This article, of which a version is published by the Financial Times, and Thursday's battle of the prestige cuvées, profile English sparkling wine's latest achievement when compared with champagne's most famous names.
'More intense than the 2009 Classic Cuvée but the difference at this point is not, I suspect, as great as the price difference is likely to be.' This was part of my tasting note on a mystery 2009 sparkling wine served to me during a visit to Nyetimber in West Sussex in May 2016, as outlined in Nyetimber takes on Krug. I was told, by the talented Canadian winemaking couple there, Cherie Spriggs and Brad Greatrix, that the earliest this specially luxurious new bottling would be released by Nyetimber, producer of the first English sparkling wine made in the image of champagne back in the early 1990s, would be late 2016.
In the event, Nyetimber's prestige cuvée 1086, a white and a rosé, was launched almost two years later than that, last month, in a flurry of gold, candelabra, crimson roses and a publicist's guest list at the Ritz in London. I would guess that the delay was because Nyetimber's current owner, Dutchman Eric Heerema, took so long to make up his mind about the name, the packaging – and the price. The name apparently is a reference to the date of the Domesday Book, in which the Nyetimber estate (then Nitimbreha) was first mentioned.
The packaging is a shiny nod to cod heraldry, unlikely to send envious shivers down any spine in Champagne – unlike the recommended retail price: a cool £150 for the white version and £175 for the rosé. The relative prices seem odd because the white is both rarer (2,600 bottles made as opposed to 12,000 for the rosé) and older (2009 vintage rather than 2010) than the rosé, but that is to split extremely expensive hairs.
Now that producers of English sparkling wine know they can make wines as good as champagne, several of them seem keen to prove they can match the Champenois for prices. Last year Chapel Down launched a small quantity of their top bottling, Kit's Coty Coeur de Cuvée, at just under £100 a bottle. And now Nyetimber has gone two better.
The pricing of this pair of 1086s suggests that they are aimed squarely at Cristal, Dom Pérignon and Krug, the most famous so-called prestige cuvées of Champagne that sell between £100 and £200 a bottle. Like them the 1086s are made from the classic grape varieties of Champagne – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Like them, they contain dozens of different ingredients carefully blended and then aged for years – six years in the case of the 2009 white wine, five years for the rosé –on the lees of a second fermentation in bottle that is responsible for the wines' fizziness.
It is perhaps a crass reaction to want to know how these ambitious new sparkling wines from Nyetimber compare with the most famous prestige cuvées of champagne. I recently met Michael Cruse, who makes the cult California sparkling wine Ultramarine from Sonoma Coast fruit. His wines are so spectacularly good that he has been invited to show them at Champagne Week, the annual April showcase for the best growers in Champagne. But, he assured me, 'I'm actually against people saying my wines are as good as champagne; I want them to express exactly where they come from in California.'
Cruse is following the champagne grower model, whereas winemakers Spriggs and Greatrix with their 568 acres (230 ha) of vineyards (more than any other English vine grower) on chalk in Hampshire and Kent and on greensand in West Sussex are closer to one of the big champagne houses, choosing from 90 different parcels of vines. They have clearly been keen to select for 1086 the very best that those vines can produce, and they will inevitably exhibit some uniquely English characteristics. Thanks to the climate, English wines tend to be typified by high natural acidity, a positive attribute in sparkling wine, whose levels have been declining in Champagne as a result of warming summers.
Fortunately for anyone as curious as me, Nick Baker of The Finest Bubble, a London-based online retailer of top-quality combinations of wine and carbon dioxide, and champagne obsessive, was dying to find out how the 1086s compare with similarly priced prestige cuvée champagnes. So he invited me and another four experienced champagne tasters to a blind comparison of the Nyetimber pair with seven white and two pink champagnes selling at similar prices.
The distinctly chewy 1086 rosé was quite easy to distinguish from the Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne Rosé 2006 and Billecart Salmon, Elisabeth Salmon Rosé 2006 but the white version was less obvious, even though it did seem to be the wine with the highest acidity. No one picked out the Nyetimber Brut.
My favourite wine of the white wine tasting was our particular bottle of Dom Pérignon 2009 and my least favourite our particular bottle of Philipponnat's single-vineyard Clos des Goisses 2009. (I enjoyed a much better bottle of the Clos des Goisses last month; individual bottles vary far more than most non-professionals would imagine.)
Nyetimber 1086 white was the group's third favourite overall in this array of just about the best that champagne houses can produce, so to blend in with this crowd was a great achievement on the part of the Little Englander. Both 1086s are clearly very good wines, and better than any other English sparkling wines I have so far come across.
And for the record, Nyetimber's Classic Cuvée, their regular bottling, retails at well under £30 a bottle. The current version, nowadays a non-vintage blend rather than a vintage-dated wine, also in the image of a champagne house, is stonkingly good. Just as Krug do, Nyetimber direct wine geeks to their website to learn the full details of how each cuvée is made up.
The drive and finance for this level of quality is Heerema's. The skill is the Canadians'. Last month Cherie Spriggs became the first non-Champenois, and first woman, to be accorded the title Sparkling Winemaker of the Year in the International Wine Challenge Awards. Both biochemists turned winemakers, Spriggs and Greatrix arrived at Nyetimber in 2007 just two weeks after calling Heerema (who'd bought Nyetimber the year before) and volunteering themselves for the job. Attracted by the challenge and with no closer acquaintance with the property than seeing a photograph in the World Atlas of Wine, they have instituted a programme of fine-tuning at myriad micro levels (see Nyetimber – a Canadian playground).
Provided Spriggs and Greatrix are still in charge, you may expect even greater things from Nyetimber. Although doubtless there are other ambitiously priced bottlings maturing away in other examples of England's rapidly proliferating wineries.
TRIUMPHANT SPARKLING WINES
Arcari + Danesi, Franciacorta, Italy
Cave Geisse, Brazil
Domaine des Dieux, Claudia, South Africa
Nyetimber 1086, England
Raventós i Blanc, Catalunya
Ultramarine, Sonoma Coast, California
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