky Limestone is situated in an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), with spectacular views across to the City – on a clear day, it almost seems as if one could reach out and touch the Shard! Walking through their wild flower meadow that edges the vineyard (followed by a small coterie of inquisitive ducklings), it’s clear that the vineyard is their absolute passion – and they are very much hands on doing all the vineyard work throughout the year themselves – with one being very much in charge of the Chardonnay vines and the other tending the Pinot Noir vines! On the far side of the vineyard is their wood planted with oak & hazels, which is their truffière – gradually becoming home to Burgundian truffles.
Their focus is all about the vineyard and growing the best fruit possible, whilst the wine making is entrusted to the brilliant Emma Rice at Hattingley Valley, who have a much larger wine making facility. In the High Clandon Wine Lodge, which is filled with artwork and sculptures from local artists, a relaxing tasting was prepared around the log burner, a welcome sight on this English Spring day. The Elysium Cuvée 2013 of 54% Pinot Noir & 46% Chardonnay was very approachable, with lovely notes of apricots and was complimented by the homemade Gougeres (an English twist on the classic French cheese puff). To finish in style, we’d decided to open a couple of Library Wines – the Aurora Cuvée Rose 2011 was the palest of salmon pink shades with not only strawberries but a delicious butterscotch finish. The Queens Jubilee Cuvée 2008 of which only 1100 bottles were produced, from 56% Chardonnay was the perfect finale. Still lovely freshness with a good mousse, on the palate it was all stone fruit and some lime to end. Before we disappeared, there was one last wine – the Essence of High Clandon, an Eau de Vin du Vin. Double distilled from their Chardonnay & Pinot Noir grapes, and infused with 14 local botanicals plus a small additional of their own honey, whose bees enjoy the wild flower meadows next to their vines. A great expression of this little magical corner of quintessential England in the Surrey Hills to end our tour.
English Wine is going through a very exciting time, no longer the joke of hobbyist wine makers with more enthusiasm than knowledge, it is now a serious industry and growing very quickly. Last year’s vintage of 2018 was for most producers a blessing as the large yields have given them opportunity to build up reserve wines, even though at the time of harvest, the challenge of what to do with so many grapes was a very real worry! Sparkling leads the way with 72% of English production, with Chardonnay & Pinot Noir making up the Lions share at 58% of vineyards as opposed to other varieties. Vineyard plantings are rapidly increasing, which I see first hand here around LWF HQ in Hampshire, and since 2015, the amount of land under vine has increased by 47%. But with over 520 vineyards that are producing grapes for commercial use and only 164 wineries, there is a concern for over production without sufficient infrastructure. English Sparkling only makes up 2% of all Sparkling wines on the home market so there is room for sales expansion and export markets will only increase but it is a time for long term planning in English Vineyards. But what an era to be experiencing as a wine lover in England. There are some great Sparkling wines being produced to rival Champagne, as has been proved repeatedly in recent blind tastings. There are a handful of winemakers already making delicious still wines, like the Pinot Gris at Stopham, I drink it because it’s delicious wine and not simply to be patriotic. Finally your low “wine miles” count can easily persuade you into enjoying a second glass or so without worry!
For more information please visit: www.winegb.co.uk