Check out English Sparkling Wine 2020 for a full, up-to-date report on 32 English Sparkling Wine Producers
- A story with a beginning…and a middle
The intensity of the gaze falling on English Sparkling Wine can sometimes lead to a little warping of perspective. Words on the subject – including my own, I’ll concede – appear with enough regularity that the temptation is always to build microscopic narratives, find nano-patterns and talk about ‘trends’ whose appearance might rest on nothing more than a few thousand bottles. The more is said, the faster time seems to pass.
Nyetimber, though, is one of the few cases where there is a story, built vintage-by-vintage like a sedimentary formation until something tangible, textured and individual starts to appear. There is a culture here that almost appears uncompromising in the face of models taken up elsewhere in England; 100% estate-grown fruit across a widely-spread range of sites, zero contract winemaking and a singular focus on Traditional Method wines, made by the same winemaking team for over a decade. It might not read as an extraordinary set of claims for an internationally-significant wine producer, but the fact that this makes Nyetimber almost completely unique in England in 2020 is a useful, and perhaps surprising, thought to pause on.
Wife and husband team Cherie Spriggs and Brad Greatrix have been at the helm of winemaking operations here since 2007, when they were brought over by then-new owner Eric Heerema after a transitional period which saw a number of hands take the wheel. The culture of open-mindedness, precision and empiricism that Spriggs, Greatrix and Heerema have installed runs deep, from the design of the pressing centre to the acquisition of new sites and the constant examination and re-examination of every link in the chain of production. Luck, or otherwise, is left enough space to roam amongst the extreme mood swings of the English weather. Behind the doors at Nyetimber it barely gets a scrap to feed on.
When American couple Stuart and Sandy Moss planted vines in 1988 the original vineyard was dominated by Chardonnay. Everything was planted extremely densely, at around 6500 vines per hectare, trained to double guyot and Chablis methods. At a time when English viticulture was gravitating towards big, wide rows of early-ripening varieties and sprawling training systems that promised to soak up some of England’s natural vigour, the original planting here must have appeared adventurous at the very least.
Expansion has been the name of the game since 2007, with the estate’s original 14Ha on greensand now transformed into a collection of 10 sites running to over 250 Ha across West Sussex, Kent and Hampshire. Half of these are on greensand and half on chalk, although much of the chalk fruit is yet to find its way into finished wines. Viticulture comes under the eye of Ben Kantsler who, in overseeing all sites, keeps cellar and vineyard in the sort of closed-loop system that applies constant quality pressure. Even in Champagne it would be quite unusual at this size to have 100% of production under house control.
The original Chardonnay from 1988 is still going, although the Pinots are being replanted. Elsewhere Nyetimber have scaled back the heavy Chardonnay dominance of the early plantings towards a split of 48 % Chardonnay, 34% Pinot Noir and 18% Pinot Meunier. Densities have been lowered from the low, narrow original plantings to around 4500 vines per hectare to avoid overcrowding in the fruit zones and build in a little more sunlight interception through slightly wider rows and higher canopies. Almost all of the vineyard area is now trained to single guyot. Whilst others in England sometimes use Burgundy clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in order to steal an inch of volume and ripeness from the cool English season, Nyetimber stick to a clonal selection that is resolutely champenois.
Chalk and Cheese
Key to Nyetimber’s modern identity is the balance between the fruit from Sussex greensand and that from the newer chalk sites. There is no dogma of chalk being a ‘better’ soil at Nyetimber; it is about the interaction of both influences, with greensand bringing deeper fruit expression whilst the chalk offers length and energy. I asked Greatrix whether there was anything empirically different about the fruit they were seeing on chalk, or whether it was more about perception;
“Chalk vs Greensand is an interesting comparison. There aren’t specific analytical parameters that we could apply to each, mainly because it’s hard to do such a comparison where sites are spread out and local climate therefore would play a role. But one thing we do know is if you line up two comparable wines in terms of pH and TA then the perception of acidity is different for chalk-grown wines. The acid perception on greensand is more towards the back of the palate, whereas chalk is even from front to back, giving a more balanced impression. The trade-off for that benefit though is that fruit characteristics from chalk are less generous than on greensand.”
