The Winemakers Behind England’s Sparkling Future

Cherie Spriggs of Nyetimber
Cherie Spriggs of Nyetimber / Photo by Tom Parker

It took two Americans to recognize that the future of English winemaking lay in sparkling wine. In 1988, Stuart and Sandy Moss planted classic Champagne varieties Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Until then, English vineyards had been dominated by early-ripening varieties like Bacchus and Seyval Blanc, which were bred for the country’s marginal climate but struggled to find a market.

Fast forward three decades, and you’ll find a thriving, fast-growing industry that makes world-class sparkling wines. The fact that Champagne houses Taittinger and Pommery have planted vineyards here is a solid endorsement. Even Queen Elizabeth has vines in Windsor Great Park.

Since 2000, vineyard acreage has quadrupled to 8,600 acres, planted mostly to top sparkling varieties Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. More than two-thirds of the country’s production is sparkling wine, which capitalizes on the briskness of this truly cool climate.

Site selection is key, and most vineyards are in the southern counties of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. Dorset and Cornwall in the southwest, as well as Essex and the Chiltern Hills, flanking London, also have suitable spots.

Today, there are 164 wineries in England. Read on to learn about some of the pioneers and how they continue creating excitement for the country’s effervescent future.

Cherie Spriggs of Nyetimber
Cherie Spriggs of Nyetimber / Photo by Tom Parker

Cherie Spriggs

Nyetimber, Sussex

When the Mosses from Chicago bought this ancient Sussex estate as a retirement project, they unwittingly set England on a new winemaking path. Their decision to focus exclusively on sparkling wine production marked the birth of today’s thriving industry.

The couple planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in 1988 and released their first traditional-method sparkling wine nine years later. They quickly received great acclaim.

In 2006, Nyetimber was purchased by Dutch businessman Eric Heerema. The next year, he hired Cherie Spriggs as chief winemaker, and her husband, Brad Greatrix, as winemaker. The pair have since blazed a trail in terms of quality.

Their multivintage Classic Cuvée, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, has become a global calling card for English sparkling wine.

The exacting standards exhibited by Spriggs are grounded in scientific rigour that allows her and her husband to push boundaries. Time and again, the winery has turned heads and set new standards with stunning wines they had silently worked on for years.

An example is the Pinot Noir-dominated 2009 Tillington Single Vineyard, released in 2013. There’s also the long-aged prestige cuvées 1086 from the 2009 vintage and 1086 Rosé from 2010, both released in 2018, named after the year that the Nyetimber estate was founded.

The label uses only estate-grown fruit, which Greatrix calls “an essential part” of Nyetimber’s ethos. Annual production, which depends on highly variable yields, ranges roughly from 500,000 bottles to just over a million.

Spriggs describes her winemaking style as “inert,” meaning that by using only stainless steel, “we really let the wines be what they can,” she says. “That way, their Englishness really comes out.” Nyetimber’s style is creamy and sonorous.

These complex, ageworthy wines show what the classic Champagne grapes are capable of in England. But Nyetimber is no boutique operation. With 808 acres of vineyards across Sussex, Kent and Hampshire, it’s a huge player.

Charlie Holland of Gusbourne Estate
Charlie Holland of Gusbourne Estate / Photo by Tom Parker

Charlie Holland

Gusbourne Estate, Kent

In 2004, Andrew Weeber, a South African orthopedic surgeon, purchased the ancient Gusbourne Estate in Appledore, Kent. He had read about English sparkling wine in the Financial Times, did his homework on site selection and then created a business plan. His career had taught him that “there’s always room at the top,” so he kept quality foremost as he planned and planted.

The first Gusbourne traditional-method sparkling wines, a Chardonnay-Pinot blend and a Blanc de Blancs, were released in 2010. Winemaker Charlie Holland has been on board almost from the start. He loves Chardonnay, and more than half of the vineyards are planted to this variety.

“It is the most transparent grape, with that salty, saline quality, a certain drive and energy,” says Holland, “Acidity is key, we should embrace acidity. It’s our calling card.”

Malolactic fermentation and long lees aging round out this freshness. The wines are vividly brisk yet creamy expressions of southern England’s climate. They shine with sinuous slenderness and astonish with their depth.

Late-disgorged releases show how well these wines age.

“We only make vintage wines, and we only use our own grapes,” says Holland. “We’re not trying to make perfectly symmetrical wines every year. Vintage variation should be celebrated.”

Initially, plantings were just in Kent, but since 2013, vines have also been planted in Sussex, so there are 230 acres now. This move has enabled Gusbourne to turn over a new leaf for English still-wine production. The grapes for its single-vineyard Boot Hill Pinot Noir and Guinevere Chardonnay are both sourced there, and they lead the way for still wines made from these key varieties. For now, production is 90% sparkling, to make sure that “only the best wines get made,” says Holland.

Richard and Kirsty Goring of Wiston Estate
Richard and Kirsty Goring of Wiston Estate / Photo by Tom Parker

Richard and Kirsty Goring

Wiston Estate, Sussex

Pip Goring arrived at Wiston Estate, deep in the West Sussex countryside, from South Africa as a young bride in 1972. Her husband Harry’s family had farmed the chalky hillsides since 1743, yet Pip had to wait 34 years for her vineyard dream to come true.

