English Sparkling Wine Part I - Balance, Time and Terroir

Gusbourne Estate, Kent, March 2018

English Sparkling Wine is enjoying its time in the spotlight. The man on the Clapham omnibus has probably had a few glasses by now (or at least knows someone that has), and may have even bought a bottle or two. There are enthusiastic words and "success story" articles decorating the newspapers on a regular basis, and the south of the country has no shortage of well-heeled estates with land that roughly fits the bill. Over a million vines were put into the ground in 2017, both with larger operations expanding and smaller start-ups testing the water.

Some of the sites planted will produce better grapes than others, so it's in everyone's interest that the industry watches and learns how these new plantings are performing. Viticulture here still dances on a knife-edge; with exports picking up and the wines starting to be noticed in the international market, the looming volume increase needs to be matched by high quality across the board to avoid bursting bubbles and downward price pressure. There will be a lot of young wines from young vines looking for homes in a few years' time!

There's cause for optimism, especially when it comes to the larger producers who have the  experience to know where to plant and the means to back up their choices. I hope that the smaller producers can keep up and provide an exciting 'grower' - type layer to the industry, with wine quality to match. This is already starting to happen, with the help of some excellent centres of contract winemaking. So where do we need to look for quality improvements?

Terroir (or climate...?)


Rathfinny Estate - putting the 'gust' in degustation

"...soil is trumped by climate every time." - Bob Lindo, Camel Valley Vineyards

Where is the best land to plant grapes in England? There are a few things everyone agrees on:
  • Predominantly south-facing
  • At a maximum of 100-150m above sea level
  • Well-sheltered from prevailing and coastal winds
  • In as warm and dry a part of the country as possible - mostly the southern counties
There are quite a few vineyards that break (or certainly push) the rules. A quick look at an OS map shows a number of fairly high-profile vineyards that barely doff their caps to a southern exposure, push the altitude limits or have little in the way of shelter. Exposure (which often comes with altitude) can affect yield even more than grape quality, so it's quite possible to produce good grapes in uneconomically-low numbers. In terms of aspect, I know of a number of essentially flat sites, and one major recent planting in Kent that faces due East - common in Champagne but quite a handicap in terms of solar energy here (although with some benefits for shelter).

All of the rule-benders have other factors in their favour, and some of them have already produced some top wines; the question will be how often and in what quantity. I expect there are a few producers very happy with their quality but concerned about long-term viability (see this frank interview with Steven Spurrier of Bride Valley in Dorset). Low yields will grind you down, force you to compromise in other areas and prevent you from being able to compete on price if pressure increases. It may take a few years, but it'll eventually catch up with you.

So the next question is; if your vineyard climate is good enough to grow viable, high-quality crops, then do we need to look at soil? Echoing the words of Bob Lindo (and many others), it clearly doesn't matter whether you have the finest Belemnite chalk this side of the channel if your site just isn't warm enough. So just how important is chalk to English wine? Can we see a correlation between soil type and wine type or grape variety performance? Is it still too early to try and see any patterns?

Gold Medals  - Estate Wines 2014-18

"When it comes to fine wine, soils trump climate" - Jamie Goode

I have looked at 148 Gold medals awarded to English Sparkling Wine over the last 5 years. Here's exactly how I've done it:
  • Competitions - IWSC, DWWA, CSWWC, English and Welsh Wine of The Year
  • Only two wines from any winery were counted per competition per year (to avoid weighting towards sites that produce many different wines - I'm trying to look at site over winemaking)
  • The same wine (from the same vintage) is not counted twice in the same competition in any year i.e. if it is resubmitted a following year and still wins gold
  • Soil type is 'predominant'. If a producer uses wines from multiple soil types across wide areas, or buys in grapes, no data is collected. The vintages judged are all before Nyetimber or Gusbourne's wines on chalk are producing wines, so it is possible to assign them a predominant soil type. 
  • Calcareous soils range from limestone-influenced light soils to almost pure chalk. 
  • Intermediate soils include greensand and sandy soils, as well as any soil that is not calcareous but is still lighter than clay and is classified as freely-draining on the Landis Soilscapes survey 
  • Clay is typified by Wealden clay and includes soil with impeded drainage according to the Landis Soilscapes survey 

