Wine country in England? Say what?
When I learned about winemaking in Hampshire, an hour’s train ride south of London that’s producing world-class sparkling wine, I bee-lined over the pond last September to see the vines with my own eyes.
The weather was dry and unusually warm as we drove through the rolling hills of Hampshire, one of the largest agricultural regions in England tucked inside South Downs National Park, the UK’s newest national park, designated in 2009.
Clive Tillbrook of Hampshire Tours was behind the wheel. He’s among the first to acquaint visitors with Hampshire wine country, including tastings and tours of the vineyards. He collected me at my hotel in Winchester, England’s ancient capital, and my base for exploring Hampshire county. In a Land Rover Discovery, we cruised along country lanes and through enchanting forests.
“Winemaking in the UK goes right back to Roman times,” said Tillbrook, “…but the sparkling wine business is young.”
England’s got the same chalk soil as Champagne, France, located 80 miles across the English Channel. With long, hot and dry summers -- effects of global warming – the region’s climate is what Champagne enjoyed 20 years ago. The main production here is sparkling wine with an estimated 6,200 acres of planted vines, over 500 commercial vineyards, and more than 130 wineries.
We visited three different and notable operations – Hambledon Vineyard, Raimes Family Vineyard, and Hattlingly Valley, all part of “Vineyards of Hampshire,” a friendly collective of vineyards that raises awareness of the acclaimed wine region that’s attracting even the French.
Touring 200-acre Hambledon Vineyard, the UK’s oldest commercial vineyard and the birthplace of England’s bubblies, was a fantastic mini-course on the story of English sparkling wine.
The first grapevine was planted here in 1952 by Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones, a diplomat in Paris and wine lover. His friends at prestigious Pol Roger Champagne House nudged him to take the winegrower’s leap of faith and by the late 1960s his still wines were winning awards. Today, Sir Guy’s vineyard thrives and, like a leafy carpet, rolls down the south-facing slope to the road.
Fast forward to 1999, a restoration of Hambledon happened when biochemist, food analyst and wine lover Ian Kellet acquired the historic vineyard. His research on the soil, climate, economics and study of oenology concluded that conditions were ripe for growing chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier – the noble grape varietals used for making Champagne. In 2013, Camilla Duchess of Cornwall – she’s from a winegrowing family and was president of the UK Vineyards Association -- opened Hambledon’s winery, the only state-of-the-art gravity-fed winery in the country.
“Grapes are handpicked to minimize damage,” explained Steve Lowrie, Hambledon’s gregarious marketing chief, as he led me through every step of the winemaking process. Simple gravity moves wine or must between tanks, “…not pumps, which can cause chemical changes.”
Then I met Felix Gabillet, Hambledon’s onsite winemaker -- and sparkling wine guru. I was impressed to see someone so young at the helm. Together with head winemaker Herve Jestin, among the best in Champagne, the formidable pair creates utterly elegant cuvees.
So how many fermentations does it take to make sparkling wine? The quick answer is two. The second fermentation is when yeast and sugar interact creating flavor, aroma, and bubbly magic.
After aging on the lees (dead yeast cells) a minimum of 33 months, the yeast sediment is removed through the riddling process to achieve crystal clear champagne.
“Riddling was invented by the Widow Clicquot,” said Lowrie. In 1816 Veuve Clicquot (pronounced vev KLEE-koh), the Grand Dame of Champagne, found a way to remove the yeast sediment that caused cloudy champagne. She twisted upside-down bottles ever-so-slowly until the loose yeast formed a “glob” at the neck and was then removed.
The same method is used today, but the neck of the bottle is frozen so that the yeast plug (the glob) is popped out through disgorging. The bottle is finally corked, wire caged and labeled.
Our next stop, Raimes Family Vineyard, got me up close to the vines.
Wife-and-husband team Augusta and Robert Raimes, fifth-generation tenant farmers, have diversified into viticulture with two 20-acre vineyards. The awards they have garnered attest to the quality of grapes they cultivate.
“It’s truly a labor of love,” said Augusta who studied oenology. She and Robert (an agronomist) maintain the vines with other family members. For the bigger jobs like pruning and the harvest, they bring in larger teams, Augusta explained as we bumped along a riding trail in the Raimes jeep on the way to the chardonnay paddock.
“We are absolutely LOADED!” Augusta enthused as we walked a row of picture-perfect fruit. “We’re seeing an average of 20 bunches per vine – compared to only three last year because of the major frost event.”
An active leader in Hampshire’s agricultural organizations, Augusta is excited about the future of English sparkling wine. Hard work got us to where we are today, she said. “But future generations – our children -- will enjoy the rewards.”
At 60-acre Hattingley Valley owned by Simon and Nicola Robinson I got the bigger picture of the English sparkling wine “movement.”
Portuguese-born Claudia Lopes, full of energy and knowledge, assists with Hattingley’s marketing, events and tours. She explained the all-important contract winemaking business because small vineyards (such as Raimes) don’t have wineries and therefore rely on the services of contract operations like Hattingley Valley or Hambledon Vineyard (on a smaller scale). Both use French-designed Cocquard PAI presses, the Rolls Royce of presses, that squeeze out the precious juices with gentle horizontal pressure.
Emma Rice, Hattingley Valley’s award-winning winemaker (two world championships), heads a young and talented team that makes 40 different wines. It’s hard work keeping up the pace, said Lopes, but it’s a feather in their cap when clients win awards. Hattingley’s signature style incorporates the use of old French oak barrels in a small percentage of its wines.
With major expansions underway at Hambledon and Hattingley and with 2018’s “harvest of the century” doubling capacity, the sparkling wine business has awakened the sleepy English countryside as winemakers, pubs, and lodgings open their doors welcoming local and international visitors eager to discover Champagne’s sister across the Channel.
WHEN YOU GO:
Hampshire Tours: www.hampshiretours.net
Tourism Hampshire: www.visit-hampshire.co.uk
Hambledon Vineyard: www.hambledonvineyard.co.uk
Raimes Family Vineyard: www.raimes.co.uk
Hattingley Valley: www.hattingleyvalley.com
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Gallery 2 (7 images)