Telling The Chardonnay Story In English Sparkling Wine

Chardonnay at Ridgeview, East Sussex

You can't really answer the question 'what does Chardonnay taste like' in the same way you can for Pinot Noir, Riesling or Nebbiolo. It is not a story in itself - it needs context. The trouble is that the sort of contextualisation that gives birth to the nuanced understanding that we have of Chablis or the Côte Des Blancs takes decades (if not centuries) to arrive at. How does a young industry tell a story about Chardonnay?

The solution is sometimes to borrow someone else's. For us in England, the most obvious one is Champagne. It's an easy tale to spin - the combination of Chardonnay and (certain types) of chalk in Champagne is almost folkloric, with vignerons from Cuis to Vertus climbing the soil soapbox to extol the virtues of one patch of land over another. The thing is - it works. They have earned the right to do it. When you taste your way around Champagne's Blanc De Blancs it would be pig-headed to deny the impact of soil.

'There's been a tendency with English fizz to plant more Pinot Noir than the geology might suggest. We have planted 75% Chardonnay.'
Ian Kellett of Hambledon, speaking to journalist Jamie Goode

There's no doubt that the geology of vineyards such as Hambledon suggests Chardonnay according to the French way of thinking. With a clear geological division emerging between those vineyards that have planted on chalk and those that have chosen different soils, should we not be seeing a divergence in wine style, with more Blanc De Blancs emerging from the chalkier sites?

Those that would disagree with Ian will do so on the basis that soil cannot be shown to be critical to varietal performance in England when weather and climate loom so large. Climate is something we can measure instantly - this is a warm site, this is a cool site, this is a windy site and so on. We know what our soils are, but is it is an act of hubris on a grand scale to proclaim the effects they are having on our sparkling wines when we have such little data in comparison to our French cousins?

"Soil is critical. Viticulture is critical. Winemaking is critical. Mesoclimate is critical."
John Atkinson MW on Twitter

I really like this statement. What I would add to it is that these critical factors don't exist independently, but form a delicate equilibrium in which subtle shifts can generate dramatically different outcomes. When we borrow an assumption about soil from Champagne, it comes with all these other pieces of the puzzle firmly attached; the issue is that some of these pieces just don't fit the reality of English viticultural conditions. Chardonnay is the clearest lens to look through when looking for these mismatches. Here is an example (with thanks to Stephen Skelton MW for making some of these points in comments to previous posts):


Champagne:
  1. Pinot Noir is often at risk of being weighty by itself, and can lack acid backbone. So:
  2. Chardonnay needs to be elegant and retain acidity - climactically it is often at risk of over-ripening, especially in periods of drought or very hot weather. So:
  3. Chalk soils help manage water supply and guard against too much hydric stress, keeping vines in leaf for longer and maintaining acidity. They drain well, but (crucially) they supply well. Fortunately:
  4. There is a coincidence of interesting chalk soil types within ideal climactic parameters i.e. altitude, exposure and aspect. It becomes possible to talk about the nuanced impacts of different chalk soil profiles whilst accounting for climactic factors in a reasoned, informed way.

England:
  1. Pinot Noir is rarely weighty or lacking acid by itself. 
  2. Chardonnay is often very high in acid and needs a long, warm season to show its best. It is very rare for it to over-ripen. It is almost unheard of for it to lose too much acidity. 
  3. Periods of drought and extreme heat are rare. Rainfall is often high and vine density is lower - water supply is not usually an issue (although there have been some early-summer periods of drought and it cannot be ruled out). Unfortunately:
  4. Interesting chalk soil types often correspond with the upper climactic extremes for grape growing in England. It is not easy to find chalk sites that are warm and sheltered, although it is possible. It is difficult at this time to talk about soil's place in the equilibrium of critical factors in a reasoned, informed way.
Viticulture in both Champagne and England perches on a climactic knife-edge. In England, the blade is even sharper - it cuts deeper and faster if you get it even slightly wrong. Climate is the high-wire act in the circus, sweating in the spotlight whilst assuming so much of the burden of responsibility for wine quality that soil is free to have a little more fun than it is in Champagne. Let's plant on clay. Let's plant on sand. Let's plant on gravel....let's try it. And that's exactly what people are doing.

Some Numbers

I looked at the releases from 39 leading producers of English Sparkling Wine since the 2010 vintage. Some data (such as altitude) is only really available for single-site wines. There are only a couple of wines that have been produced from blends of chalk and other soil types. 

1. By Soil


To date, producers on Chalk have been slightly less likely to release a Blanc De Blancs. Good vintages like 2014 will shrink this gap I believe, but poorer ones may be likely to re-open it. Producers on those Chalk soils that so resemble the Côte Des Blancs don't use more Chardonnay in their Classic blends than others overall either. When they do produce a Blanc De Blancs, though, it has been pretty much as likely as any other to win a Gold.

