High tech gyropallettes from Epernay for Champagne styles
Few wine lovers can be unaware that England makes wine. Many will know
that it makes some very good wines and is establishing a worldwide
reputation for its Sparkling Wines; two Golds at the 2012 IWC and the
2012 IWSC; Ridgeview Estate alone picked up three medals, including a 'best in class', for its sparklings in the previous year's IWSC and in
2010, Camel Valley's Rosé stunned many when it won the IWS Trophy -
against top Champagnes.
Undoubtedly, Sparkling wine is England's wine torch bearer and still accounts for some 50% of production. Most are based on the classic Champagne varieties and method, enjoy years of lees ageing and with few selling above £25 (R300), offer a real alternative to imports from France, where the price of most 'decent' NV cuvées begin. Most are single vintage wines as few vineyards have mature stock to be able to blend in and create a house style, so in a good year, the wines can excel; Nyetimber's Classic Cuvée which beat the Champagnes (including Bollinger and Roederer) in the 2010 "Bollicine Del Mondo" competition in Verona came from the long and hot summer of 2003, and at £25 was, 'some ten times cheaper than many it beat', raved the Daily Mail newspaper in the UK.
Weather is still critical to wine in the UK, the latitude is about as marginal as you can get, though I was surprised to see at least five vineyards in Yorkshire on my last visit, either the result of disputed global warming or the triumph of hope over adversity. At 54° from the Equator it is some 4° further North than the Mosel (most SA vineyards are around 34° South). But should we be surprised? The Romans were making wine all over the UK, even close to Scotland, nearly two thousand years ago.
Because of the high latitude, you need low altitude; Iain Awty drew a line around the southern British Isles excluding anything 200 metres above sea level in his search for vineyard land. He settled on a site which sits at 35 metres and slopes gently toward the South (sun facing in the northern hemisphere).
Yes, sparkling wine in the UK (not 'British Wine', an imported and concocted cheaper substitute) is firmly established and the future looks bright.
The new prediction amongst the industry is the rise and rise of UK still wines. Whether it is global warming or improved techniques or boredom with 'wine Australia' or the demise of French wine there is no doubt that still wines are booming. In the last few years more than 1 million vines have been planted at an estimated cost (including preparation, trellising etc) of nearly R500 per vine; in the last five years there has been more than £100m invested; that’s around R1.2 billion !
In order to understand the changes occurring, I decided to visit two vineyards, both family run, in the South of England. I knew that the likes of Denbies Wine Estate, producing more than 33 000 cases from some 100 hectares was already succesful, efficient and quality driven; perhaps two smaller vineyards would show me something else.
Much has changed in English wine and winemaking. So much, in fact that this report will come in two parts. If you want facts and figures, go to the many web sites, what I was looking for was the ambition and the passion of the producers and that is what I hope to convey.
First, to Furleigh Estate, in Dorset. Rebecca Hansford and husband Ian Edwards bought her father's dairy farm and family home when it appeared again for sale in 2004 and planted 22 000 vines over the next two years. A neighbouring farm adds another five hectares and a winery was finished in 2007.
Approaching the farm outside the village of Salway Ash via the chalky stone lane you realise why vines will flourish here and why Chardonnay is prominent. The farm is just kilometres from the village of Kimmeridge and sits on the top end of the ancient limestone belt that runs from here through Champagne and Chablis and on to the slopes of Burgundy. Gentle slopes face the sun, the coast – just a few kilometres away - mitigates the harshest weather and grapes enjoy a very long season. Budbreak has occurred, and picking will be in late October or early November; that's a six month season; "grapes ripen here every year", says Ian.
Of course, truly awful weather can wipe out a whole harvest, as in 2010 at Furleigh, and small producers must pray against frost. Because of this, and because of pests and the need for maximum sunlight and lots of leaves the vine canopy is high. The rabbits hate it, but the birds and the pickers love it, Ian laughs. The biggest pest in the English vineyard, one not given enough billing in the text books? the wasp. It pierces the grape skin and leaves the fruit to rot, and it’s not Botrytis that results, but its nemesis, grey rot. "We want a very cold Spring to upset their breeding, but not enough for frosts", says Ian. In England you spray, no organic niceties here, just simple economics.
Grapes are picked by hand, for two reasons. Firstly, broken skins add tannins that are largely unwanted in Sparkling wine, and secondly because there is only one machine harvester in England ! By the time it gets to you it is probably into the next season. Yields vary, a good year can bring in six times more fruit than a poor year, Rondo can produce between 10 and 20 tons per hectare, but quality wine yield is in line with many in SA at around six tons p/ha.
Ian and Rebecca make the wine on site, in their modern tank equipped winery, complete with gyropalette riddlers from Champagne. Bottling is done by a mobile lorry from France which visits a string of farms and they hand label. They supply local restaurants but most of their 10 000 bottle still wine production is sold to a client list and at cellar door. They have no problem selling out.
Pinot Meunier, the fruity one, does very well here and Pinot Noir too, but the star, and one to watch is Bacchus. "I think it will be world class", says Ian. Rondo – a bit like Tempranillo - will not be far behind. The Bacchus Fumé 2010 (Decanter 2012 Silver Medal, R130) showed its character. It is distinct on the nose, aromatic, with elderflower and summer blooms, the floral character follows through and you notice depth and weight on the palate. Acidity isn't overt as you might expect, but smooth and integrated. Skin contact gives it rich phenolics and you are left with an impression of something Sauvignon/Semillon like, perhaps from Austria? It definitely is a quality wine with clean fruit and a long finish. Best seller is the Blanc de Noir, a fizz dominated with fruit and in a just off dry style, delicate, subtle and honest; but the star is the 2009 Classic Cuvée (Decanter 2012 Silver Medal, R270), with the fine mousse and brioche of an aged bottle fermented style. Weight, texture and brisk acidity which I scored at 93/100, and I am not alone.
Furleigh showcases the modernity of English wine; a Willmes pneumatic press, temperature controlled stainless steel tanks from Italy and Germany, oak barrels from Cognac and riddling and dosage machinery from Epernay, a temperature controlled cellar; all cutting edge technology, yet the wines bring it all back to a simple caring approach to capturing the character of the fruit. Wines are different, few will recognise Ortega, Madeleine Angevine or Regent, but all the better for that, I say. If you can, try their Bacchus Fumé, it will remove any lingering scepticism.