We know that wine is about place. So, as the modern English wine industry moves from baby steps to bounding leaps, can we (or should we) talk about what a Kent wine tastes like next to a Hampshire one? These are regions as far apart as Alsace and Burgundy, after all. 

The path to a better understanding of the main English viticultural areas is splattered with red herring, some of which are well trodden-in. Let’s take a look at what we can  (and, more importantly can’t) assess. 

1. East is riper than West?

Most of the UK’s troublesome weather arrives from the West, tiring itself out by the time it reaches Kent and Essex. A test, then, of how ripe grapes are getting could be to look at where the UK’s still Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are coming from, as they require the most heat and sunshine to ripen. Here is a map of all these wines from Chardonnay and the Pinots (Noir, Blanc, Meunier and Gris) that have come to market since the beginning of 2018 (mobile users please expand to Full Screen)

 

 

English Still Wine Releases - Chardonnay/Pinots 2018-2020
  • Including Still Chardonnay
  • Including Red Pinot Noir
  • Rosé only
  • Pinot Blanc/Gris (no Chardonnay or red Pinot Noir)

Notes:

  1. I have excluded wines made fully or partially from the early-ripening variety Pinot Noir Précoce or Frühburgunder. This is not a comment on their quality, but simply reflects the need to compare like with like. Even though the inclusion of Précoce is not always declared, a little inside knowledge (and a little sleuthing) can usually get to the bottom of it! If any wines are missing, please get in touch.
  2. There is a vintage-warping effect here – the ripeness of 2018 enabled producers to make still wine from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay where they may not ordinarily be able to. 2017 was frost-hit, and some 2019s are yet to be released (November 2020). 
  3. Releasing a still Chardonnay or Pinot Noir doesn’t necessarily mean the wine is good – merely that basic levels of ripeness for still wine were achieved
  4. Apologies that my map software puts Sussex as one county, when it is in fact two!

Comparing The Stats for Releases of Still Chardonnay/Pinots WEST of 0’00’ with those EAST of 0’00

Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir Rosés appear to be more flexible, and slightly more popular West of London. It can be easier to get acids in line with still wine goals using these varieties than with Chardonnay. Pinot Noir rosé can be made even when the sort of ripeness required for red wine is not attained – any greenness in the skins of Pinot Noir is felt very markedly in red wine, but less so in Rosé (which can be pressed off quickly). 

If we remove the exceptional 2018 vintage, however, the difference becomes more marked:

The 2018 vintage did not alter the balance of releases from the East of the country. Vineyards in Kent and Essex especially have been able to produce still Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from other vintages – 2016, 2017 and 2019. 

Soil is one of the herrings here. The correlation between chalk and sparkling wine is strong, so the relative paucity of still wines from chalk (Simpsons and Kit’s Coty being the only two places to have released consistently) is more about this than any causation. Altitude and aspect are more critically important, with almost all still red Pinots and still Chardonnays coming from sites under 50m.  

Looks Clear Enough?

Perhaps. We need to be careful about ascribing causality to patterns. If there are regional variations, however, how do they have a bearing on sparkling wine production?

A still wine grape isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) just a riper sparkling grape. Both grapes should be ripe, but hold a different balance of sugar and acidity. Shooting for still wine and failing is not a recipe for the best sparkling wine grapes – both require deliberate growing strategies. By combining yield reduction, vigour management and the maintenance of a healthy crop at least into late October, those with the very warmest sites can make a go of it. It is an extreme sport. 

For sparkling wine, the truth will be a little hazier. Under-ripeness is still the bogeyman, no doubt – that green, cows-parsley and meadow grass streak, a leanness through the palate that refuses to be puffed out with autolysis or dosage. The best sites, whether in Hampshire or Suffolk, will routinely avoid that, even in late years or when carrying large crops. Even if the theoretical ability to ripen for still wine is not a prerequisite for a top sparkling wine site, insurance against the variability of the British weather is still a huge advantage in terms of yields at the very least. As Dr Alistair Nesbitt’s research into English viticultural land indicates, this insurance appears to improve by heading Eastwards (or into the Chilterns). In terms of quality, the picture is more complex. 

