WineInk: New Bubbles for 2021
The English are Coming
So tonight is the big night.
While New Year’s Eve is always a reason for celebration, the turn of the page from 2020 to 2021 is likely to be the most welcome of the century. And, as the moon, not quite full but close enough, winds its way across the time zones of the globe, Champagne corks will be popped to mark the momentous change.
While French Champagne has always been, and will forever remain (likely, that) the wine of choice for such celebrations, there is now an emerging competitor. At the precise moment that “Brexit” becomes official, there will undoubtedly be many in the UK, and beyond, who will toast with domestic “champagne.” That’s right, thanks to a warming trend on planet Earth, and in the South of England in particular, there is a growing English wine culture centered around the production of sparkling wine.
As we all know, these British bubbles cannot be called Champagne. That moniker is legally tied to wines produced in a precise manner, using designated grapes grown exclusively in the Champagne region of France.
But many of the wines from the southernmost climes of the British Isles are also made using Méthode Champenoise, or traditional method, which calls for a secondary in-bottle fermentation. And they are made from the same three grapes, pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier, that form the basis for the French product. And finally, these English vineyards are similar to the real thing in Champagne as they are also grounded in chalky limestone soils.
In days gone by, growing grapes along the seashore of the English Channel was challenging because of the weather. Too wet, too cold, too prone to mildew. But over the last thirty years or so, as the climate has become more temperate there has been a boom in both vineyard plantings and the wine scene that accompanies that growth. As the Brits move into a more independent standing they are counting on wine tourism to play a role as a part of their new national identity.
To celebrate Christmas this year, I opened a bottle of English wine and felt, well, gifted. The bottling was from a producer called Nyetimber in West Chiltington, certainly not a place I had ever come across in wine geography. The Nyetimber estate is about 50 miles southwest of London and maybe a dozen miles from the sea.
Nyetimber as a wine growing concern dates to 1988, when a pioneering Chicago couple, Stuart and Sandy Moss, had the vision to plant the three Champagne varietals on a property they had purchased. It was the beginning of the sparkling wine movement or what the locals call “Fizz” in England.
The estate itself, however, dates back a bit further. It was mentioned as “Nitimbreha” (newly timbered) in something called the Domesday book in 1086, which was commissioned by William the Conqueror to survey the lands. There is no information on William’s fondness for Fizz.
Today Nyetimber is owned by a Dutchman, Eric Heerema, and it has cemented a position as the most important producer on the English wine scene. The 2018 vintage, largely praised as the best in the nation’s short history of wine, provided enough fruit for the production of a million bottles of Nyetimber sparklers. That is one tenth of total English Fizz production for that year.
The Nyetimber wines are made by a wife and husband team, chief winemaker Cherie Spriggs, and her husband, Brad Greatrix, as winemaker. They have been on-property since 2007 and have participated first-hand in the dramatic growth of a segment that is still in its relative infancy. Their focus is on producing wines that will rival the best sparklers made anywhere on Earth.
My Christmas bottle was one of my great wine surprises of 2020. Lush, soft and elegant, there were the classic hints of toast and brioche that are found in high-quality champagne. But I also had a little Christmas present of a lemony aroma, perhaps lemon curd? The wine, or Fizz, was supple but strong and featured beautiful and consistent bubbles in the glass.
One of the great pleasures of wine is discovery. Be it new grapes, new styles, or in the case of Nyetimber, new regions, there is always something to explore in wine. As we move into 2021 I look forward to exploring, not just the wines of England, but all of the new sensations.
Enjoy the Fizz.