It was a little over two years ago that I was at 67 Pall Mall for the last Vineyards of Hampshire Press and Trade Tasting. It was nice to see some old friends among those exhibiting, and to taste the first wine from their newest member, Louis Pommery England. Below you will find some notes on the wines shown from nine exhibitors. I’ve tried to avoid being expansive on all of the wines, bearing in mind that producers showed up to seven wines in one case. Pommery currently has only one.
The vineyards represented are pretty much situated in the eastern half of the county, all of them (near enough) to the east of a line drawn between Southampton and Andover. The terroirs vary but the common factor is chalk. Raimes has some greensand, I believe, but the rest of the producers are on chalk. However, this is not all it seems, because the larger producers will source fruit from contract growers. Hattingley sources grapes from Sussex and Kent, plus a little from Essex, Buckinghamshire and even Suffolk, to supplement its own ten hectares, plus grapes from contract growers within Hampshire. It is reassuring that their still Pinot Noir red wine comes from sand and clay in Kent, rather than their own very fine but probably unsuitable Hampshire chalk.
Jacob Leadley and Zoë Driver make a powerful team at Black Chalk. Leadley was an experienced winemaker at Hattingley when he started his own production what was only a few years ago. Zoë Driver came on board as assistant winemaker following studies at Plumpton, but I have a suspicion she has a very bright future. The pair are the definition of dynamic, though Jacob comes across as the least extrovert of the two. I remember being pulled over to taste the first vintage at a Red Squirrel (now Graft Wine) tasting and being blown away by how good the wines were. I can honestly say that they have only got better.
Black Chalk’s Test Valley wines are not the only things which have come on since that tasting in September 2018. They have managed to build their own winery, and have just opened a new tasting room to give visitors an experience worthy of the wines.
My first sip of the day was the Classic Brut 2018 (II), a blend of 58% Chardonnay, 32% Pinot Meunier and 10% Pinot Noir. The hallmark of Black Chalk sparklers is freshness, poise, and a focussed spine of acidity. This is lovely. Wild Rose 2018 (II) shown here is, as with the Classic, a second bottling from the vintage. It underwent more malolactic than the first bottling (around 90% of the wine). There are frankly few English Sparkling Rosé wines which can compete with this. Stylistically it’s a little softer than the first release from 2018, but it really is packed with red fruits which fill the mouth. It’s a personal pink favourite, though at £40 it isn’t priced for my frequent purchase. Others may be luckier.
I’ve mentioned acidity and I should qualify this by saying that the balance in both of these wines is excellent. It creates a certain tension on the palate. Some English sparkling wines may be more easy-going, and this is undoubtably true where some estates (I’m not necessarily thinking within Hampshire here) make a “classic cuvée” alongside a reserve. The Black Chalk wines might not have wide commercial appeal for the cellar gate coach parties. They are wines for those who seek a thrill, not exclusively for connoisseurs, but wines which will certainly appeal to that kind of clientele. I’m not sure whether Jacob would agree, but the observation is intended very much as a compliment, nevertheless.
We can’t leave without mentioning Dancer in Pink. This is their still Rosé, 2021 being the just-released second vintage. A blend of Pinots Noir and Précose (aka Frühburgunder), with around 16% Pinot Gris. The PG adds a nice touch to the aromatics and although this is perhaps a more easy-going addition to the Black Chalk portfolio, it’s an essential purchase for summer drinking (and I think a permanent fixture). At a RRP of £19 it is also cracking value compared to the more speculative pricing of some English still wines.
Cottonworth is the English estate of the Liddell family. Run by Hugh Liddell and his wife, they are now living in Saint-Aubin in Burgundy, making Chardonnay wines from vines there and in Chassagne, whilst continuing to run their 30-acre English estate. Cottonworth, like Black Chalk, is based in the exceptional Test Valley, between Stockbridge and Andover.
We had three sparkling wines to taste from Cottonworth. The Classic Cuvée is based around just over 50% Chardonnay with 35% Pinot Noir and a touch of ripe Meunier. It’s a softer style than the Black Chalk, but I like variety and Cottonworth is also a producer whose wines I’ve purchased with some regularity. They also generally come in ever so slightly cheaper than Black Chalk. I’d say it has mouth-filling soft brioche developing and ripe fruit on the palate.
