I continue to be enamoured by English Sparkling Wine. As I’ve said before, it’s nothing to do with gung-ho jingoism or the slightest feeling of animosity towards our French cousins. It’s simply based on quality, and I should add, individuality. There is a range of artisan estates in Britain making wines with the same kind of personality as those making Grower Champagne in France. Some, of whom I’ve written about before, like Breaky Bottom and Black Chalk, focus almost entirely (Black Chalk has begun to bottle a still Rosé) on sparkling wine. Others, such as Tillingham and this winery, Westwell, have a range of still wines too. I think it is noticeable that if you make high quality sparkling wine you are not going to produce sub-standard still wines.
Westwell Wine Estates, to give it its full name, sits atop chalk terroir on the edge of the North Downs at Charing, not far from Ashford in Kent. Adrian Pike came to Westwell in 2017 and immediately increased the vineyard from just over a dozen acres to thirty. Adrian had a great career in the music industry, having founded Moshi Moshi Records. They had a star roster of successful acts, including Florence and the Machine. However, what drew me to Adrian when I first met him at a London tasting soon after his arrival at Westwell was his “Throbbing Gristle” t-shirt. They were pioneers of industrial music in the late 1970s and had a house a few doors up from the bassist in my band at the time, famous for some pretty loud parties.
The philosophy is to work with minimal intervention, which includes the use of biodynamic preparations in the vineyards, working towards the elimination of all non-organic inputs in the next year or so, following a systematic planned reduction. It’s a philosophy which aims to be equally as hands-off in the vines and winery.
Adrian, like so many of the new names in English winemaking, trained at Plumpton College, near Lewes (E. Sussex), our national viticultural college. However, he got the wine bug before that, working with Will Davenport, after tasting one of his wines whilst pondering a change of direction and, apparently, phoning him up and asking for a job (See Ed Dallimore, The Vineyards of Britain, Fairlight Books 2022, p328). Will has been a pioneer of organic viticulture in England since the early 1990s and equally he was an early believer in English still wines, especially Pinot Noir which is beginning to thrive at the moment with warmer summers…just so long as the late frosts and mildew don’t get the grapes.
Adrian is a bit fan of the Ortega variety so several Westwell wines are made from or include it. This Müller-Thurgau x Siegerrebe crossing was developed in Germany in the 1940s (post-war). It has proved successful in England and Wales because it withstands frost well, and it also ripens early, useful in a country where summers have been known to end abruptly, sometimes before harvest. In its native Germany it is often associated with sweet wines because its early ripening ability enables high must weights. However, in the UK it is more likely to make a dry and zesty wine. Westwell manages to make a skin contact amber wine, a stainless steel-fermented tropical-fruited version, and a very tasty petnat (highly recommended).
There are also Rosés (Adrian likes pink wine, a taste I think he shares with Ben Walgate at Tillingham), both still and sparkling. There’s also a bit of the ubiquitous Regent planted, a red variety also much appreciated in the early days of viticulture in Britain due to its broad resistance to fungal diseases like downy mildew. Regent is undergoing a bit of a rethink at the moment as a new generation of young wine drinkers appreciate the “glouglou” fruit and lower alcohol of natural wines over the more classical flavours imbedded in drinkers who grew up on mostly wines from the classic French appellations.
However, the thing which drew me to write about Westwell today is a more classic wine, made from the three Champagne varieties.
Pelegrim is a classic method sparkling wine named after the Pilgrim’s Way and those who walked it, the ancient pilgrim path which skirts the southern edge of the North Downs as it approaches Canterbury. Medieval pilgrims used the route to travel from the Bishop’s See of Winchester to the shrine of Saint Thomas a Beckett, putting me in mind of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Archeology suggests it is actually much older, a very ancient pathway probably dating back to the Stone Age. It also happens to skirt Westwell’s vines. The cuvée is being re-launched this month with a stunning new label created by Adrian’s partner, Galia.