Diplomacy Rules

The industry is small (especially on the winemaking front), and friendly. Having said that, there is a degree of competitiveness and secrecy around grape sourcing, as well as an opacity around yields and ripeness levels. Behind closed doors, views on regionality do exist. We shouldn’t always expect them to emerge from the mouths of winemakers or official bodies, though – it’s up to those with no skin in the game to taste and report widely, inquisitively and honestly.

2, New Vineyard Sites Over the Last 5 Years

Below is a map of all new vineyard sites over 5ha planted since 2015. With more and more data available, where are those with deep pockets choosing to put down roots?

  1. Previously-chosen sites that are being expanded are not included.
  2. These are all grapes planted regardless of variety or destination. The vast majority are Chardonnay and Pinots. 
  3. Chalk sites are yellow, other soils are orange. Saying whether a site is or isn’t chalk is not always straightforward, but I have counted anything with a notable chalk influence. 

536 Hectares in the North Downs 

The North Downs chalk in Kent has seen the big plays over the last five years, from Chapel Down, Mark Dixon and Nyetimber. Alongside Squerryes, Chapel Down’s Kit’s Coty site is the pioneer North of Maidstone. This part of the North Downs channels much of the warmth and dryness bestowed on London and southern Essex, just across the Thames Estuary.

The difference, though, is on the ground – banks of fine chalky soils at suitable altitudes, often divided into reasonably-sized lots (which are efficient to farm) rather than small, higgledy-piggledy holdings. There’s just enough coastal influence to avoid the very worst frost-susceptibility of the lower lying Wealden areas, but not so much to threaten daytime temperatures. 

The Kit’s Coty megalith on the North Downs in Kent. Built in 4000BC, it now watches over a sea of vineyard from Chapel Down and, Nyetimber and others.

The South Downs – a little quieter

Hampshire has seen two major investments, from Champagne House Louis Pommery at Pinglestone and Hambledon (whose new site joins Hundred Hills and Squerryes as the highest-altitude sites in the country for quality sparkling wine). Aside from these two, Hampshire has not seen as much growth as other regions in the last 5 years, with the likes of Hattingley Valley, Raimes and Black Chalk (at Cottonworth) having been established for a little longer. Nyetimber’s first two chalk vineyards are in Hampshire, too, not far from Black Chalk’s.

The chalk gets nearer to the coast as it runs east, eventually narrowing to Rathfinny and Breaky Bottom, tucked close to the sea in East Sussex. Artelium are the only producer to have recently planted a large site in the South Downs chalk outside of Hampshire.

The original vineyard at Gusbourne, Kent, just keeping its head above the marshland.

Essex has had more planted that East Sussex, West Sussex or Hampshire (counting 5ha+ sites)

Away from the chalk it is Essex that appears to hold the two largest new plantations at Missing Gate and Althorne. Ripeness levels are proving impressive in the Crouch Valley area, and head-turning still wines from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are on the cards from the best sites. Viticulturist Duncan McNeill has had a strong influence, looking after many of the vineyards with an efficiency made possible by their relative proximity. The model here is usually to sell grapes to the likes of Lyme Bay, Camel Valley, Chapel Down and the urban London wineries, although ambitious new outfits such as Danbury Estate are changing this. The cat is out of the bag, and hopping on the back of a GPS-guided planting machine. 

There is a little bit of a Wild-East, frontier feeling in Essex, for now, and some new vineyards remain beneath the radar. Nevertheless it looks like at least 100Ha have gone in over the last 5 years. 

The Weald remains popular, although not for the sort of mega-plantings seen in the North Downs.