The Cottonworth Blanc de Blancs 2014 is, of course, 100% Chardonnay. After four years on lees this is lovely, and quite impressive. Of course, the price leap is £12 (this has a RRP of £45), but you expect that for the extra age and the quality warrants it.
The Sparkling Rosé is very pale and delicate. It shows vibrant, lifted, red fruits, based on a blend of 51% Pinot Noir, a little less Meunier and a dash of PNP (Précose). Cottonworth benefits from warm, south-facing, slopes, but the fruit balances ripeness and freshness to retain elegance, which kind of goes with the wine’s lovely pale colour.
Danebury is the third of our Hampshire vineyards situated near Stockbridge. The vines were planted in the old paddocks of what was a racecourse back in the 19th century, and their single sparkling wine is named after a famous local racehorse which won the 1847 Epsom Derby, and whose painting is hung in the family house. Danebury is a small estate, making wines for the past twenty years, from its own vineyards, but it is open to visitors on set open days and for afternoon teas.
Before tasting the sparkling wine, I got to try the latest vintages of the still wines. Unique among the exhibitors, Danebury has some of what I call England’s “traditional” grape varieties, by which I mean those varieties planted in the earlier days of the industry, before the so-called Champagne varieties became popular and viable.
There is a single varietal Madeleine Angevine 2020, a Schönburger 2021, and a Reserve 2020. Of the three I have a kind of nostalgic preference for the Madeleine. It has a fresh apple acidity but also a softness to it. The Schönburger is more floral, with some pear and grapefruit. The Reserve blends those two varieties (30% each) with 40% Auxerrois to create something with a bit more complexity, if slightly less defined in terms of varietal character.
The Cossack Brut Vintage 2018 is 95% Auxerrois (once considered a clone of Pinot Blanc, with which it is often blended in Alsace), to which they have added just 5% Pinot Gris. It had three years on lees and has a nice freshness to it.
I do like the Danebury sparkler, but I am always intrigued by their Schönburger, and especially the Madeleine Angevine. These still wines have a remarkably low retail price of around £12 (the Reserve is only a pound more). They are not the finest still wines made in England, perhaps, but they are very well-made examples of a product from what seems almost a different age of English viticulture. If you can find them. It’s definitely worth seeking out some of England’s smaller producers.
This has always been an impressive producer, no doubt in large part down to their impressive winemaker, Corinne Seely. Corinne has made wine in Bordeaux, at Lynch-Bages and Domaine de Chevalier, no less, although perhaps her experience in Portugal and Australia helped engender an outlook which led her to become head winemaker here on the edge of the South Downs, at Exton, east of Winchester and Southampton.
The vineyards here, all 24 ha (60 acres), are quite high and exposed, with in places frighteningly little topsoil over the chalk. Corinne retains the intensity of the fruit by ensuring it reaches the press, located in the heart of the vineyard as is often the case in Champagne, within around five minutes of picking.
The truly exciting development at Exton Park since I last tasted their wines is the signature “Reserve Blend” range. Each of the four wines tasted has the letters RB followed by a number indicating the number of reserve wines in the blend. There is now a ten-year library of reserves which Corinne built up in order to be able to create consistent quality over time. This allows the team to draw on perhaps the most sophisticated range of wines in England with which to build each cuvée.
Exton Park RB28 Brut is a Blanc de Noirs, 100% PN, showing glorious red fruits to the fore, both in the aromatics and on the palate. Whilst quite rich, and very mouth-filling, the acids are nicely judged.
Exton Park RB32 Brut (60:40 Ch and PN) has had a majestic five years on lees and 7g/l dosage with no malo. Long, mouth-filling, delicious. A wine of precision but also with a bit of weight.
Exton Park Rosé RB23 (70% PN, 30% Meunier) had three years on lees. The colour is pale, but not extremely so. The colour comes from a very gentle nine-hour press. The red fruits are super ripe and this is a lovely vibrant wine.
Exton Park RB45 is the top of the range so-to-speak, as denoted by the number of different reserves which make up the blend. This is a Blanc de Blancs, 100% Chardonnay. It’s made from only reserves, no current vintage, and lees ageing is for four years. The dosage is 9g/l. The bouquet immediately shows great depth, something you get on the palate too. A combination of the lees ageing of Chardonnay, but also from the fact that 25% of the blend saw wood.
