Extract: The wines of Great Britain by Stephen Skelton MW

30 May 2022 by in Classic Wine Library, Extracts, Wine and spirits

Sparkling wine
The production of sparkling wine in Britain – although not from home-grown grapes – is verifiably over 350 years old, and we know from the two papers read at the newly founded Royal Society in December 1662 that sugar added to a fermented product and sealed in a bottle with a tightly bound stopper produced a ‘brisk and sparkling’ product. The Reverend John Beale’s ‘Aphorisms on Cider’, read to the Royal Society on 10 December 1662, says that ‘bottling is the next best improver’ for cider and that ‘two to three raisins into every bottle’ plus ‘a walnut of sugar’ – a recipe guaranteed to produce a secondary fermentation – works wonders on the cider. A week later, on 17 December, it was the turn of the now famous Dr Christopher Merrett to read his paper, ‘Some Observations Concerning the Ordering of Wines’, and describe how Britain’s seventeenth-century ‘wine coopers’ were making their wines ‘brisk and sparkling’ by the addition of sugar. This practice was certainly happening before 1662 and followed the development of the strong verre Anglais bottles which Sir Kenelm Digby had been perfecting since the 1630s.

Exactly when the first sparkling wine made from English grapes was produced is open to debate. Certainly wines being made in England in the 1750s were considered comparable to Champagne and as has been mentioned earlier, the wines produced at Painshill Place between 1741 and 1779 were often described as such. Of course, Champagne in those days was not always the sparkling wine that we know today. I have a wine list from the Magasin de Vins Fins Chez Terral from Pontac, a village just outside Bordeaux, dated 1760, which lists Champagne mousseux and Champagne non-mousseux both at the same price.

The first recorded production of bottle-fermented sparkling wines – made from British-grown grapes – is probably that carried out by Raymond Barrington Brock at his Oxted Viticultural Research Station in the 1950s. The Daily Mirror of 17 August 1950 carried an article entitled ‘A bottle of Maidstone ’49’ which praised the work of Brock and that other viticultural pioneer, Edward Hyams and ended by saying: ‘perhaps ten years hence you’ll be raising a glass of sparkling Canterbury in honour of the men who made an English wine industry possible’. In September 1959 Brock welcomed members of the wine trade to a tasting and offered a number of different wines, including sparkling wines, to them. I have a letter dated 11 September 1959 sent to Brock by John Clevely, then a young Master of Wine, in which he thanks Brock for the visit and tasting and ends with a postscript saying: ‘Moët must look to their laurels if you really start going “commercial” with that sparkling wine. I thought it was wonderful.’ Praise indeed. Some of these spark­ling wines survived undisturbed in the Station’s cellars until the 1980s.

Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones at Hambledon, whose initial (1953) plantings included 20 Chardonnay vines, experimented with the production of a bottle-fermented sparkling wine, and in 1969 Bill Carcary, his vineyard manager, produced a batch of 60 bottles. Salisbury-Jones expanded the plantings of Chardonnay in 1970 with a further 1,000 vines but whether to make still or sparkling wine is not known. In 1979 his winemaking consultant Anton Massel helped produce a batch with apparently fav­ourable results and as Salisbury-Jones also grew Auxerrois and Meunier, which ripened more easily, these became the basis of their spark­ling wine cuvée. However, Sir Guy considered that the production costs were too high and the length of time the wine needed to mature was too long to make the product commercially viable and production ceased.

The first producers to make commercial quantities of bottle-fermented sparkling wines were Nigel (de Marsac) Godden at Pilton Manor in Somerset – first planted in 1966 – and Graham Barrett at Felsted Vineyards in Essex – first planted in 1967. As was quite usual at that time, the main varieties grown were Müller-Thurgau and Seyval Blanc and it is probable that it was these that were used. Their wines – never produced in large volumes – were certainly interesting, maybe even worth drinking and in the 1979 English Wine of the Year Competition (EWOTYC) the 1976 Felstar Méthode Champenoise won a silver medal and the NV Pilton Manor De Marsac Brut Méthode Champenoise won a bronze. These early successes, however, didn’t seem to help sales much and their production faded out.

