When it comes to celebratory bubbles, Champagne has reigned supreme since it was favoured by the French royalty of yore.
But with a new age of sparkling wine popping up, perhaps it’s time to think again. In the past decade or so, English sparkling wine has been growing from strength to strength; quite literally. With more vineyards across England, and better grapes than ever, the British bubbly is sweeping up accolades and industry awards, making it the wine to watch (and sip). What’s more, a record harvest last year, which saw a production jump from 5.9 million to 13.2 million bottles in 2018, also helped to increase sales of quality English sparkling wine and in attracting international acclaim.
Curious to find out more, I decided it was best — for research purposes of course — to explore the English sparkling world in person and venture to the vineyards of the finest there is, at Nyetimber. Here, I found that not only are they the first English sparkling wine producers to exclusively grow Champagne grape varieties, but they’re also the largest, harvesting from 214 hectares of estate-owned vineyards across West Sussex, Hampshire and Kent.
The first day of the 2019 harvest was glorious; filled with sunshine that I didn’t know the English isles could enjoy. I felt exceedingly lucky as I explored, learned, and even helped to pick some of the first bunches of grapes. The fruits of my labour: a healthy pour of Nyetimber along with five things I learnt about the producer, which soon turned into the five reasons why I swapped my glass of Champagne for English sparkling wine.
It turns out that the geology and soils in the south of England are pretty much the same as Champagne. Thanks to the chalk seam that flows from under the Channel to Sussex and Hampshire, the classic grape varieties of Champagne — including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier — can really flourish. In fact, the vineyards at Nyetimber hold a combination of free-draining chalk and greensand, which is ideal for typical British weather and rainy days. They were planted specifically in locations protected from coastal winds and on slopes that are fully south-facing to maximise sunlight. The cooler climate is also perfect for the extended growing period and slower ripening of grapes, which in turn, allows Nyetimber to achieve optimum levels of acidity, complexity and finesse.
So we now know that the driving factors in creating that award-winning Nyetimber taste profile, where elegance and delicacy are key, is down to the terroir. But when it comes to that unique taste, well that’s due to the climate alone. More northerly than the region of Champagne, Nyetimber benefits from a cooler temperature which give the wines a wonderfully crisp freshness with lots of mouthwatering acidity. That’s not to say that the wines only lean on acidity though, as the wines are then aged for a period of time to develop the desired result and flavour. The unique taste has become sought-after by Champagne producers too, who have been planting vineyards in England to attain that cool character in their wines.
Award-winning Head Winemaker, Cherie Spriggs, and her Winemaker husband Brad Greatrix, joined Nyetimber in 2007 after having tried a bottle gifted to them by Cherie’s parents. It was then that they recognised the great potential of English sparkling wine. Since then, with the backing of owner and CEO of Nyetimber Eric Heerema, Spriggs’ passion, commitment and expertise in viticulture saw the elevation of Nyetimber and English sparkling as we know it today. She was deservedly named Sparkling Winemaker of the Year in 2018 by the International Wine Challenge, which meant not only was she the first woman to ever win, but she was also the first winemaker outside of Champagne to have won the award.
It starts with the assessment of every handpicked parcel of grapes. Here, Spriggs checks for quality, ripeness and character. The fruit is pressed and vinified separately, so she can distinguish the differences between the parcels and thus creating a varied selection every year. All Nyetimber wines are then crafted according to the traditional method for sparkling wine. They are aged for extended periods of time (a minimum of 36 months) to build depth and flavour and kept in cellars at 12-13 degrees celsius, protected from light, noise and vibrations. Nyetimber is the first producer of English sparkling wine to adopt dark amber glass bottles to prevent UV damage too. During riddling stage, state-of-the-art gyropalletes are used to ensure consistency in each individual bottle. Then, they allow for substantial post-disgorgement time before release to further develop complexity in the wine.
There are a total of seven wines in the full Nyetimber range. Five of which are available in Hong Kong at either Watson’s Wine stores or online at WinePleaseHK.com. This includes the flagship bottle of Classic Cuvee, Rosé Multi-Vintage, their sparkling Demi-Sec relaunched as Cuvee Chérie, Tillington Single Vineyard and an incredibly impressive Blanc de Blancs. Click through the gallery below for tasting notes.