This wine has a RRP of just under £50. I would suggest that at this level of quality and even greater complexity with a little more ageing, that is in fact something of a bargain. Especially as some English producers are getting quite ambitious with their current pricing of top cuvées. Just my opinion.
As a postscript, some readers will, like me, have a bit of a thing for Corinne’s occasional Pinot Meunier Rosé cuvée. I understand that another one may be on the way. Look out for it.
Burge’s Field, a 30-acre vineyard, was planted in 2011 overlooking the River Itchen, six miles east of Winchester. The topsoil is a thin layer of gravelly clay, beneath which is a very deep layer of pure Cretaceous chalk. This is the estate, known as The Grange, was founded by a banker, the late John Ashburton and is now run by his children. They have their own dedicated vineyard team on site, but the wines are made at Hattingley, overseen by Chief Winemaker and Hattingley Director, Emma Rice.
There are two wines in the range here. Classic Cuvée is a non-vintage blend of Chardonnay (50%) with 28% Meunier and the remainder PN, and 13% being reserve wines added to (in this case) the 2017 vintage. The reserve wines come from a solera/perpetual reserve. 18% of the wine sees fourth fill oak and only 40% went through malo. Lees ageing was 37 months and dosage 8g/l. It’s a softer style in some ways (despite only partial malolactic), but a nicely put together wine with wide appeal without appearing at all “commercial”.
The Pink NV is mostly comprised fruit from the 2017 vintage, a fairly even blend of Meunier with just a touch more Pinot Noir. This also saw 37 months on lees and was dosed slightly lower, at 7g/l. It shows nice fresh acidity and it also has a very interesting savoury note adding complexity above and beyond the red fruits. There’s also a little texture. Very nice.
Although this is a producer who does not yet have its own winery, the wines are immaculately made in their own style. They have won lots of awards, both in the UK and internationally, pretty impressive for a very new producer.
Hambledon is one of the great names of English wine. Not only was the village the birthplace of cricket, but of more relevance to us, it was where Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones planted the first English commercial vineyard of what we should call the modern era, in 1975. Today the man behind Hambledon is biochemist Ian Kellett, who has some persuasive views as to why this site, southeast-facing towards the gentle morning sun, on chalk with a high concentration of Belemnite, apparently identical to that at Le Mesnil on Champagne’s Côte des Blancs, is perfect for ripening Champagne varieties.
There are just over 80-ha of vines here, processed in a gravity-fed winery said to be unique in Great Britain, and stored in a cellar dug into the chalk just like Champagne. As at Exton Park, the presses are close enough to the vines to allow minimal time between picking and pressing. The wines produced, three of them, are all different, but when we speak of Le Mesnil, it is true that they all exhibit, to varying degrees, that classic minerality found in wines from the pure chalk of that part of the Côte des Blancs. Rain and, to a large degree wind as well, are mitigated by the presence of the Isle of Wight to the south. All that is required, it seems, is a focus on quality, and we certainly have that, evidenced by the awards garnered in recent years.
Hambledon Classic Cuvée 2016 is based on nearly 60% Chardonnay with around a third Pinot Noir and a sixth Meunier. It spent three years on its lees and is dosed at a more crowd-pleasing 12g/l. The result is a fruit-forward wine with a high degree of accessibility…but it doesn’t lack depth. It’s also a very consistent wine, one which I’ve been happy to order, mostly as an aperitif, in restaurants, knowing it won’t disappoint us.
Classic Cuvée Rosé is made differently from most English pink sparkling wine. The fruit is Chardonnay, to which is blended 10% still wine made from Pinot Noir. In other words, this is what is known in Champagne as a “Rosé d’Assemblage”. The colour comes from the judicial addition of red wine rather than skin contact from red grapes before fermentation. Dosed at 10g/l it is still fresh with a good acid spine, but the red fruit tastes ripe and mouth-filling.