The Weald is enclosed by the chalk of East Kent, Surrey and Hampshire (for a basic look at how the geology works, have a look at this IGTV video)

Low-lying Wealden clay borders on sandier, lighter soil in places, eventually revealing an arch of greensand found mostly in West Sussex. Despite the successes of Nyetimber and others in West Sussex, no further major plantings have been undertaken on these sands lately. 

It’s interesting to see a line along the Kent/East Sussex border, perhaps influenced by the likes of Gusbourne and Oxney nearby. Chapel Down have a hand here too – they haven’t gone all-in with the white stuff. As you head towards the coast, the area becomes very low-lying, bordering on marshy, with clay – what Kristin Sylvetic of Oxney Estate calls her glorious mud – dominating. A claim also made in Essex is that the clay, although slower to warm, retains heat better through the night than better-drained soils, whilst also delaying budburst and lowering frost risk. 

Elsewhere

Large new sites for Chardonnay and the Pinots are rare outside of these regions. The one exception is the promise reported by Dr Alistair Nesbitt for the Chilterns and surrounding region just West of London, where sparkling producers Harrow & Hope and Fairmile have successfully established (and large outfit Hundred Hills is based, presumably releasing wine before too long). The climate here shows much less coastal influence than most other areas, but appears to offer some very warm zones. 

 

3. The Problem of Resolution

 

Aside from the youth of some of the vineyard, one of the reasons it is difficult to piece together regional patterns is the practise of blending grapes from across the country. If you combine this with the strength of the stylistic stamp that sparkling winemakers have the opportunity to introduce over the many years the wines remain in their charge, it can be difficult to get to a clear sense of place.

We solve that in Champagne by having multiple data points. Let’s say that the grapes of Ambonnay go into 100 different champagnes. 100 producers tell us about their experiences with those grapes. Some release single village/vineyard wines. Some offer us a taste of base wines in the cellar. Styles may differ but, by elimination, we can come to an idea of what Ambonnay tastes like.

By way of contrast, let’s say that one producer has 200 Hectares of Chardonnay from the North Downs all to themselves. A whole village, in essence. They double-settle juice, ferment cool all in steel, block some malolactic fermentation, reduce lees-ageing times to two years and release with a low dosage. The talk would all be about the purity and precision of the fruit. If, next vintage, they picked ultra-late, waited a year on lees before tirage, fermented in oak with 100% malolactic fermentation, blended in 40% reserve wines and lees-aged for six years then.the wines would be textured, richer, deeper. Given one example of each wine, would anyone be confident of identifying the same place? 

Style and substance grow separately, but co-ferment. No winemaker can override fruit any more than a chef can override their ingredients. Transparency, though, is an illusion. We arrive at a sense of place not through one crystal-clear vistas, but piece-by-piece, like a detective cross-referencing what they see of a darkened house through cracks in the door, beside the curtains, through the letterbox.

It is as question of resolution, not just size. 

With thanks to Stephen Skelton MW for his work documenting English plantings. 

Part Two – Tasting Regionality (coming soon)

Say No To Magnums

Winston Churchill famously quipped that a magnum was “the perfect size for two gentleman over lunch, especially if one of them isn’t drinking”. After wondering whether World War Two could have ended earlier had afternoons at Downing Street been more productive, is it time to ask ourselves whether the magnum is overrated? Here are four reasons:

1. If we can ever have parties again, people will secretly hate you

The English hold a deep-seated mistrust of hedonism. Speaking as a man who once received a dental retainer as a (main) Christmas present, the idea of showing up to a party composed of anyone other than hardcore wine enthusiasts bearing a magnum of champagne is unthinkable. Try explaining the benefits of reduced oxygen ingress on bottle fermentation to your uncle’s birdwatching circle. It will not work. They will detest you, mentally sending you back to your 1980s Porsche to shout stock prices down a headset.  

2. They don’t fit in the fridge

You will have to lie them down, sealed with a stopper and a prayer. They will leak. I recommend putting some soft cheese underneath – Langres is the traditional choice, being traditionally served with a splash of champagne on top. You will need about £80 worth to absorb the leakage from one magnum.

