Grape Britannia - Nyetimber
Thirty years ago, English wine wasn’t world famous – not even in England. Today, everybody talks about English traditional method sparkling wine.
They keep winning blind tastings, one after the other, and the Brits are holding their heads high, and possibly the most valuable feedback – certain big-name Champagne houses already have estates in Sussex and Hampshire, and the first traditional method sparkling wines that were made in England have already appeared on the market. The celebratory mood has also captivated us. We went, saw and tasted the wine and what we experienced there convinced us, too. Owing to British prowess, the national pride, the changing climate, the excellent soil conditions and the adoption of Champagne technology, a true new power of traditional method sparkling wine has been born. We’ve chosen Nyetimber, which was the first as a pioneer, and is also the first in terms of excellence. It’s been a long time since we anticipated a premiere with such excitement, and we hope whoever tastes Nyetimber will also experience the buzz.
English wine? Is that some kind of joke?
According to the French, English cuisine is merely a manifestation of English humour. The reason why they don’t have such a devastating opinion about English wine is that they haven’t even heard about it. A decade ago, nobody would have questioned the truth of the previous statements. Since then, the world has changed a lot, however.
We can all feel that winters are getting milder and summers are getting hotter. Due to climate change: German Riesling is now in its pomp; wineries keep popping up in Poland; the first Norwegian wines have already been bottled; and the vertical border of viticulture, in the Andes, has risen to above 3,000 metres above sea level. Until the 1990s, the potential alcohol measured during harvests ranged from 5 to 8 per cent in England. However, since 2000, there has barely been a year when this value has remained below 10, and in 2018, Chardonnay was picked at 13.5 per cent.
Of course, the change doesn’t affect everyone favourably – as the heat sneaks towards the north, grape growers in traditional wine regions are facing difficulties. In Spain, Italy and southern France, grapes are already being planted on the north- and east-facing slopes of the hillsides. Global warming particularly affects producers of acid-driven styles, which is nowhere more pronounced than in Champagne, where the ripeness received as a gift by the sun is paid for by the burning off of the acidity. And it doesn’t pay off from the side of making champagne. Based on their own taste, everybody can decide whether they find Norwegian wine as a heroic or as an absurd enterprise, however, when Taittinger is planting grapes in England, and Louis Pommery’s first England-made sparkling wine has been on the market since 2018, it’s unquestionable that the world’s wine atlas needs to be redrawn.
“It’s remarkable how the within a single generation, the UK has grown from a peripheral white wine producer to the place that seeks to become the best traditional method sparkling wine producer in the world,” writes Oz Clarke, who became popular all around the world thanks to his TV-programs, in his latest book. “I remember the moment when I first thought English wine had a future on the global stage. It was 1998, and I was tasting Nyetimber’s 1992 Blanc de Blancs and 1993 Classic Cuvée. It was like tasting Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc for the first time – a moment where you think, ‘I’ve never tasted anything like this before – and I’m not sure anything has ever tasted like this before.’”
“It was the acidity that struck me – not searing, but scything – and the scythe was made of the finest silver, slicing through the wine but glittering as it went, wrapping itself around it with an amazing flavour of unpasteurised, French crème fraiche, hazelnuts just off the fire, and croissant – yes, croissant rather than brioche – fresh from the oven. That was the moment when I thought, ‘Hang on, we might just have a new category of wine here,’” writes Oz Clarke.
A thousand-year-old manor
A great product may not need advertising, but strikingly a lot of good wines are accompanied by a good story. Of course, Nyetimber wouldn't have been included in our assortment if their sparkling wines weren't excellent, but we can't complain about the story either.
Nyetimber is a historic estate that was first mentioned in the Domesday Book, which was completed in 1086. The sinister sounding publication was in fact the first English record of the Great Survey that was commissioned by William the Conqueror. The manor was registered under the name Nitimbreha, which possibly referred to the freshly timbered house on the site. The estate was in the hands of the Church for centuries, then Henry VIII expropriated it and donated it to Thomas Cromwell. After Cromwell's fall from grace, then losing his head, the king gave it as a gift to his fourth wife, Anna Klevei, who driven by a wise instinct for life, accepted Henry's offer to divorce him without much ado. The winery itself was established by an American couple, Stuart and Sandy Moss. This was the first English sparkling wine house that admittedly aimed to achieve champagne quality.