Hambledon Première Cuvée is another of English Sparkling Wine’s bargains (RRP £55). The current version spent 62 months on lees, having been disgorged at the end of May last year (so we have a further ten months post-disgorgement ageing too). Dosage is a low, connoisseur-enticing, 2.5g/l. This is a special wine. I mean, the other two are good, but this…
We have a predominance of Chardonnay (67%) with 11% PN and 22% Meunier. The bouquet is complex, drifting between the aromatics of Chardonnay and the red fruit of the Pinots. There’s a lovely mouthfeel which accentuates the mineral texture with a nice savoury grip on the finish. Something comes through that I thought might be sweet ginger spice.
I have probably recounted the story before of how founder Simon Robinson decided to turn twenty-five acres of his chalky farm over to vines after having seen an item on television about the English wine industry. That was way back in 2000. Today Hattingley is one of English Wine’s major players, down in no small part to their head winemaker Emma Rice. Emma has become one of the three or four big names in the production side of the industry.
Emma may have worked in three New World wine countries (Australia, New Zealand and California in the US) following her studies at Plumpton (graduating in 2006), but apparently, according to Oz Clarke (English Wine, Pavilion, 2020) wine was in her blood from an early age because her mother used to take her grape harvesting as a child. Emma has twice been crowned UK Vineyards Association Winemaker of the Year (2014 and 2016).
Seven Hattingley wines were on taste, and I hope not to do them a disservice in trimming my notes. As well as their current 10.5-ha of vines planted close to the very impressive winery near Arlesford, I have already recounted in my introduction how they also source fruit from far and wide. This has enabled an expansion of the range into still wines. This is surely the next step for the industry here in Britain.
There were three still wines to taste. Still White 2020 is a Chardonnay with a classic varietal bouquet coming in at 12.5% abv. Just less than 15% of the juice has seen oak. It combines crispness and soft fruit and might be described as a clean cool climate Chardonnay. Reserve Chardonnay 2020 is 100% aged in used oak for six months. Interestingly the alcohol is slightly lower, at 12%. It has a richer bouquet and mouthfeel/weight. Nice and smooth on the palate with a little bit of texture. It will probably get even better. Still Red 2020 is made from Pinot Noir sourced off sandy clay in Kent. The grower had, on the request of Hattingley, planted a number of Burgundy clones for this wine. The fruit is ripe, but the wine, at least at this stage, tastes quite primary. It has good Pinot character, though with a RRP of £25 it is worth keeping it a while to see how it ages.
There are four sparklers. The cheapest of them (a good value £32 RRP) is the Hattingley Valley Classic Reserve NV. The blend of this 2015-based cuvée is (I was told) 53% Ch, 31% PN and 15% PM. Not sure what the other 1% is! The lovely bouquet suggests honeysuckle to me. Acids are fresh and it has the depth of some age.
Rosé 2018 (50% PN, 45% PM and 5% PNP, the latter added as a still wine) is pale, elegant, red-fruited, but also very interesting. Because it’s so elegant it has something more to it that it’s difficult to put your finger on. It’s lovely now, but I’d also like to taste it to see what happens after another year of pda. It could become quite ethereal.
Blanc de Blancs 2014 is yet another step up the ladder, but is still well-priced at a little over £40. The longer lees ageing has certainly added complexity but not at the expense of amazing freshness. In some ways this might be the “value” sweet spot in the range, definitely worth the extra tenner, so to speak.
King’s Cuvée 2014 is certainly another step up in quality. In fact, it’s a very impressive wine. It’s also a good step up in price, retailing at around £85. It is made from the best barrels (sic) of the harvest, usually the best five or six. In 2014 the blend of grape varieties was something like 45% PN, 43% Ch and 12% Meunier. The fruit saw 100% wood ageing with disgorgement in June 2020. The PDA shows. There’s so much depth here, and indeed concentration. I’d suggest, however, that good as it may be right now, look at this wine as an investment…which will mature in a number of years. They don’t give an indication of maturity, but knowing how I like to age my Champagnes, I’d be tempted to take a look after four or five years without expecting full maturity. I think it will go longer.
LOUIS POMMERY ENGLAND
We have talked, within the industry, of investors snooping around from Champagne, but there has been less concrete interest than that hyped in the press. Of course, Taittinger has begun to develop its interestingly named Domaine Evremond. And then we have Pommery. Strictly speaking, this isn’t a Champagne-led operation because the impetus for establishing an English vineyard at Pinglestone came in fact from Pommery’s Californian outpost.