The next appearance of a bottle-fermented sparkling wine in the EWOTYC (ignoring the carbonated 1983 Barton Manor Sparkling Rosé that won a gold medal in the 1984 competition – delicious though it was) was in 1987, when the first Carr Taylor sparkling wine won a medal. David and Linda Carr Taylor first planted vines at their vineyard in Westfield, near Hastings, East Sussex, in 1973 and until 1983 their grapes were sent to Lamberhurst Vineyards for winemaking. From their huge 1983 vintage, however, when Reichensteiner cropped at 15 tonnes per acre and their total output came to 186,000 bottles, they decided to start making bottle-fermented sparkling wines. They engaged Clement Nowak, a Champagne-based Polish-French consultant winemaker, whose name at one stage actually appeared on the neck-label. For a few years Carr Taylor became the major producer – in fact almost the only producer – of bottle-fermented sparkling wines in Britain and achieved considerable success. Their Vintage Sparkling won a gold medal in the 1988 EWOTYC and their Non-Vintage Sparkling won the Jack Ward Trophy (best large volume wine) in the 1989 EWOTYC. In 1993 they won the IWSC English Wine Trophy with their 1987 Vintage Spark­ling. They also entered their wines into overseas competitions – a rarity in those days – and did surprisingly well. Their 1988 Vintage Sparkling Wine was awarded a gold medal at the prestigious Concours European des Grands Vins beating 1,800 Champagnes and other bottle-fermented sparkling wines from around the world, and in 1999, in the same competition, their 1996 vintage was awarded a gold medal, this time out of 4,300 entrants. A fact that tends to get forgotten in these days of Britain’s mega-vineyards planted with Champagne varieties is that the Carr Taylors were certainly the first to make serious commercial quantities of bottle-fermented sparkling wines. They did, however, only ever use what might be termed ‘native’ varieties for Britain: Reichensteiner, Schönburger, Kerner and Huxelrebe being the most important ones. This reliance on non-classic varieties, whilst it gave their wines a point of difference from other Chardonnay- and Pinot-based wines, also gave the wines a character more akin to Sekt or Asti than Champagne, something not all critics and commentators liked.

The next on Britain’s sparkling wine scene was David Cowderoy who, working at his father’s winery at Rock Lodge, produced the 1989 Rock Lodge Impresario which won the IWSC English Wine Trophy in 1991. When David joined forces with others to create Chapel Down Wines (in 1992) one of their first wines, the non-vintage Epoch Brut, made from a blend of Müller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner and Seyval Blanc, was in fact a re-badged Rock Lodge wine. The fact that Chapel Down was not using the classic Champagne varieties (which, with the exception of New Hall Vineyards, were not being grown in enough quantity for them to buy) gave them something of a marketing advantage and enabled their prices to remain reasonable – under £10 – although at the time this was at least twice that of still wines. In the end though, once Chardonnay- and Pinot-based wines started to appear in 1997–98, this marketing edge disappeared and their Müller-Thurgau, Reichensteiner and Seyval Blanc based wines, although very good and well-priced, were always playing second fiddle to the Champagne lookalikes in quality (and quality perception) terms. At much the same time, John Worontschak, winemaker at Thames Valley Vineyard (today’s Stanlake Park) made a sparkling wine using Pinot Noir from Ascot Vineyard, a 1-hectare (2.47-acre) vineyard planted in 1979 on Crown land near Sunninghill Park and owned by Colonel Robby Robertson. Called Ascot Brut NV, it was released in 1992 and won a silver medal in the 1994 EWOTYC. Worontschak produced a number of Ascot sparkling wines from both Pinot Noir and (unusually) Gamay Noir, winning several silvers and bronzes between 1994 and 2004.

The production of sparkling wines using the three classic varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier – started in the mid-1980s when growers like Piers Greenwood (see above), Martin Oldaker at Surrenden Vineyard, near Ashford (planted between 1984 and 1986) and Karen Ostborn and Alan Smalley at Throwley, near Faversham (planted in 1986), both in Kent, all started growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with the encouragement of Christopher (Kit) Lindlar. After leaving the Merrydown Wine Company, based in Horam, East Sussex, where he had been one of the winemakers since 1976, Lindlar set up as a contract winemaker, firstly at Biddenden Vineyards, and then, in 1986, at his own High Weald Winery at Grafty Green, near Ashford, Kent. Lindlar, who also supplied vines, persuaded the two Kent vineyards above to experiment with these varieties, which had until then been very unsuccessful in Britain. Brock had grown Chardonnay in his collection at Oxted but could never get it to ripen properly. Ian and Andrew Paget at Chilsdown Vineyard planted Chardonnay and also had no luck getting it to ripen. In 1981, a very dismal year for British vinegrowers, the acidity (in grams per litre) in their Chardonnay was higher than the degrees Oechsle. Ouch. Extreme unripeness was a common finding among those early growers who persevered with it, although most decided to give up and removed the offending variety. Only in really hot years would Chardonnay produce anything like ripe grapes and tolerable wine. Pinot Noir, like many of the black varieties then being grown, suffered from terrible botrytis and was very difficult to ripen without huge losses. It is only since the arrival of better anti-botrytis sprays – initially Rovral and Ronilan, but more recently Scala, Switch and Teldor – that growing fungus-sensitive varieties like Pinot Noir has been possible. Meunier, in the guise of Wrotham Pinot, had always been grown in small amounts, but never used for anything other than blending with other, riper, reds. Lindlar’s biggest, and subsequently best-known clients, were Stuart and Sandy Moss who decided, in 1988, to plant a vineyard at Nyetimber near Pulborough in West Sussex.