The Headlines:

  • Calcareous soils have produced more Gold medals than any other soil type. I can't say whether they win more golds per entry than wines from other soils - it may just be that there are more wines from calcareous soils in production now than any other type.
  • Just over half of gold medals have come from sites under 75m altitude. A sizeable minority do go over 100m, though only one over 130m. This suggests an altitude ceiling of 130m is currently in place for top-quality wines. 
  • Of medals awarded to each soil type, clay has produced the highest percentage of Blanc De Blancs (40% of medals awarded), followed by 31% for intermediate soils and 26% from calcareous soils. It doesn't seem that the producers on chalk have been turning out as many gold-medal winning Blanc De Blancs as the chalk-and-Chardonnay narrative would suggest. 62% of Gold Medals for Blanc De Blancs are from vineyards under 75m altitude, so the correlation with clay is just as likely to be a correlation with lower-lying, sheltered sites. However, Coates and Seely, Wiston's Findon site and Exton Park have all won multiple awards for Blanc De Blancs and are all on chalk at the higher end of the spectrum. 
  • 69% of Gold Medals are from soils that are classified as naturally freely-draining. Drainage can certainly be improved in wetter soils, but they aren't as popular. “If you don’t have great DRAINED soils, you can’t make great wine” - Stephen Skelton MW, in response to Jamie Goode's article entitled "Terroir: when soils trump climate". The vast majority of heavier vineyard soils in the UK will have artificial drainage installed. They will still handle water differently to a naturally-drained soil, though. 

Back to the Chalkboard?

Calcareous soils are clearly important. All the major producers who started off on other soil types have now planted additional sites on chalk (Nyetimber, Gusbourne, Chapel Down), and that can't be just for the marketing angle. It's certainly not a pre-requisite for producing top wines, though, and there's not yet much evidence to suggest that the chalkiest sites should be reserved for Chardonnay in England (as they would have it in Champagne). 

It certainly seems that what could be classified as 'Downland' terroir is going to dominate the top end of English wine over the next decade, backed by some deep pockets and a bit more patience in dealing with some of the difficulties that kind of land can present. It'll be some time before anybody will be able to confidently state what, if anything, chalk actually does for wine in our climate that can't be achieved on other soils. It does seem to do something, though, and if we ever do go down the path of trying to create classifications for English Sparkling Wines (not something I personally see any value in), using the division between higher, chalkier sites and lower, clay-and-sand types is no less silly than dividing along County lines (as per the daft Sussex P.D.O). 

Balance

Wine writer Jamie Goode summed up some of the challenges that English Sparkling Wine faces after a recent judging panel session. Leaving aside the very valid points about the UK wine press and Brexit, his final point is about acidity:

"The main problem with English fizz at the moment is there are many wines that have too much acid that never integrates properly."