The couple planted their first 16 acres of vines in 2006 and they’ve since expanded to 25 acres. Stars aligned when an irrepressible Irishman, Dermot Sugrue, presented himself as a winemaker, keen to work with grapes grown on chalk.

Beginnings were humble. The wines were made in an abandoned turkey barn with a second-hand Coquard press from Champagne, but they were brilliant from the start. Financial pressure also meant that Sugrue offered contract winemaking at Wiston, which afforded him an enviable overview of English-grown fruit.

“I’ve had the pleasure and the privilege of making different sparkling wines from different regions in England,” says Sugrue, who also makes his own cult label, The Trouble with Dreams. “I continue to learn so much because this is a fledgling industry. The quality of what we can achieve in England in terms of sparkling wine is extraordinary. The vines are only just getting into their stride. With the long, cool growing season, you get this beautiful delineation of flavor.”

The next generation, Kirsty and Richard Goring, now run the estate, but Pip’s enthusiasm still informs everything. Sugrue continues to craft some of England’s most remarkable wines.

“We’ve put our love into the roots of these vines,” says Pip, who adores the “sharp, fresh, clean” taste of the wines.

The vintage-dated estate wines are imbued with richness from Sugrue’s judicious use of oak and extended lees aging. The nonvintage wines, made with some bought-in fruit, are crisper and full of vigor.

Tamara Roberts of Ridgeview Estate Winery
Tamara Roberts of Ridgeview Estate Winery / Photo by Tom Parker

Tamara Roberts

Ridgeview Estate Winery, Sussex

When Mike and Christine Roberts, a pair of information technology professionals, spoke to their bank manager about planting a vineyard, the idea was received with laughter. Not deterred, they started Ridgeview in 1995 and hand-planted their first vineyard in the South Downs.

Today, the winery produces approximately 400,000 bottles of traditional-method sparkling wine, and it has done more than any other to broaden the category’s appeal on home turf.

Ridgeview bottlings have been stocked in English supermarkets since 2002, bringing traditional-method English sparkling wine to the mass market. The Roberts’ idea of naming their wines after London neighborhoods like Bloomsbury, Cavendish and Fitzrovia connects the fizz with England.

It’s a family business with Christine and Mike’s children, Tamara and Simon Roberts, now at the helm as CEO and head winemaker, respectively. Ridgeview owns about 17 acres of vines that surround the winery. Still, most of its grapes are sourced from long-term contract growers across England. This allows them to maintain production despite the unpredictable climate that battles spring frosts and variable yields.

The brand was also the first to export English sparkling wine. Simon’s wife, Mardi Roberts, says that English fizz has seen an “amazing transformation.”

“When we first designed our labels, we even hid the fact that the wine was English because at the time, England had no reputation at all, so it was printed really small on the label,” she says. “Today, it is what we are most proud of.”

The wines are crisp, fruit-driven sparklers just made for celebrations. The vintage-dated, limited-release Blanc de Blancs is made from the Chardonnay on the home block planted in 1995.

Why You Should Give English Sparkling Wine a Try

Hattingley Valley

Hampshire

Hampshire resident and ex-lawyer Simon Robinson founded Hattingley Valley in 2008. Emma Rice, the head winemaker, has been there from the start. She helped conceptualize the eco-optimized winery and oversaw planting of its 27 acres of vines.

The first traditional-method sparkling wines were released in 2013. To supplement the vineyard, Rice buys fruit from Essex and Berkshire. She’s a fan of Pinot Meunier.

“Grown on Hampshire chalk, Pinot Meunier is a completely different beast to that grown in Kent or Essex,” she says. “We seem to get a lot of apricot flavors from our Pinot Meunier.”

She also champions the use of Pinot Noir Précoce, an earlier-ripening sibling of Pinot Noir, which brings exquisite berry flavors to her sparkling rosé. Last year, she turned Précoce into a still rosé that proved to be a huge hit.

Hush Heath Estate

Kent

Hotelier and property developer Richard Balfour Lynn does nothing by halves. In 2001, when farmland surrounding his home in Kent was for sale, he set out to craft England’s first premium traditional-method rosé.

He and his wife, Leslie, planted the first vines in 2002. Just 10,000 bottles of the now-famous Balfour Brut Rosé were made and released five years later; success was immediate. It was served in the first-class cabins of British Airways, and it was the official wine of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

Today, there are 200 acres of vines, and the line now includes white and rosé cuvées called 1503. The extra-dry Leslie’s Reserve rounds out the sparkling offerings.

Red and White Grape Wine Blends are More Common Than You Think

Bolney Wine Estate

Sussex

Founded in 1972, Bolney Wine Estate focused initially on still wine. Sam Linter, the head winemaker and daughter of founders Janet and Rodney Pratt, today grows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay alongside varieties like Rondo, Dornfelder, Bacchus and Pinot Gris.

The annual production of 200,000 bottles is split equally between still and sparkling wine, sourced from 104 acres of estate vineyard.

Linter joined the family business in the 1990s. The impending turn of the millennium made them think that it was time to make a sparkling wine.

“At the time, Plumpton [England’s only viticultural college] did not teach making sparkling wine,” says Linter. She credits Ridgeview’s Mike Roberts with showing her the basics.

Published on October 12, 2020
Topics: Wine and Ratings