(they also don’t fit in wine racks)

3. They are embarrassing to recycle

My local council does not collect glass for recycling. Dealing with an empty magnum therefore means taking it to a bottle bank. This is conveniently located by a bus stop in front of the community centre. In one of the poorest boroughs of London. The hole appears to be no more than 75cl-sized and the bins are frequently full-to-bursting, meaning you have to coyly deposit your bottles at the side like some kind of public shaming ritual. As yet I have not worked up the courage to run this particular gauntlet. 

4. They taste much, much better than normal bottles

And finally, the most annoying trait of all. Magnums are amazing. The dynamics of fermentation are different. The levels of oxygen entering the wine after disgorgement are lower, meaning the wine ages more slowly. Good magnums of sparkling wine develop an irresistible, sultry smoky reductiveness that marries up with their extra dose of energy and resilience to lift the wine into another plane. Once you drink a few, be prepared to wonder “I wonder what this would taste like in magnum” about every single 75cl bottle you ever drink. I call it FOMOOM. Fear Of Missing Out On Magnums.  

Knowledge is a curse. 

 

Champagne has been in the news recently, with 2020 harvest limits reduced due to sales being hit hard by Covid-19. How exactly is Champagne’s yield regulation supposed to work, and is it doing its job? 

Each year, both sides of the Champagne table – growers and grape buyers – must agree the appellation’s yield limit. This is not a question of how many grapes can be picked off the vines, as is sometimes implied. Instead, the region takes a look at sales forecasts and decides how much of the harvest will be: 

Given the go-ahead to become champagne immediately

    • This year, Houses will be given the AOC (have authorised for use as champagne) 7,000kg per hectare immediately, whilst grower-producers will be given 8,000 kg. If sales figures reach 202 million bottles this year, then Houses will be authorised to use a further 1000 kg per hectare. If these sales are not met, then this 1000kg will be authorised as part of the 2021 yield. Given that the average over the last decade has been 13,500 kg, this represents a large drop in income for growers.
    • The Houses, however, are cautious about tying up yet more cash paying for more grapes than they need. Stock levels are forecast to approach 7 year’s worth of sales thanks to the stalling of the market in 2020.

Kept aside and allowed to become champagne in the future

    • Some consolation would ordinarily come from the ability to produce wine above 2020’s 8000 kg/year limit and place that wine in the Réserve Individuelle. This is the centrally-regulated reserve holdings of each producer, designed to absorb fluctuations in annual production.
    • In 2020 up to 7000kg per hectare could be added to the R.I. Most will be unable to keep this amount – no producer can hold more than 8000 kg per hectare’s worth of wine as a running total, and the average level across the region is already approaching this.
    • R.I. wines are not awarded the appellation until authorised for use. Producers can choose to jettison poor parts of their reserve and replace them with reserve from better harvests.
    • Yield agreements may dictate use of a certain amount of R.I. – for instance in 2018 the agreed yield of 10,800 kg per hectare comprised 500kg from the R.I., so only 10,300kg of 2018 grapes were actually authorised. If 2021 is low-yielding or disease-affected, producers will welcome having high-quality wine from good harvests in their R.I. to use.

Vinified but remain as ‘Vin Ordinaire’, probably destined for distillation

    • Any wine not awarded the AOC is kept as Vin Ordinaire. That which lies outside of a producers R.I. is sent to distillation the winter following harvest. In 2018, for example, disease-affected wine from the 2017 vintage that remained in the R.I. could be replaced with better 2018 wine and sent for distillation in the place of the excess 2018 production. 
    • Grapes, then, should not be left to rot on the vines as is sometimes reported. If you see grapes on the vines in Champagne long after harvest, it is more likely to be a ‘second crop’ of unripe grapes produced from secondary shoots.
Will any of these grapes really end up as Champagne hand sanitiser in 2021/22?

What Next?