Chalk will play an increasing role in all the Nyetimber releases of the future (except for the Tillington single vineyard), although the youth of the new chalk sites in Kent means it could still be at least five years before the released wines reflect the balance of plantings.
In The Press
In the cellar the stability of the Heerema era has brought an enormous amount of consistency and refinement to the wines. Nowhere is this more evident than in the pressing facility. The harvest arrives in West Chiltington, where a row of Coquard PAI presses are the backbone of a streamlined system that would be the envy of any similarly-sized sparkling wine producer. Grapes, picked into tiny 15kg crates to avoid damage, are loaded into a bespoke conveyor and elevator system than ensures speedy, gentle loading with minimal disturbance between vine and press. Greatrix explains the thought process behind the operation:
“The Coquard is the perfect companion to hand-harvesting because it is so gentle, but you give away its advantage if you spend too long loading it. Even eight tonnes we can load in around twenty minutes, as opposed to fifty by hand. All that time is time that the grapes aren’t sitting around, and you don’t have uncontrolled maceration at the bottom of the press. The juice quality definitely gets a boost.”
The juice is separated into cuvée, early taille and late taille by taste (but never exceeding the theoretical cutoff points established in Champagne). I asked Greatrix whether he felt that English grapes behaved differently to others in the press, meaning that it was hard to rely on any kind of ‘recipe’ for when to make the cuts between press fractions:
“Yes! You see all sorts of strange pressings. You can have years where uneven ripeness or thick skins means the best juice doesn’t come out until later as it takes time to split the berries. It tends to set into a pattern by vintage, so you get a feel for it.”
A big harvest such as 2018 sees Nyetimber pressing one hundred tonnes a day. Despite this, separation of lots by variety, clone, block and rootstock is ensured by settling the juice by gravity into an army of small tanks before it is shipped off in a compartmentalised truck to the winery in Crawley. Only 3% of the Chardonnay for the Blanc de Blancs and the red wines for the Rosés see oak. All the wines go through malolactic, spending a few months on light lees before blending begins.
The end result in spring is around hundred individual base wines on the blending table. Here is where you start to see the Nyetimber advantage really open up.
You sometimes hear that English wines need ‘fleshing out’. Time on lees does that job for Nyetimber, rather than any bodybuilding in the cellar with oak and oxygen. After some early oxidative handling to build in long-term resilience, precision and fidelity lead the approach from initial fermentation through tirage and disgorgement. Oxygen contact is kept to a minimum at all stages, with Spriggs and Greatrix even introducing the rare step for a sparkling wine producer of nitrogen flushing at bottling. Jetting – the practice of inducing a small amount of foaming at disgorgement to push out any oxygen in the headspace – has been part of the picture since 2012, after which all wines receive DIAM Mytik technical corks.
The result of this care is that all the subtleties and delicacies of top quality English fruit emerge completely intact, resilient enough to stay fresh whilst the delicious effects of autolysis and bottle age take hold. Fans of champagnes on the pure, fresh and reductive side of the style spectrum will find plenty to love, even if the substance itself is subtly different. In quality terms, most importantly, the portfolio simply feels a generation ahead of all but a few in English Sparkling Wine. It is not really a competition, as they say, but rather an invitation – here is what is possible.
Classic Cuvée MV (2015 Base)
62% Chardonnay, 30 % Pinot Noir, 8 % Pinot Meunier. Disgorged August 2019. 20% reserves dating back to 2009.
This cuvée continues to open out extremely attractively, now showing a little post-disgorgement richness of bakewell tart (with almonds nicely toasted on top) alongside raspberry and pear pastries. The palate is bright but not at all austere now, even showing a touch of roundness before tapering off with a friendly snap of acidity. This is even a little more developed in flavour profile than I was expecting, but none the worse for it at all. Lovely. 16.5
Classic Cuvée Magnum MV (2014 Base)
58% Chardonnay, 31% Pinot Noir, 11% Pinot Meunier. Disgorged November 2019. 30% reserves dating back to 2008.
Huge contrast with the newer 75cl release here, this is coiled up and spring-loaded but still waiting for its moment. The fruit is slightly more golden in tone compared to the 2015 base, showing the promise of generosity and even some tropical flourishes tempered by flint and smoke. With its nervy reductive energy it is just a baby, and quite difficult to judge. It needs leaving alone for now (or opening a good hour before drinking). 17
Classic Cuvée 2010 Magnum
51% Pinot Noir, 36% Chardonnay, 13% Pinot Meunier. Disgorged Feb 2017.