Chalk producers are very slightly more likely to release either a Blanc De Noirs or Rosé De Noirs, but not to a degree I would read into with any seriousness. It is interesting to see that these wines are almost exactly as popular in England as Blanc De Blancs - surely not the case in Champagne?

The 40m altitude gap between the chalk sites and the non-chalk sites would correspond, on average, to a 0.25C loss in temperature and an annual loss of 42 GDD (Growing Degree Days) per year. Together with increased exposure this should, in theory, make it harder to regularly ripen Chardonnay and produce good Blanc De Blancs. It would be hard to disprove the idea that some of the terseness/tightness/austerity that some people attribute to chalk soils wasn't the product of slightly cooler conditions in some cases. However there's no evidence that producers on chalk are having a really hard time with Chardonnay - in general they're just not excelling with it in comparison to the other grape varieties.

2. By Altitude

  • 22% of Golds for Blanc De Blancs since the 2010 vintage have come from vineyards that go above 100m altitude. 23% of sites go above 100m - when they do produce Blanc De Blancs, the higher-elevation sites are not under-performing in terms of wine quality, either anecdotally or by looking at medals. 
  • 39% of Golds for Blanc De Blancs since the 2010 vintage have come from sites with maximum altitudes under 50m. These represent only 18% of sites - the very lowest sites are over twice as likely to win Gold. 
  • Four out of five out of the most consistent releasers of Blanc De Blancs (3+ releases since 2010) have maximum altitudes under 60m. 
  • The median value for maximum altitude for all releases since the 2010 vintage is 60m above sea level.

I think the story here is that higher elevations do not necessarily prevent you growing or releasing award-winning Blanc De Blancs in good vintages. There is just more consistency across vintages with the lower sites and, to date, a definite jump in medal-winning odds when you get down to 50-60m. The warm 2014 vintage still has a lot of wines to give us, and I think we'll see a more even picture with more vintages like this.


3. By County

I'm not sure what to read into this, but, where single-county wines were made here are the numbers.

Blanc de Blancs released by county since 2010 vintage

Sussex - 27
Kent  - 10
Dorset - 4
Surrey - 3
Hampshire 1

I couldn't really believe that there has been only one Blanc De Blancs release to date from the chalky soils of Hampshire this decade, but Exton Park's 2011 is the only one I can find! Read into these numbers how you will - I think they say as much about the relative youth of different wine-growing regions as they do anything else. I know there are some in the works from Hampshire...

4. Vintage

Vintage is obviously the big one. In terms of variability in Blanc De Blancs production, this has more effect than anything else. 

Blanc De Blancs Releases by Vintage:

2010 9
2011 12
2012 3 (all from very low, sheltered sites - Gusbourne, Bolney, Woodchurch)
2013 14 (a few more will come)
2014 Many yet to be released - I'd expect 25+

The terrible 2012 vintage shows the interaction of vintage and site - only the very lowest-altitude sites (under 40m mostly) produced Blanc De Blancs in 2012. 2014 will, I'm sure, end up being the biggest vintage for English Blanc De Blancs on record. If your site couldn't ripen Chardonnay properly in 2014 you have a problem! 

The Absence of NV Blanc De Blancs

There are only a handful of non-vintage Blanc De Blancs out there. This is quite surprising in some senses - again if we are talking Champagne comparisons, producers like Hambledon should have been using their Chardonnay to produce at least an NV. Where are the wines? O.K. - I'll eat my hat if there isn't at least one Hambledon Blanc De Blancs in the production line! There has to be.

I think part of the picture here is that NV is seen as an inferior category, whereas producers more often want to position their Blanc De Blancs as premium wines. When the 'house' wine (the Classic or Brut Reserve) is vintage-dated, producing a NV Blanc De Blancs and positioning it higher up the portfolio could be tricky. Wiston are one of the only producers to make an NV Blanc De Blancs as part of their entry-level line. 

Lowish, Sheltered 'n Chalky - The Holy Grail? Nyetimber on Chartham Downs, Kent

The Tiny Elephants In The Room (And Some Caveats)

What struck me whilst looking at all these wines is just how few of them there have been. In a way, this is the point; it makes me very wary about anyone making pronouncements about what is important and what isn't (beyond a few fairly obvious climactic limitations that can be shown to make a difference). This even stretches to factors such as aspect (a topic for another day - the East and West-facing vineyards of England!). Looking at the numbers is interesting, but with so few wines it just gives an indication of where things are going.

It's also worth mentioning that we're not talking about yield. Whilst there is no evidence to show that producers on higher-elevation and chalk sites are seriously hampered in their abilities to produce Blanc De Blancs, people such as Stephen Skelton MW are known for their views on the havoc such sites can wreak with yields and consequent long-term viability. These effects can be felt independently of the quality of the wines coming from those sites.

