Somehow, I have managed to taste almost three hundred English Sparkling Wines and base wines over the last fifteen months. If you’re expecting the next sentence to read, “…and so I have a clear, informed picture of what’s coming from where”, then I’m afraid what follows may disappoint. There are certainly traits that connect producers. Sometimes these hint at geographical/geological paths, and sometimes they don’t.
For now, the easiest division to make has to do with ripeness; do the wines show attractive fruit, balance and completeness or unbalanced acidity, leanness and green, herbal flavours? Some, with enough lees time and careful blending, can incorporate a little herbaceousness into their wines fairly successfully. Nevertheless, true ripeness, which comes from warmth, light and good viticulture, means bypassing these flavours. Practically all of the top producers now manage this.
Are there whole regions of Southern England that have more trouble ripening than others? This is surely so, although people get it right – and wrong – fairly widely. The effects of crop load (connected to shelter, warmth, clone and viticulture) and vigour (connected to rootstock, soil type, pruning, nutrition and vineyard design) can be very noticeable, delaying ripening and reducing chances of beating greenness even on what appear to be good sites.
Grape handling can impact the perception of ripeness too; sometimes wines emerge from smaller wineries tasting a little herbal or abrasive where they might have come through unscathed from a winery with more sophisticated facilities. Tricky vintages, such as 2015, favour the well-resourced. Add in oak, oxygen management, malolactic fermentation (MLF), lees ageing times and choices at disgorgement and suddenly flavours of style can be mistaken for flavours of origin. Rewind to the dramatic effects of vintage variation and you might find the onion running out of layers to remove.
There are certain resonances, though. Not dead ringers, but wines you might suggest if asked the question “I liked this, what else should I try?”. Wiston’s top wines and Langham’s wines, both off chalk, both daring oppositions of brightness, oak, energy and evolution. Gusbourne’s and Harrow & Hope’s wines, geographically distant but both leaning towards generosity. Rathfinny’s textural polish, approaching Nyetimber’s (although the wines are quite different) but with a cleanliness like Exton Park’s. Black Chalk and its Hampshire neighbours Raimes and Hattingley (especially on the Rosé front). Oxney’s pretty English-ness recalling Breaky Bottom, Bluebell maybe. Hambledon and Coates and Seely, daring, dry, invigorating Hampshire chalk again.
If you do want to taste individual sites in any sort of transparent way, you have to taste base wines made by the same winemaker. With this in mind I went to see Emma Rice at Hattingley Valley, who press grapes from their own vineyards, ‘partner’ vineyards who grow for them, contract winemaking clients and producers on ‘swap deals’ (providing grapes in return for winemaking services). From Essex to Somerset, clay to chalk, the variety is unrivalled.
In response to the idea that the East of England ripens faster than the West, Rice pointed out that both the earliest and the latest fruit she saw in 2020 came from Kent. First in, starting mid-September, was one of Hattingley’s partner vineyards in the Weald on Tonbridge Wells sandstone (on a site that even slopes gently Northwards in places). This included some textured, pink grapefruit-tinged Pinot Noir (with MLF blocked, as Rice often chooses) as well as some particularly good Chardonnay. With natural alcohol of 12%, this was earmarked for still wine. The latest, coming in Mid-October from a young chalk site further East, was tighter, verging on austere.
Essex is a new frontier, and the wines from Hattingley’s new partner vineyards showed abundant, ripe fruit, with the Chardonnay especially strong. These were more settled and less tense than the others on show, even with MLF blocked. Still wine is on the agenda for much of it, although you can certainly taste the potential that these sunnier, expressive wines have for sparkling wine too.
It was also evident what a strong suit of Hampshire wines Hattingley hold. There is a certain style on the chalk here; elegant, fine, clean. There will certainly be some good Hampshire sparkling wines from 2020. As well as some juicy Pinot Meunier from Hattingley’s own vineyards, vineyards at Raimes and the Grange Estate provided some delicate, pure almond/green apple Chardonnay and bright, refined Pinot Noir that was likely to end up in the excellent sparkling Rosé. There was also a delightful rhubarb, cream and cherry-scented red from Pinot Noir clone 115 on chalk that was destined for the sparkling Rosé addition. Whilst the Hampshire grapes came in towards the back end of harvest in mid-October, Rice pointed out that ‘late’ in the UK has traditionally meant the end of October, or even November. Vintages since 2017 have certainly been easier than cool years like 2013 and 2015 for those that come in later.
From here, via small vineyards in Somerset and Berkshire, we took a tour of the barrel hall. Oak is mostly in the background at Hattingley (apart from the King’s Cuvée), and this will remain the case for the still wines. Older oak is also used for tailles here, especially where quantities are small. From an intense, tropical fruit and barley Essex Chardonnay destined for still wine to a delicious tangy apricot-and-quince Pinot Meunier from Hattingley’s own chalk, Rice has an enviable palette of colours to play with.
In a way, Hattingley’s winery is a microcosm of the industry as a whole, still very much at a ‘data-gathering’ stage. This process not only takes decades, it takes successes being duplicated and mistakes being lived, owned and learnt from. The flip-side of a relatively un-regulated industry is that useful information can be secreted away – a site that yields uneconomically but produces a few award-winning wines, bankrolled by another income stream, might prompt someone else into planting a similar site only to find they can’t pay the bills.
Whilst all this is going on, those that are spreading their nets wide across county lines might be sitting the most comfortably. Some single sites are exceptional, yes. What will help to sell the millions of bottles currently in the pipeline, though, is the sort of consistent quality and balance that comes from blending with an open mind – and, for those that have the ability, an open map.