In the end, the agreement is unlikely to either stem the flow of champagne quickly enough to protect prices or prevent large, potentially transformative losses amongst growers. Many growers believe that the UMC (the association of Houses) wants to drive down yields in order to force growers out of business and buy up land. Cash-strapped producers may struggle too, though, and it seems likely that some names will not survive the crisis. 

Whilst Champagne does manage supply to protect its pricing, there is a limit to how much be done under French and EU law. If the volume of stock becomes overwhelming for some, sell-offs are inevitable. Some of these may be sur lattes, where un-branded, un-disgorged bottles are sold on to be marketed by others. Temporarily suspended during the first few months of Covid-19, this could see a rush of lower-priced wines arrive on the market as producers dump stock under the table to raise cash. 

This crisis and the divisions it has reinforced will rumble on into next year, even in the event of a remarkable recovery in 2021. With reserves full and stocks rising, next year’s yield agreement could prove equally contentious. 

 

I’ve just come from watching Stephen Skelton MW chair an Institute of the Masters of Wine webinar entitled ‘What’s In Store For English Sparkling Wine’ with Justin Howard-Sneyd MW (ex-head of Waitrose wine, Domaine of the Bee, The Hive Wine Consulting), Mark Harvey (MD of Chapel Down Wines), Stephen Duckett (founder and MD, Hundred Hills Winery) and Paul Murray (CEO of Cornerstone US Wine Imports Inc). It was a smart, level-headed session looking at business end of England’s flagship wine production.

We do have a serious oversupply situation” Justin Howard-Sneyd

The oversupply of English grapes is a delicate topic. ‘Spooking’ the trade is a risk as market perception of oversupply could easily veer into ‘nobody wants to drink English Sparkling Wine because it obviously isn’t as good as they think it is’ rather than ‘it was so successful that we grew too fast’. Howard-Sneyd’s smart analysis of the current stock position would seem to suggest that the industry needs to forget about denying the upcoming pressures and start thinking about how to maintain the quality message. Here are a few headlines from the panelists.

  1. Stephen Skelton MW presented some basic facts and figures. UK plantings currently stand at around 3500 Ha, or 1/10th the size of Champagne. He estimates that 50% of all planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier have yet to produce wine on the shelf.
  2. Justin Howard-Sneyd MW showed that year-on-year sales growth of 10% per annum for 5 years followed by a fallback to 5% per annum would lead current stock levels to rise to almost 80 million bottles by 2028, with sales standing at just over 4 million bottles per year. This assumes planting slowing and stopping at 4000 Ha over the next two years.*
    • Even with sales growing 20% year-on-year (followed by a relaxation back to 10%) 10 years’ worth of stock could easily build up.
    • The current market for Traditional Method Sparkling Wine over £25 per bottle in the UK was around 14 million bottles. Exports last year stood at around 200,000 bottles. He predicts the £25-40 market to stall, whilst the £40+ ‘prestige’ market may actually grow, along with the £10-15 market.
  3. Paul Murray, with his experience in the global wine market, also sees £15-25 as key. His involvement in some of the UK’s first Charmat method wines stems from his belief in this sector. Nevertheless “there will be winners and losers”, and slowing down planting is key. ‘We all love the romance, but at some point you just have to stop people!” Murray believed there would be “big deals’ ahead.
  1. Nyetimber Vineyard
    Pinot Noir vines at Nyetimber

“We’re going to have to differentiate more” – Mark Harvey

The panel was unanimous about the need to diversify. The question I always have about this is: with what? Those that have either been planting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in exceptional sites or planting dedicated still wine varieties may be sitting pretty, but what about the enormous hectarage of champagne varieties planted for sparkling wine?

