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Six English wineries doing things differently

While Champagne has a clearly defined industry structure, in England things are little less clear. Here, we’ve rounded up the wineries doing things differently, from pioneers of the ‘swap model’ to England’s version of négociants.

In partnership with Tom Hewson of Six Atmospheres, the author of the English Sparkling Wine Report 2020, we’re highlighting the differences between wineries operating in England.

Not all producers grow their own grapes, nor make their own wine. Some brands have their own vineyards, but use contract winemakers to produce their wine. Others do the reverse, in effect operating as négociants, buying in grapes from growers and making wine from this. Some, such as Hattingley Valley, grow their own grapes and make wine from it, but offer a ‘grape swap’ operation for growers, acting in similar fashion to a co-operative.

With the first grapes specifically destined for fizz first planted as recently as the late ’80s, the industry is still relatively fresh-faced. As new producers have come onto the scene, it makes sense to use contract winemakers until they have the funds to build their own wineries.

As Hewson states, this “is an excellent arrangement for most, and absolutely no barrier to quality whatsoever”. He notes that it is quite a “fluid” operation, with some wineries swapping contractors and others deciding to make their wines in-house over time.

Current brands that grow and manage their own vineyards, but use contracting services, include West Sussex’s Ashling Park and Coolhurst Vineyards, East Sussex’s Charles Palmer and Fox & Fox, Sussex’s Roebuck Estate, and Hampshire’s The Grange, Jenkyn Place and Raimes.

Producers with their own wines, but which also offer contract winemaking services include Hattingley Valley, Ridgeview, Wiston Estate and Denbies.

Hewson’s sparkling wine report is available to download via his Six Atmospheres site. There is a link to a downloadable PDF, as well as a Kindle version that can also be viewed on any mobile device or tablet.

Here, we’ve rounded up six wineries that are doing things differently, from industry veterans Camel Valley to England’s version of négociants.

Camel Valley

Owned and operated by the Lindo family, Cornwall’s Camel Valley was established in 1989. In 2017, it became the first UK wine producer to receive a Protected Designation Origin (PDO) from the European Union, in relation to its ‘Darnibole’ vineyard, following a five year process that began in 2012. The following year, it became the first English wine producer to gain a Royal Warrant. 

In his report, Hewson praises the winery for “quietly doing what they have always done”, growing and sourcing the best grapes possible. He particularly highlights the Camel Valley’s grape sourcing, saying that it is key to its success.

Praising their highly acclaimed Pinot Noir Brut Rosé, he states: “I don’t think the Lindos should hide where some of their most important grapes come from – Essex. Does it matter that Pinot Noir from the other side of the country is actually going into this ‘Cornwall’ wine? Of course not.

“This style of rosé shows up under-ripeness and green flavours with total ruthlessness, and the lack of any of these flavours in Camel Valley’s rosé makes it stand out as a standard bearer for the style. The generosity of the fruit is the reason why the wine works with both high acidity and a high dosage; they have plenty to grab on to and hide behind. If you want to try an English sparkling wine that wouldn’t dream of being labelled a Champagne-alike, this is it.”

Camel Valley has 6.3 hectares of its own vines, and sources external fruit from other sites.

Black Chalk

Until last year, Hampshire’s Black Chalk operated at as a négociant, sourcing grapes from growers from around the county. However, as reported this month, it has now leased four vineyards in the Test Valley. Its new winery will be completed in the summer, ready for its first vintage using its own grapes this year.

CEO and winemaker Jacob Leadley, who was the winemaker at Hattingley Valley for seven years from 2011, began to work on his project full-time in 2018.

The site and the vineyards on the Fullerton Estate near Stockbridge were previously used to supply Cottonworth’s wines.

In a recent interview with db, Leadley has stressed that a collaborative approach to winemaking and experimental projects were the only way “to push English wine into a better quality bracket”.

Once the wines from the new sites are ready, Black Chalk will be entirely focused on making small-batch wines, exploring the differences between clones of classic sparkling wine varieties.

Leadley said the key is to “grow with intent” – controlling yields and producing the best fruit possible. He is also keen for his team to pursue their own projects – including a potential still wine – and is also intending to set up collaborative projects with formal education establishments.

Breaky Bottom

Its memorable name is not the only feature that makes Breaky Bottom stand out from the crowd. Owned by Peter Hall, the original vineyard was planted back in 1974 and as Hewson notes, it is “one of the few to have made the transition successfully from ‘old school’ English vineyard to well-respected contemporary sparkling wine producer”.

With a total of 2.4 hectares near Lewes in East Sussex, Hall champions the much-maligned Seyval Blanc, which he makes into a single varietal fizz.

Unlike many English producers, he doesn’t use malolactic fermentation nor does he use oak. Hall also grows Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier.

Digby Fine English

Owned by Trevor Clough and Jason Humphries, Digby prides itself on being the first “true négociant” in English sparkling wine.

The brand doesn’t own vineyards and sources fruit from Hampshire, Sussex and Kent. According to Hewson, Clough takes an active role in blending after the base wines are made by Dermot Sugrue at Wiston.

While it doesn’t have vineyards nor its own winery, the producer does have a base in Arundel, having opened a tasting room in May 2019. It also has its own wine club, called the Kenelm Club, which sends those who sign up three shipments of wine per year.

Lyme Bay Winery

Lyme Bay Winery in Devon is another producer operating under the radar. Like Chapel Down in Kent, it also produces a range of other drinks including cider, mead, liqueurs, rum and gin, planting its own vines in 2009 and 2010.

Like Camel Valley, Lyme Bay’s winemaking team also sources grapes from further afield, including Danbury Ridge in Essex.

Lyme Bay makes both still and sparkling wines, including a couple of white blends as well as a still Bacchus, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and rosé. Its sparkling wines include a brut reserve, a rosé, a blanc de noirs and a classic cuvée.

Hattingley Valley

As already mentioned, Hattingley is the English pioneer of the so-called ‘swap model’ whereby vineyards send in their grapes and receive a certain percentage back as their own wine.

Head winemaker Emma Rice told Hewson: “Both parties have an incentive to produce the best they can. Their share ends up in the same tanks as ours, so what we take and what they take is of exactly the same quality. The growers can’t just send us one part of their production and keep the best for themselves; it just doesn’t work like that.”

72% of the 500,000 litres of wine stored at the winery belongs to Hattingley, which is planted with 11 hectares of vines, the rest is owned by clients including High Clandon, Raimes, The Grange and Roebuck.

Most famously, Hattingley was selected as the partner for Champagne Pommery’s English wine, after the Champagne house first put down roots in the UK in 2014.

While Pommery’s English vines mature, it teamed up with Hattingley to produce Louis Pommery Brut, a blend of Chardonnay (55%), Pinot Noir (37%), Pinot Meunier (8%).

Hewson notes: “What Hattingley is starting to look like, then, is an English version of a high-quality co-operative. Yes, serious investment has gone in here, but there is no terroir dogma, glitzy front of house or smoke-and-mirrors PR operation to match; just a producer with a strategy of making the best wine possible and making it all – eventually – add up. If you were placing bets on which names will still be at the top of the tree in 20, 30, 40 years’ time, then Hattingley would have to be one of the first names on the list.”

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