Read Part One – Patterns in Planting, Still Wines and Size –  Here

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. 

Drawing Lines

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. 

Base Jumping

Tasting 2020 base wines at Hattingley Valley

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.

Rice amongst the barrels (an old photo from Autumn 2019)

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.

The Future

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. 

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.