Nevertheless, Pommery is the first Champagne brand to get up and running in England, with their estate at Pinglestone producing, so far, just one wine. The vineyards are close to the environmentally significant watercress meadow beds at the confluence of the rivers Itchen and Arle, on white chalk. In recognition of the importance of the location here, they have also achieved “Sustainable Wine of Great Britain” status (as of last year). Measures additional to sustainable viticulture include bee hives situated in the centre of the estate.
There are a significant 30-ha already planted, with a further 10-ha being planted currently. The first harvest was in 2020 when selected bunches were taken. Hattingley has made the first wines. The plan is to build a winery/cuverie but English planning law is not always helpful to those investing in the rural economy.
Louis Pommery England Brut NV is a welcome start from a welcome investor in our industry. It’s a blend of 62% Chardonnay with Pinot Noir and Meunier, with a few bunches of Pinot Gris (I’m not sure whether those actually went into the blend). It’s probably a little early to define the style, which is seemingly quite easy-going with a lot of commercial potential (without any loss of quality). It will be more than interesting to see how this operation develops. This first wine retails currently at an attractive £32.
This is a single estate, producing their own fruit which is converted to wine at Hattingley by Emma Rice. Augusta and Robert Raimes are the fifth generation of the Raimes family to farm the historic Tichborne Estate, near Arlesford, which stretches between the water meadows of the Itchen to the edge of the South Downs National Park outside Winchester. The whole estate is pretty large, 740 hectares, but just 4-ha are planted to vines (Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay).
From these four hectares four wines are produced. There’s a “Classic”, a Blanc de Noirs, a Blanc de Blancs and, most interestingly, a Demi-Sec. The Classic has a 2018 base with only thirty months on lees. Only disgorged in January this year, this three-grape blend is nice and fresh with a savoury touch. The Blanc de Noirs, also 2018, had just 22 months on lees (and consequently longer in bottle after disgorgement) but 5% saw oak and it just had a partial malo. This is super-fresh and zippy.
The Blanc de Blancs 2016 is lovely. It has real character, demonstrably a Chardonnay cuvée, which has really benefitted from its longer (42 month) lees ageing. A slightly larger 17% saw oak and 86% of the wine went through its malolactic. Remarkable value if the £35 RRP is correct.
The final wine of the day was the Raimes Demi-Sec 2017. This is something of a treat in my opinion. The residual sugar registers 34g/l but with 10g/l acidity. The acidity balances the sugar so that the wine actually tastes drier than you might expect, without tasting dry. Again, 42 months on lees and there’s genuine depth here.
I’d rate this more highly than some demi-sec Champagnes I’ve tried, which can occasionally seem to be made to a formula to fit a stylistic hole in the range. It’s also a truly underrated style, and I’d suggest that if you are going to stick your head over the parapet to make one you have to do it well. I think Raimes and Rice have achieved that.
For me, there is just one problem with Raimes and it has nothing to do with quality. It’s availability. There’s not a lot of wine and it is one of the few producers whose wines I absolutely never come across. The wines are reasonably priced in today’s market, although the Demi-Sec at the top end of the price range is £40. But as a regular visitor to the Vineyards of Hampshire Tastings, I think they are getting better every year. I don’t know why, as they use Hattingley’s contract winemaking, which will likely aim for consistency, but it’s just my hunch that they are. Could it be vine age?
This was a very successful tasting. As an excellent innovation this year, Vineyards of Hampshire has put together a mixed six bottle sampler case. There are four sparkling pinks (Exton Park, The Grange, Hattingley and Black Chalk), one white sparkler (Raimes Blanc de Blancs) and Danebury’s aforementioned still white Schönburger. It costs £200 including delivery.
There is also a Vineyards of Hampshire public tasting event, “FizzFest”, this year to be held at Black Chalk on the afternoon of 24 July, where I think seven VoH members (including Pommery) will be presenting their wines. Check out their web site at vineyardsofhampshire.co.uk for information about both. Now if only Sussex (my own county) and Kent could do the same to promote the very many fine producers in those counties. But Well Done Hampshire!