Breaking with the then popular German and hybrid varieties, they planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and imported both the technology and the know-how from Champagne. When the first Nyetimber sparkling wine, the 1992 Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs, was put onto the market in the middle of the 90s, it finished in first place in a blind tasting of 42 British sparkling wines. At another blind tasting, held in Champagne, the experts argued whether this undoubtedly top-quality sparkling wine came from the Côte des Blancs or Aube.
The latest chapter in the history of Nyetimber started in 2006, when Dutch millionaire Eric Heerema purchased the estate for £7.4 million. London-based Heerema treats Nyetimber as the apple of his heart, he spares no expense and constantly develops it. The place of growth that was 16 hectares in 2006 is approaching 300 today. Production is currently one million bottles, which is 10 per cent of the whole of English sparkling wine production – however, in a few years, he wishes to reach two million bottles.
Only perfect is good enough
In 2007, Heerema entrusted a Canadian couple, Cherie Spriggs and Brad Greatrix, with the professional management of the estate. Their commissioning was more of the result of the lucky encounter of a coincidence and bold risk-taking, rather than a ponderous business decision. Cherie Spriggs saw a photo of Nyetimber in the World Atlas of Wine and asked her England-born father to bring her a bottle from them for the next time she visited home. The contents of the bottle exceeded all their expectations and the couple wrote a letter to Heerema, saying that equipped with the theoretical and practical winemaking experience they gathered in different parts of the world, they were looking for a ‘dream job’. Heerema liked their enthusiasm and their CVs and said yes. Two weeks later, they were already working in Nyetimber’s wooden buildings in hilly Sussex.
Chief winemaker Cherie Spriggs is aware of the expectations: “Nyetimber represents quality. Nyetimber has always had one aim: to make the finest English Sparkling Wine; one to rival the very best in the world, including Champagne. (…) Nyetimber is crafted from 100% estate grown grapes which allows us to have complete quality control over the fruit that we use, thus making what we produce very unique and special. (…) At Nyetimber we feel that it is absolutely necessary to cellar the wine for three years minimum, so that the wine can gain depth and complexity before release. I am a perfectionist, I oversee everything from the planting and harvesting to blending,” she said in an interview.
The slower you go, the further you get
According to Brad Greatrix, the other winemaker of Nyetimber, the distinctiveness of English sparkling wine lies in the long growing season.“The winters are mild, which means budburst starts fairly early, but it's cool. And so, we end up with early April budburst and harvesting at the beginning of October, still at classic sparkling wine physiological ripeness. So, 10% potential alcohol at 15 grams of acidity, pH around 3.00. Dream numbers for a sparkling winemaker, but achieved over such a long period, meaning all those gentle, elegant, fine-boned flavours can accumulate and persist in the grapes. They're not cooked out by an August harvest. (…) Our style, I think what makes Nyetimber distinctive is the lovely combination of intensity and delicacy. And it comes back to the cool, long growing season that we can have flavour complexity, but without the weight and the broad shoulders that come along with that. So you can have very fine bone, but also very complex sparkling wines.”
Currently, they are cultivating 11 vineyards, altogether on 327 hectares. Out of their vineyards, six can be found in West Sussex, two in Hampshire and three in the slightly warmer Kent. The proportions of the varieties are: Chardonnay 45%, Pinot Noir 39% and Pinot Meunier 16%. The vineyards have been further subdivided into parcels, based on the approximately 30 different clones, soil types and aroma profiles. They harvest each parcel separately by hand, into 15-kilo cases, with an average yield of 6,000 litres per hectare. Six Coquard presses await the arriving grapes in the brand-new press house. The batches are fermented separately, which means that 100 different wines are made.
The primary consideration is environmentally-friendly growing. Most of the energy supply is gained by solar panels, rainwater is collected, groundwater is recycled and heat pumps have also been installed. In the winter months, sheep are used to do the mowing and the weeding. All the spray or other residue is recycled in a closed system with appropriate neutralization. A few years ago, they also switched to light bottles, which significantly reduces the winery’s ecological footprint.
source: Oz Clarke English Wine: From still to sparkling: The NEWEST New World wine country