Skelton and Howard-Sneyd are big believers in still Pinot Noir Rosé, which looks to be the easiest pivot to make for sparkling producers who have either over-planted or are slow to establish newer brands. Still blanc de noirs could become a specialism, too. The problem is probably more what to do with Chardonnay; whilst the best growers can probably push their Pinot Noir into the sort of ripeness needed for still rosé, doing the same for still Chardonnay is no mean feat. Many in 2019 would have been picking Champagne clones at around 9% potential alcohol and 13+ g/l TA; unlikely to produce interesting still wines. Sussex and counties further West have produced very few still Chardonnays to date, with the best coming from Kent and Essex. Across the country I would estimate that no more than 20% of Chardonnay planted could reliably be turned into still wine likely to merit £15 per bottle. Neither would most of it make especially friendly entry-level sparkling, either as Charmat or extremely youthful Traditional Method wines.

So what are these “£10-15” sparkling wines going to be made from? Paul Murray’s Charmat method Angel and Four brand used 50% Reichensteiner, 25% Madeleine Angevine and 25% Seyval Blanc – varieties that cover about 7% of the planted area in England and Wales as things stand. Combine these with other aromatic varieties with potential for Charmat wines and you might reach about 12% (more if you include Bacchus). The Pinots do have potential for these wines, but probably not on their own.

Aside from newer Bacchus plantings, many of these aromatic varieties will come from smaller vineyards who may be perfectly happy selling their own still wines into local markets. The question facing growers, then; is it time to pull up that Chardonnay and plant some Reichensteiner?!

The new generation – Rathfinny. Photo Gill Copeland/Shutterstock

The Elephant Not In The Zoom

Covid has already forced many to discount to levels that will be difficult to clamber back from. Today you can buy a case of Nyetimber Classic Cuvée for £159 from merchants despite it still being listed at £222 per six on the producer’s own website. Hattingley and Hush Heath have also made serious discounts available, and are far from alone.

Accompanying this cold reality is a discussion that was not broached – wine quality. The panel felt that the “battle” between champagne and English Sparkling Wine in terms of quality was over, and that English Sparkling Wines had little to prove. My own sense is that English Sparkling Wines have reached a ledge on a difficult cliff face. With crumbling footing below, the choice is whether to descend or ascend. Long-term, the industry needs ascenders; flagship brands who can weather the storm of Covid and overplanting without compromise on quality and reputation.

The route for the descenders is no less perilous, and possibly harder than for Champenois who find themselves in similar positions. Cheap champagne is often made from harder pressings and less desirable grape sources, but these grapes would still tend to be essentially ripe; in England cheap grapes usually mean under-ripeness, high acids and green flavours (especially when over-pressed). My experience of English Sparkling Wines around the £20 has not inspired much confidence so far, although I’m hopeful this might change with the 2018 vintage in bottle (and 2020 looking promising too).

Competition in the field of contracted vineyard and winemaking services will certainly help, and Murray and Skelton both believe there is scope for a duty reduction for English wines. Perhaps this holds the key to producing something respectable at £20. Using a quicker turnaround to drop prices doesn’t work in a low sales-pressure environment, though; in fact a slowing in the market could hold some benefits for quality as wines are forced to spend longer on lees!

If stocks can’t be financed (or are seen to drop in value) then perhaps we will see sales of un-disgorged wine sur lattes and a rise in opportunistic “soft brand” English Sparkling Wines in the supermarkets and large wine retailers. There could be some good wines around at good prices. Too many of these, though, and the ability of the headline producers to maintain premium pricing becomes seriously compromised.

Survive or Thrive?

There will be niches for still wine, but English Sparkling Wine from classic grape varieties is currently the only product of globally-significant quality produced in any serious quantity. Whilst England joins much of the global wine industry in survival mode, then creativity and diversification is understandably the only game in town. Ultimately, though, England must remember that international recognition of its wines remains embryonic, and casting a haze over what it does best could prove unhelpful.

The best-case scenario is that poor and unproductive sites are weeded out, good sites remain (or come) under the control of well-funded operations with long-term financing, and more people get to taste ‘real’ English Sparkling Wine at a lower price point. If this dynamic prevails over the side-effects of post Covid and post-overplanting re-adjustments, then England will emerge into its recovery period with a star to follow.