Pelegrim existed before Adrian Pike came on board at Westwell but Adrian made significant changes. These included later picking for riper fruit, a lower dosage (but not very low, at 8g/litre) and longer lees ageing. The wine is released as a multi-vintage, with the aim of producing consistency every year. The basic blend sits upon 40% Pinot Noir, joined by 35% Meunier and 25% Chardonnay, all a mix of Champagne and Dijon clones. Into this is blended 20% reserve wines from the previous five years. It is this that creates the potential for complexity.
Two factors besides fruit quality and dosage give Pelegrim its individual personality. First, it sees three years on lees. This is not a long time compared to some English sparklers, but it is just right to allow a fruit-forward style combined with some creaminess as complexity begins to show its face. The Chardonnay brings a touch of salinity whereas the Pinots bring both a nice layer of red fruits with a crisp, red apple, acidity.
Secondly, it is fermented to five bars of pressure, a little less than most classic bottle-fermented wines (six bar is more usual in Champagne and most English sparkling wine made by the traditional method). This helps give a slightly softer mouthfeel, which in turn gives an impression, but just that, of a little richness to balance the apple-fresh acids.
Galia’s new label is, I hope you agree, really rather beautiful. It depicts fossilised sea creatures found in the local chalk in abstract form, created from photos taken under the microscope. It’s one of my favourite labels for an English sparkler, sitting somewhere between the wild style often found on petnats and the more classic, if occasionally dull, labels for many of England’s classic sparklers (of course the beautiful classic type face chosen by Reynolds Stone for Breaky Bottom is a notable exception and the exemplar of the classical label).
One very big attraction of Pelegrim is the price. Whilst English Sparkling Wine has risen sharply in price in the past four or five years, especially as costs have rocketed so much and not all vintages have been commercially plentiful, this new launch of Pelegrim has a recommended retail price of only £32.50. I won’t try to argue that this is the best sparkling wine in England, but this is not intended to be one of those cuvées made to impress those wine writers who get the occasional sip at a tasting (we can’t afford the £100 bottles, you know), along with the bonus-rich bankers and hedge fund managers who presumably buy the wines which claim to be the crème de la crème. Instead, it is priced if not for everyone, certainly for those who are prepared to top £30 for a “special treat wine” if the bottle is worth it.
This, in my honest opinion is worth it. We drank it on a special family anniversary and we all loved it in equal measure. It is fruity, so it might not impress those who demand only zero-dosage wines with bags of dry extract and acidity which, in some examples, feels like a fatal thrust from the rapier of Porthos. Yet as well as being fruity it certainly has elegance, and also a wonderful precision. I love the balance here, perfectly judged and, I think, exactly what it means to be. It has quality in excess of its price. Adrian has really nailed it here.
Although Westwell has a good distribution, especially among the hot indie wine shops in London and The South, you can now visit the estate from Thursday to Saturday between 11-5. During these hours you no longer need to book an appointment. You can take a tour and/or enjoy a glass of Westwell wine with local cheese and charcuterie. The bar and shop stay open until 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays. The bonus – cellar door sales.
Pelegrim has a younger sibling, Wicken Foy, made from the same grapes as Pelegrim but seeing only eighteen months on lees. It’s available only from independent retailers, plus a little may be available at the cellar door, assuming anyone has any left.
There’s also a kind of super-cuvée available in very tiny quantities. It’s their Special Cuvée Late Disgorged, based on the 2015 vintage in its current form, with, I understand, five years on lees. This is available from agent/distributor Uncharted Wines. Check out www.unchartedwines.com .
Westwell Wine Estates is at “The Vyneyard”, Westwell Lane, Charing, Kent TN27 0BW, and you can check them out at www.westwellwines.com .
Westwell Pelegrim will be launched officially on Tuesday October 25th with a tasting for Trade (3-5pm) and everyone (5pm onwards). The venue is Sager + Wilde, 193 Hackney Road, London E2 8JL.