The success of English wines since their relatively recent re-birth continues unabated and I wrote earlier in 2017 about the prospect of a million vines being planted in the UK in this year alone.
Much of this expansion is in the south of England, where conditions are extremely favourable for the production of high quality wines, particularly sparkling.
The gentle slopes of the South Downs in Sussex and North Downs in Kent, with their underlying chalky sub-soils, can create near perfect conditions for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (the three grape varieties used for champagne) to thrive.
In England particularly, climate is just as important as soil, since we are on the Northern edge of where wine grapes can be grown successfully.
Although that edge is being pushed ever further northwards over the decades of global warming, vineyard management in England remains a serious challenge. Frosts can cause havoc and decimate production, while other climatic conditions of rain, cold and wind cause a variety of challenges with regard to pests and diseases affecting the vines and grapes, let alone the obvious need for the grapes to ripen sufficiently.
One couple who are, as yet, undaunted by the challenge, are Charles and Ruth Simpson who have recently established Simpsons Wine Estate near Barham in Kent. Purchasing 90 acres of land in 2012, the first vines were planted in 2014, with the first crop in 2016.
However, Charles and Ruth know a thing or two about quality wine, having been making award-winning wines for 15 years at their 140-acre vineyard of Domaine Sainte Rose in the Languedoc region of southern France – available in the UK at Waitrose or Majestic. With their quality-orientated strategy, the Simpsons have been very specific as to where to plant their vines, choosing from among the best parcels of land on the chalky North Downs, with protection from the worst of the English weather from ancient woodland, sheltering the fragile vines.
Despite this strategy, some problems are difficult to combat and this year production is down by some 40 percent due to one particularly bad frost in April.
Not only have Charles and Ruth carefully chosen the vineyard sites, but they have brought all their knowledge and savoir-faire from the Languedoc with them, in order to make top quality wines in a new environment.
Many different clones of the vines have been planted to give complexity and the rootstock on which the vines grow, have been meticulously matched to the different parts of the vineyard. A state-of-the-art winery has been built in the village of Barham, with some technology that is a first in the UK and quite rare worldwide.
The main objective of the Simpsons is to produce a range of top quality sparkling wines, using the expertise of their Australian wine-maker, which express a rich sense of provenance and integrity.
The first of these will be released in December 2018, after the second fermentation and a sufficient period of maturation.
Knowing the difficulties with the English climate (just a little different to the Languedoc!), the couple vowed never to make a still English wine. And what have they just released? Not only a still English wine, but a still English Chardonnay!
A gamble which has paid off extremely well. Created from Chardonnay Clone 548 in a specific part of the vineyard, the grapes developed great maturity and concentration and the wine is of surprisingly high quality.
Elegant, linear and aromatic, it has a minerality reminiscent of very decent Chablis.
Named Roman Road Chardonnay, quantities are limited, but the evident success of this first wine bodes very well for the future of Simpsons Wine Estate and its sparkling – or still – wines.
Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is an experienced wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. An erstwhile wine importer, he runs a wine agency and consultancy company called WineWyse, is founder and principal of the Sussex Wine Academy, chairman of Arundel Wine Society and is an International Wine Judge. Twitter @richardwje. Visit www.winewyse.com.
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