Drink Bill Knott

BILL KNOTT

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

SPARKLING SUC­CESS

Twenty years ago, I had the plea­sure of meet­ing Stu­art and Sandy Moss, a cou­ple from Chicago who had made a few dol­lars in the pho­to­copier busi­ness and had a rather ec­cen­tric dream: they wanted to make great sparkling wine in the south of Eng­land.

To that end, they had found a prop­erty: Nyetim­ber Manor, in West Sus­sex, a di­lap­i­dated me­dieval pri­ory, once oc­cu­pied by Anne of Cleves, that came with 105 acres of land. This was in 1987, just be­fore the Great Storm, and the nice chap from the Min of Ag told them to stick to grow­ing ap­ples.

Un­de­terred, and with lots of help from the cu­ri­ous cham­p­enois, they planted the three clas­sic Cham­pagne grapes: Chardon­nay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Me­u­nier. Seven years later, they re­leased their first wine, the Nyetim­ber Blanc de Blancs 1992. It was a hit: there had been plenty of pre­vi­ous at­tempts at mak­ing English fizz, but the Mosses out­did them all, partly be­cause of their soil – the same belt of chalk that runs through the Côte des Blancs in Cham­pagne, with the same revered patches of green­sand soil - and partly their in­sis­tence on ig­nor­ing early-ripen­ing, mostly Ger­man grape va­ri­eties.

The Mosses sold Nyetim­ber some years ago, but their in­flu­ence lives on: ear­lier this year, Nyetim­ber’s Cherie Spriggs be­came the first wine­maker out­side Cham­pagne (and, in­deed, the first wo­man) to win the In­ter­na­tional Wine Chal­lenge’s Sparkling Wine­maker of the Year award.

The good news for pa­tri­otic drinkers is that stan­dards of English fizz have risen across the board. Vine­yards are ma­tur­ing, pro­duc­ing bet­ter, more com­plex juice; stocks of re­serve wines – es­sen­tial for pro­duc­ing a top-qual­ity non-vin­tage wine – are higher than ever, lend­ing con­sis­tency to the wines; and cli­mate change seems to be play­ing a part, pro­duc­ing riper fruit than in the past. The grande mar­que Cham­pagne houses are tak­ing an in­ter­est, too, at­tracted by the rel­a­tively low price of land suit­able for vine­yards here: Pom­mery has bought plots in Hamp­shire, and Tait­tinger in Kent.

Pro­duc­ing good fizz is still ex­pen­sive: this is not tank-fer­mented in­dus­trial pros­ecco, nor can the fledg­ling English wine in­dus­try hope for the economies of scale en­joyed by Spain’s huge pro­duc­ers of cava, while yields in English vine­yards are only a half to a third of those in their Cham­pagne equiv­a­lents.

For qual­ity, how­ever, the best wines now rep­re­sent very good value. Nyetim­ber’s Brut Clas­sic NV is £31 from the Wine So­ci­ety; Sains­bury’s has Chapel Down’s Brut NV for £22 (the rosé is £26); and, at a friend­lier price, Tesco’s ex­cel­lent English Sparkling Brut, by Hush Heath Es­tate in Kent, is a mere £18.

From a drink that used to taste vaguely like cheap Cham­pagne in good years, and more like sparkling ap­ple juice in bad years, English fizz has truly come of age, 21 years since a cou­ple from Chicago re­leased their first wine, to a mix­ture of scep­ti­cism and amuse­ment. And it may yet prove to be the most Brexit-proof tip­ple for dis­cern­ing wine lovers: as long as we can find a will­ing work­force to pick the grapes, that is.

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