A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also Nyetimber - a Canadian playground.
Most wine drinkers nowadays are aware that English vineyards can produce serious sparkling wine, a relatively brisk answer to champagne. Any complaint about it is not about quality but about price. The fact that good English sparkling wine costs more than bad champagne continues to annoy some.
One of England's finest producers will next year snub its nose at such criticisms when it launches an English fizz at more than £100 a bottle, the sort of price that prestige champagnes such as Dom Pérignon and Krug command. But then Nyetimber near Horsham in West Sussex has always been a trailblazer. Established in 1988 by an American couple, the Mosses, it was the first English wine estate to concentrate on the champagne grapes Pinot and Chardonnay and to import winemaking expertise from Champagne. Soon after they released their first wine in the mid 1990s, it 'beat' many a champagne in a blind tasting in the FT offices.
The Mosses sold up and returned to America. For a while the estate belonged to a musician who turned one of its historic outbuildings into a recording studio. Quality wobbled a bit. But a new chapter began for Nyetimber in late 2006 when it was acquired by Eric Heerema. The Heerema name is well-known in Holland. The family have a history of hugely successful offshore investment. Based in London, Eric caught the English wine bug and originally bought (then sold) another Sussex vineyard. Nyetimber is by no means his sole preoccupation – quite apart from more directly financial activities, he and his young wife Hannah, daughter of Scottish singer Fiona Kennedy, are busy restoring the Highlands estate where Monarch of the Glen was filmed - but he is clearly hugely ambitious for Nyetimber.
The key element in the current plan is a young Canadian couple (Nyetimber seems fated to be the best English wine owned and made by foreigners). The wines so far produced by Cherie Spriggs and her husband Brad Greatrix have been garlanded with praise, winning huge acclaim. Their appointment was serendipitous to say the least. They got the job by sending a speculative email from their native Canada, where, after theoretical and practical winemaking experiences around the globe, they were 'looking for a dream job'. Two weeks later they were based in the depths of Sussex countryside working in Nyetimber's ancient buildings.
Nyetimber was mentioned in the Domesday Book; Henry VIII gave it to Anne of Cleves. But it wasn't the famous North American love of history that drew them. Cherie's father, born in Cambridge, is an anglophile and Cherie, having seen the photograph of Nyetimber in the World Atlas of Wine, asked her father to bring a bottle back from a trip to England. The quality of the wine inside inspired the pair to volunteer themselves to Heerema and he took them on spec. It could all have gone so wrong.
Cherie is the spokesperson of the couple and, during a visit to the estate last May when I was the first outsider to taste finished bottles, white and rosé, of this most luxurious new English wine, I asked Cherie why she decided she wanted to make sparkling wine in particular. 'Because', she said with characteristic deliberation, 'it's ... difficult. It's like if you were listening to music very, very softly. You need to look so closely at the very subtle differences in the base wines'. Cherie studied classical music as well as science at university.
I imagine that most of the conversations between Cherie and Brad revolve around their work, and particularly their intricate series of careful experiments. Since their arrival the Canadians have seen off the previous (French) incumbent, fine-tuned every aspect of production, instituted all manner of innovations (including the use of a particularly dark (but ecologically lightweight) bottle to protect against the predations of light to which sparkling wine is particularly prone) and, presumably, wallowed in the opportunities afforded by Hereema's continued programme of lavish investment. They currently have an enviable total of 170 ha (420 acres) of vineyards, carefully planted with the three classic Champagne varieties, at their disposal - on about 90 sub-blocks in eight different vineyards, two of the newer ones being a 75-minute drive away in Hampshire on the chalk that is so prized in Champagne, just next to Waitrose's vineyard near Stockbridge. (The original Sussex vineyards are on green sandstone.)
The major change wrought in the Brad'n'Cherie era is a significant one. The vast majority of English sparkling wines have been vintage-dated with a single year, and quite a recent one at that, because most producers have only a fairly short history and far from unlimited funds. The Nyetimber Classic Cuvée in current distribution is a 2010, for example. But as soon as they arrived, the Canadian winemakers put the case for evolving Classic Cuvée from a vintage-dated wine to the sort of non-vintage blend of the most recent year bolstered by a mix of older reserve wines that is so common in Champagne. Accordingly 2010 is last vintage-dated Classic Cuvée and it will be followed later this year by the complex blend I tasted in May that is based on 2011 but contains reserve wines back to when the Canadians arrived in 2007 and started keeping stock back. 'We won't be the first to market an NV in England', admits Spriggs, 'but we have the deepest stocks of reserve wines. Our Classic Cuvée will probably have about 30% of them'.
Presumably the Canadians have been hatching a plan for the new luxury cuvées for some time now and I can only guess at the number of trial blends and tastings that went into it. This ambitious new line, which will presumably set a new standard for English wine, is in a regular bottle shape but will apparently look very different from the rest of the Nyetimber range. When I visited, no final decision had been made on the name and labels, but I was assured that it would not be called Heerema, and it would not be named after his two small daughters. Anne of Cleves might be a suitable name, perhaps, playing up the Low Countries connection? (And, unusually for a wife of Henry VIII, she died a natural death.)
Another little Champenois twist is Nyetimber's system of putting a lot code on their back labels that links to a plethora of background information on their website – just like Krug.
DUTCH-CANADIAN SPARKLING MARVELS
See my tasting notes.
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2010
£32 RRP (but £28.99 at Wine Rack until 12 September)
Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2009
Nyetimber, Tillington Single Vineyard 2010
Nyetimber, ?? 2009
Nyetimber, ?? Rosé 2010