Part of a special release planned for 2020. Astronomical quality. This is at a perfect stage, where the freshness of the sweet yellow fruit, red apple skin and starfruit is held in suspension in magnum, ducking and diving in-between toast and flint, fresh white butter and lime oil, oyster shell and caramel. Moving in the glass all the time, this is supremely fine and long, the flavours teased out in a perfect progression. Surely one of the top wines in the country. 18
Blanc de Blancs 2013
100% Chardonnay, disgorged June 2018.
This is the first vintage of Nyetimber to include grapes grown on chalk. This vintage is waking up now, having taken on some substance post-disgorgement. The delicacy of texture really stands out, a satined ripple of yellow apple and magnolia, white peach and lemon syrup. What seems new is a tiny touch of pale nougat richness that warms it up just the right amount. There’s a playful extra snap of acidity on the finish – a last word from the 2013 vintage. 17
Tillington Single Vineyard 2013
“Historically for us the Blanc de Blancs has done extremely well, but straight away when Cherie and I started here we started to see some really delicious Pinot base wines.”
76% Pinot Noir, 24% Chardonnay. Disgorged July 2017.
Just 10,000 bottles are produced. Just like the 2013 Blanc de Blancs, this is suddenly hitting its stride. Still terrifically fresh, with pure berries, aromatic pear and nice juicy yellow fruits that are just starting be joined with browned pastry and caramel apples. It hints at some meaty, peppery Pinot Noir evolution but stays delicate and linear. The flavour is all about Pinot, but it is pulled tight thanks to Chardonnay and the 2013 vintage. Drinking well now, but another year or two will only improve it. 17.5
Classic Cuvée Rosé (2015 Base)
“Every year we sit down and taste all the base wines in black glasses. We originally did this just to make sure we could spot the Rosé, but it helps us make sure all the individual styles in the Nyetimber portfolio are quite distinct.”
62% Chardonnay, 38% Pinot Noir. 11% reserves from 2014, disgorged July 2019.
Red wine addition here is “in the teens”, percentage-wise, leading to quite a deeply-fruited style that represents a bit of a gear change from the calling-card style of pale, delicate Pinot Noir-led Rosés that have become England’s speciality. The high Chardonnay percentage is quite unusual in that context, although it is the Pinot fruit that hits you first with a good whack of poached strawberries and cherries. Behind it there’s sweet red apple and pear, framed by a gentle shortcake richness. With the slightly deeper style comes a touch of savour and spice, tomato and pepper, but the palate is clean and clear, drawn out very elegantly by Chardonnay line and perfectly-judged dosage. 16.5
45% Chardonnay, 44% Pinot Noir, 11% Pinot Meunier. Disgorged February 2019.
The second vintage of Nyetimber’s Prestige bottling. These wines are simply blends of the best of a vintage – there’s nothing different done in the winery save for the extra time on lees and cork before release. It’s a refreshing approach, and one that doesn’t try to dazzle with any kind of extroversions concocted in the cellar.
The sensation at this young age is of togetherness and harmony. 2010 is a more ‘classic’ year than the warm 2009, and this wine feels serenely poised between crystal-clear white fruits, subtle berries and slightly pithy, invigorating citrus that really kicks in on the finish, extending the wine into a delicious swirl of nougat, flint and cream pastry. Some refined pineapple ripeness is lurking, too. This is a step up from 2009, mirroring the sheer finesse of the new batch of Classic Cuvée 2010 magnums. Truly exciting. The rare magnums might go higher. 18
1086 Rosé 2010
75% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay. Disgorged December 2018.
The first vintage of the 1086 Rosé has subtly moved on since release, with deep cherry and red berry fruit mingling with darker flavours of cocoa, cinnamon and old-wood spice. There is a spot of grenadine grip playing on the palate, although it still feels bright and fresh. This is undoubtedly Nyetimber’s ultimate expression of Pinot Noir, gastronomic and expressive, although the blanc from 2010 is another notch up. A little less energy and vibrancy on this showing than when tasted in autumn 2019. Lovely, though, and ready to drink. 17.5