Read the Six Atmospheres Report ‘English Sparkling Wine 2020’

*Howard-Sneyd’s predictions about growing stock levels assume that English Sparkling Wine rises to 80% of total UK production and that yields remain at 25 Hectolitres per Hectare. Neither of these are safe; the former could potentially drop, whilst the latter is likely to climb higher as yield figures have been dragged down for many years by lower-performing vineyards. Most of the modern vineyards will achieve 7-8 tonnes per hectare of fruit (more in 2018/2019/2020), or closer to 35 Hl/Ha. Covid, too, is likely to add a few million bottles to the stock backlog.

“I was playing a gig and we got into this zone and I saw this space station and this spaceship docking into the space station‚ and these aliens talking in the space station and broadcasting over the universe. My part was this person in a spacesuit working on the outside of the station hammering something. I was playing the hammering. [laughter] The way that everything was fitting together musically was what was creating this vision for me.:”

Jazz Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel in an interview with Mike McKinley, 2008

Just like a musician trying to offer a window on improvisation, attempts to share our experience of flavour with others sometimes call for the construction of a ‘shadow’ process. Away from the duck-shoot of identifiable descriptors – lemon or lime, brioche or macaroon – it is the more architectural elements of a wine experience that tend to leave us grasping in the dark. 

Aroma is often discussed as one experience, but the physicality of wine is usually broken down into different streams; acidity, texture, sweetness, length. Can we construct something to help us draw these together and answer questions such as, “how does this wine taste so complete?” Or, “why does this wine not quite feel balanced?” Or, “how do I know this wine will age?” . Everyone has their own ways. I thought I would attempt to share what I think has become part of mine. 

The Cat’s Cradle

Tension is ever-present in wine. Andrew Jefford bundles it up as ‘TEPF’ , saying

“It is not the constituents of flavour in themselves which matter, but rather the nature and relationships of the lattice which links those constituents in a finished wine.”

You know that situation where the most interesting wine in a lineup has proven the hardest to talk about?  Great wines form such intricate webs of tension that they resist disassembly to the last drop. Sparkling winemakers in charge of complex blends are the elite architects of tension, for whom indescribable, inscrutable deliciousness is the ultimate badge of honour. A chef de cave publicly offering a traditional descriptor-laden tasting note on one of their own wines would seem a touch… uncouth.

Imagine a cat’s cradle. A network, built of a single thread, where tension throughout creates the kind of perfect, timeless stasis that tells you have something serious in your glass. Characters can be understood by how they relate to others; an oxidative tendency can be pulled tighter with post-disgorgement youthfulness and dosage, or an ultra-fine, polished texture might allow the drama of high acidity and low dosage to shine. The richness of time on lees might pull against incredible freshness on the palate in a late-disgorged wine. The blend, the vintage, the vinification, the prise de mousse, the ageing, the disgorgement and dosage – all these present a number of points to hang that thread around, with the hope that there is enough tension in the system to pull you right back, through that whole journey, to the vines in the ground. 

A Tension Deficit Disorder?

There’s no one way to get it right, but successful wines spin the web so that there’s never an obvious slack point in the system that lets one element – sour! fat texture! sickly butterscotch! froth! – fall loose. An unsettled blend, the effects of a troublesome vintage or a hand that is overly heavy (or overly light) in the cellar can all introduce sagging points.

Acidity or youthfulness alone don’t constitute a complete sense of tension by themselves, either. Tense wines are not necessarily difficult to drink; in fact, they are almost addictive, never tiring or collapsing, always inviting you to prise your way further in. If you feel that you’ve sussed out a wine after just one glass, it probably isn’t especially tense.

If it doesn’t collapse in structure, but grows, doesn’t become more obvious, but less, doesn’t become easier to describe, but harder, then you are in the presence of tension. Something delicious, memorable and age-worthy. Most importantly, as we all start to contemplate sitting round a (large) table with friends again, a few such wines will offer something else to talk about, from the first glass to the last.