Finally I have to point out that I don't read any of this as an indication that soil doesn't do anything at all. We know it does. What we can't possibly know on the back of 18 wines is whether one soil - chalk - out of a number of freely-draining soils found in Southern England is any better than another for pure Chardonnay wines. If we can't yet see or taste this fundament of Champagne-style thinking,  shouldn't it make us hold back from any grand pronouncements about soil based on the experiences of the Champenois? 

The Story is....Chardonnay is Different Here

There are few signs (for now) of a soil-based differentiation in the way English Sparkling Wine producers are using grape varieties. It is true that some of the Chalk sites (such as Kit's Coty, Domaine Evremond and Hambledon) have bought into the Champenois narrative and prioritised Chardonnay, but they have done so more as an act of faith than as a decision backed up by a wealth of UK-specific evidence. It'd be interesting to see whether other chalk plantings are following suit or continuing with a more traditional balance of varieties.

The numbers back up the anecdotal tasting evidence that those of us who keep au fait *hic* with English Sparkling Wine probably recognise - that there are good wines from all sorts of producers with different soils and sites (and slightly more of them from producers lucky enough to be quite low in elevation). There are very few sites that will produce Blanc De Blancs every year (including for NV) in the same way that there are in Champagne, and there you have the crux of it - weather and climactic factors hold the veto card for Blanc De Blancs production in England.

Where does that leave England in terms of our Chardonnay Story? I'm not sure. I think 'open-ended' has to be the answer. I saw the excellent Exton Park (one of the chalkiest sites around) were planting a new field this week - entirely with Pinot Meunier. There are stories out there that we might be able to make our own. 



Comments

  1. Interesting ideas; thank you. The style of wines actually produced of course is only indirectly related to vineyard soils, so for such a young industry like the UK, it will take a long time to see useful correlations. Even with centuries of wines from Champagne, the matches are far from rigid. The grands crus of the Montagne de Reims, and to a lesser extent the premiers crus there, are largely on chalk but are Pinot Noir central. And there have been major social-historical shifts of planting patterns. Trépail and Villers-Marmery were Pinot dominant before the 2nd world war, not now. The same with Vertus which switched while being the 2nd biggest Champagne appellation, from Pinot Noir to Chardonnay. And Sillery for instance, has the highest proportion of planted Chardonnay of all grands crus outside the Cotes des Blancs, but is solidly Montagne.

    The centuries old near monoculture of the Cotes des Blancs has probably evolved more because it is a direct east-facing escarpment and has quite a long gentle slope. This does two things - creates a long-light ripening period from first eastern daybreak to late afternoon and thermal warm bands in the mid-slope. All things Chardonnay needs. Second, although there have been terrible reverses, there is less frost risk with such a gentle slope, no deep-pocketed thermal traps of freezing air - again good for Chardonnay. And often good breezes. Frost disasters on the Cotes des Blancs occur when the air is very still. In general, the steeper slopes of the Montagne and the south-facing bit giving such grand ampitheatres of ripening such as at Bouzy and Ambonnay, have come to favour Pinot Noir which ripens more quickly but which needs real extended insolation to eventually ripen skins and avoid green flavours and produce complex flavours. But there are always many lieux-dits and even single parcels within them that perform in ways that are distinctive over centuries, that rebel against generalisation, and are known and deliberately used as blending fractions, which contradict these generalities about location and variety.

    There are historical factors too in Champagne based on the crudities of early winemaking. Chardonnay from the Cotes des Blancs for a long time was not a favoured grape as its slow fermentation produced CO2 more in bottle than red grapes, making for high levels of 'casse' - broken bottles. Only once the glucometer controlled sugar levels at bottling, did the slow rise of Chardonnay's prestige begin in the early 19C.

    There are commercial factors too. An incentive for Vertus to switch from Pinot to Chardonnay was the prestige of the rest of the Cotes des Blancs for the grape. And there have been replanting subsidies in Champagne in the past if it was felt a variety was in short supply. Climate change is presently driving the price of Chardonnay up in Champagne so more will replant with Chardonnay over time, even though outside its supposed 'home'.

    At the risk of over-simplifying, I would hazard the reason there are relatively few Blanc de Blancs from the UK and low correlation with chalk is because it is hard to ripen Chardonnay well in the UK, even to sparkling wine parameters. Hence the demand for blends with red grapes. And even in Champagne, a good Blanc de Blancs usually needs to be either from very-favoured lieux-dits combinations, almost all, to be really good, revered grands crus sites and/or, for NVs, include aged reserve wines to temper the balance. The vast majority of Chardonnay in Champagne is in blends with red grapes. Blanc de Blancs has prestige, but is still a minority style and dearer than blends.

    You don't publish an email address. Do be in touch re a major champagne event I am organising for 67 Pall Mall on June 4 in London if you want to attend. New Wave Champagne. 27 producers, Krug to Selosse. And a major seminar on climate change in Champagne from J-B Lécaillon from Roederer. tim@scalawine.com.

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