Acidity needs a number of things to balance it and make it feel integrated in sparkling wine. For me, those are:
  • Texture
    • Texture comes both from the fruit itself and the winemaking. Thin texture and mouthfeel can lead to the acidity seeming more prominent. Lees ageing can really help with texture, and use of old oak during winemaking is a popular way of opening out base wines in the UK. Time on lees prior to tirage can also have an effect, as can sufficient post-disgorgement ageing.
  • Ripe flavours
    • When acidity is high, lean flavours such as unripe green apple, pithy lemon and even herbaceous tones will magnify it. Riper grapes can mean those flavours that we look for in English sparkling wine are just a bit friendlier - perhaps riper orchard fruit, more complex and warmer citrus, floral notes and spice. Riper fruit perception means lower acidity perception, no matter what the actual numbers are. No amount of de-acidification and/or malolactic fermentation will warm up the fruit quality of an unripe wine.
  • The right level of effervescence
    • It is quite common in Champagne to use lower pressures for some wines. A good example is Mumm's Mumm De Cramant, a blanc de blancs at 4.5 bar pressure instead of the standard 6. Lean, young and acidic wines can seem aggressive at 6 bar. It'd be great to hear from any winemakers that experiment with this in the UK.
  • Sweetness
    • Whether we like it or not, most English fizz needs a reasonable level of dosage - regularly at least 10g/l. If the other elements of texture, flavour and effervescence are in a good place, the correct dosage will tame the acidity and bring the whole wine together (although this can take time post-disgorgement). If not, the dosage may 'stick out', even at the right level. This is particularly true of hollow-textured wines, where the dosage is relied on to fill out the palate.
It is possible here to have grapes with good flavours that are high in acidity. The 2013 vintage was a late, high-acid year but with some smart winemaking we're seeing some really good wines from it, even if they are on the bright side. 2012, on the other hand, saw high proportions of malic acid and poorly-developed flavours. When you see the numbers, I don't think sugars were broadly that much worse than 2013, but the wines (if they were made at all) just won't have the flavours/texture to stand up to the acidities. 

Balance, especially to do with perception of acidity, is the fine line we walk in this climate. I think the big players pretty much get it right all the time now, but some of the smaller producers with fewer blending options will probably continue to struggle with poor years. There is one thing that will always help though: time.

Time (and yes it is money)

Jancis Robinson, reporting on a 2012 tasting of English Sparkling Wine, wrote:

"Age is the big healer of the high acidity that marks young wine."

With ultra-cool-climate sparkling wine, time is an essential ingredient at every stage of the process. Unfortunately, with the huge financial pressure that sparkling wine production involves, time is often the first ingredient to be squeezed. If you are a new vineyard, holding back your first release to age for 3 years in bottle rather than 2 means that you will have another whole year of grape-growing and winemaking to finance before you make any sales. If you hit a couple of poor/small/frost-affected vintages early on (such as 2012/2011/2017) you might get stuck into a cycle of rushing to get your wines out to keep the cash flowing and the business plan roughly on track.

As I write this in June 2018, there are a number of 2015s being released. Young English Sparkling rosés can be surprisingly good, but it's a tougher job with the whites, especially those based on large amounts of Chardonnay. Working backwards, to have a 2015 ready to drink now as I write this in June 2018, the wine would probably have been:
  • Disgorged at the latest in Feb 2018 to allow 3 months settling before consumption
  • Aged 22 months in bottle going back to April 2016
  • Kept for about 4 months after first fermentation prior to tirage 
These are really bare-minimum times for quality sparkling wine. 

The big players (Nyetimber/Ridgeview/Hambledon/Gusbourne/Rathfinny) have the pockets to bestow their wines with sensible ageing times. They also have the pockets to ensure that lower-yielding years are sustainable if the quality is good enough. Ian Kellett of Hambledon is on record suggesting that those on higher-elevation chalk downland just need to plant more grapes to compensate for the lower yields sometimes achieved. The trouble is that those vines still cost the same (or more) per hectare to farm!

Moving to a non-vintage model also puts a bit more time behind the bottle in the form of reserve wines, not to mention greater consistency and complexity. Even this, though, costs money up front as wines have to be held back in quite considerable quantity. It has been a fairly recent move for Ridgeview and Nyetimber, although some newer producers such as Cottonworth are going NV from the start.

It does strike me that post-disgorgement ageing is a bit of a weak spot at the moment. A wine is unlikely to show its best with under 6 months under its belt before consumption, whilst many will improve for years. It really does make a huge difference to the wine, and with the English style being tight and linear in any case there's not much to be gained from being in a rush.