The Mosses had, by all accounts, been looking at various locations to plant a vineyard – California was at one time the front runner – but it was Sandy’s love of (and business in) early English oak furniture that persuaded them that England was the place. In 1985 Hambledon Vineyards was up for sale and the Mosses viewed it and made a bid for it, but lost out to another bidder, John Patterson, who owned it until 1994. Bill Carcary, who had been at Hambledon since 1966, got to know the Mosses quite well at the time and when they then bought the 49-hectare Nyetimber estate in 1986, they asked Carcary to come and work for them as estate manager and eventually as winemaker and got so far with this idea as to refurbish a cottage for him and offer him a contract of employment. In his discussions with them about planting a vineyard on the land at Nyetimber, Carcary remembers it being his idea that they should plant the Champagne varieties for sparkling wine production, something he had long wanted to do at Hambledon, but which, as has been stated above, Salisbury-Jones had ruled out on cost grounds. In the end, Carcary decided for family reasons not to leave Hambledon and stayed, working for the new owner. Whoever actually came up with the idea to produce bottle-fermented sparkling wines on this (for the time) very large scale is uncertain, but the Mosses went ahead and planted the classic Champagne varieties, something which at the time was revolutionary – some said bonkers.

The vines for the Nyetimber plantings between 1988 and 1991 were sourced from France and it was to Lindlar’s High Weald Winery that the first commercial vintage, the 1992, was taken for processing under the watchful eye of consultant Jean-Manuel Jacquinot. As Lindlar modestly says, ‘while they did hire Jacquinot, the winemaking buck stopped with me; that is to say, had those early vintages flopped it would definitely have been down to me.’ Given the importance of the Mosses’ enterprise, which when all was said and done was still something of an experiment, one has to give praise to Lindlar where it is due. After Nye­timber’s first release, the 1992 Blanc de Blancs Première Cuvée, won the English Wine Trophy in 1997, and subsequent releases went on to garner further awards (see. p. 56), the English wine world started to take notice.

A few years after the Mosses planted, another Lindlar client, Mike Roberts, also decided to establish a dedicated classic-variety, bottle-fermented sparkling wine business at Ditchling in East Sussex. Ridgeview Winery was established in 1995 with thirteen clones of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier and today it covers 6.48 hectares (16 acres), although it has access to grapes from a much larger area. A modern winery, with underground storage cellar, was built and equipped with the contents of the High Weald Winery, which was acquired when Lindlar closed the winery. In order to kick-start Ridgeview’s production line, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes were bought from other growers, including Surrenden, and the 1996 Cuveé Merret Bloomsbury was produced. This wine won the 2000 EWOTYC Gore-Browne Trophy, awarded for wine of the year. Since that first release, Ridgeview has produced a range of wines, all named after London squares or areas – Belgravia, Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Fitzrovia, Grosvenor, Knightsbridge and Pimlico – and the tally of awards has been impressive. They won the Gore-Browne Trophy in 2000, 2002, 2009, 2010 and 2011 and regularly win gold and silver medals in the major wine competitions. Their most notable success was probably winning the Decanter World Wine Awards International Sparkling Wine Trophy (beating four very prestigious Champagnes in the process) with their 2006 Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs.

When first Nyetimber and later Ridgeview started selling wines and achieving the sort of prices that many in the wine business in Britain had thought impossible, the way forward for home-grown sparkling wines started to look a lot different. Following their significant commercial and competition success, plantings of the three classic Champagne varieties in Britain increased year on year and since the very warm year of 2003, several significant vineyards have been planted. Nyetimber changed hands twice and under its current ownership has expanded on various sites from its original 15.8 hectares to a whopping 258 hectares (638 acres) and growing. Owner Eric Heerema told me he was looking for another 200 hectares (500 acres). Other large sparkling wine producers include the largest, Chapel Down, with access to 300 hectares of Champagne variety vineyards; Gusbourne with 93 hectares; Ridgeview with 90 hectares; and Hambledon with 90 hectares. Other major spark­ling players include Bluebell Estates, Bolney, Camel Valley, Coates and Seely, Laithwaite’s, Langham Estate, Exton Park, Furleigh, Greyfriars, Hambledon, Hundred Hills, Hush Heath, Rathfinny, Simpsons, Southern Wines, Squerryes and Tinwood. Together, there are around 30 British producers who control 50 per cent of Britain’s vineyard area and probably nearer 65 per cent of its sparkling wine production. The two French-controlled producers, Domaine Evremond (Taittinger) and what is currently called Pinglestone Estate (Vranken-Pommery) will be added to this list in time.

Extract from The wines of Great Britain © Stephen Skelton (Infinite Ideas, 2019)
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