In Conclusion

Three English fizzes achieved 97 points in the latest Decanter World Wine awards - quite an astonishing score, especially when the new vintage of Taittinger's benchmark Blanc De Blancs Comtes De Champagne received 92. I am drinking one of those wines as I write this and, lovely though it is, if someone offered me a glass of Comtes right now I wouldn't turn it down. The hype machine for English Sparkling Wine can sometimes run a bit hot.

I think we can all be optimistic that the wines from the established players will get even better as they develop more blending options and bigger stocks of reserves. The newer producers that start to keep reserves, age their bottlings for a sensible time and let them spend a bit of time on cork before sale will probably start to stand out. First impressions count, and there are still a lot of them to be made over the coming years. Hell, I'm even planting a few thousand myself, but more of that later...


Comments

  1. Great analysis and a very interesting read. I assume you factored in some vineyards who buy (or bought) in grapes? Camel Valley have vineyards under contract in Essex and Sussex and I believe that some of the 2009 Coates and Seely wines were made with grapes bought from Gusbourne.

    The question about Chardonnay and chalk is interesting and very few people seem to realise why it is that the Champenoise like to marry the two, and we don’t need to. Chalk holds lots of water, allowing the Champenoise to have highs yields and lots of leaves, both of which keep acids up. Pinots don’t provide as much acidity as they used to, so they have to ensure that Chard is as acidic as possible (within reason). In the UK, we can’t get the 10-15 t-ha yields they get in Champagne and our acids are always pretty high, especially with Chard. It stands to reason therefore that the warmer sites in the UK are better for Chard, and these are quite often not chalk sites.

    The race for chalk IS as much to do with publicity and the story on the back label and some UK vineyards planted on exposed chalk sites undoubtedly struggle to (a) ripen their fruit and (b) produce yields that are anywhere near what anyone but a multi-millionaire would consider economic. At the end of the day, grapegrowing has to be economic for it to be sustainable over decades and beyond the lifespan, the interest of or the wallet of the person that planted the vineyard. Many UK vineyards are cropping at way below the yield required for sustainability and whilst they will pretend that they are successful, in accounting terms they are very questionable. The challenge facing UK growers in the future is to plant vines on sites that can produce an average of the years of 7-8 t-ha.

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  2. Thanks Stephen - I've tried not to include wines that are obviously multi-regional or buy in lots of grapes, but someone with your inside knowledge may spot a few more of these than producer websites are willing to reveal! It's not infallible data but it's a useful snapshot I think. Very interesting about chalk. Perhaps it will have other benefits here. I can fully see that whatever they may be they'd be negligible compared to the negative effects of your site taking a battering from the wind, though.

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  3. Great article. FarmView (http://www.farmview.ag) is a data-driven site selection tool for identifying suitable land for vineyards. Contact pete.wain@farmview.ag for more info.

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    Replies
    1. Very interesting. I have a friend that does GIS and he very quickly wrote something for slope/aspect/evelation last year to play with it. Didnt get to soil. Very useful - I was amazed at the detail of the elevation mapping from LIDAR too.

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    2. I’ve got national LIDAR data (2m or 5m resolution depending on area) as well as soils (Cranfield) and climate info, e.g. air frost, temperature and wind (Met Office).

      I can provide bespoke maps and analysis (weighted suitability scores) for specific sites, or can provide access to the hosted app for growers/agents to self-serve.

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    3. Do you have any information about how the temperature and wind speed numbers are generated? My impression from my mapping geek friend was that there was no particularly accurate data for that available.

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    4. (unless you're extremely close to a weather station)

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    5. You’re right - the Met Office data is pretty coarse (5km squares generated from their weather stations). I’ve processed about 20 years of it though and it does bring out some variations at local(ish) level. It is possible to pick out areas susceptible to spring air frost and areas enjoying growing season degree days >=30C for example.

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    6. I’m keen to know whether growers would find it valuable to map real-time weather data, e.g. ground degree days and soil moisture from their own vineyard’s geo-referenced sensors.

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