Three months were needed for the financing and preparation of the WINE Explorers’ Truck, our new companion. Suffice to say that we were impatient to hit the road again. What a thrilling experience to be able to explore the European vineyards freely! With an average rate of twelve days per country explored, this vehicle was to be both a customized means of transport as well as an essential working tool for the project.
Our “coach-home-office” ready, we were off to England for the launch of the European tour, with a ferry baptism between Calais and Dover, as a bonus.
Did you know? The history of English wine dates back more than 2000 years (1)! Yet, “modern viticulture” did not appear in England until after the Second World War, under the leadership of Ray Barrington Brock.
Even though England had always been a country of connoisseurs (the pioneers in the importation of the famous “Claret” (2) since the twelfth century), the quality of the wines at that time were not yet sufficient, we must admit.
It’s the opposite now. With 135 wineries for less than 2000 hectares of vines (3) (the vineyard area has literally doubled in the last seven years) and some 6.3 million bottles produced in 2014, England has turned to premium wines. And with 70% of the wines produced being sparkling wines, one can clearly say that it sparkles in every way!
Curious to better understand this phenomenon – and the global buzz that English wines make today – we decided to visit the South, between the counties of Hampshire and West Sussex ; where viticulture would be born.
After disembarking from the ferry under a fine rain (and big gray clouds!), we headed to Exton Park, a relatively new estate in the heart of the South Downs, in the Meon Valley. A site where the terroir seems to speak for itself.
“Our vineyard is the dream of every viticulturist. Mainly composed of chalk soils similar to those of the Champagne region, it offers a great variety of sites on the same field”, said Fred Langdale, the vineyard manager.
Best of all, it seems that Southern England has a similar climate to that of the Champagne region 15 years ago. All professionals whom we met were unanimous. An effect of global warming? Who knows… The fact is that the bubbles that we had the chance to taste… literally blew our minds.
“There is something very special at Exton Park, as elsewhere in the South of England – that contributes to making some of the best sparkling wines”, according to Corinne Seely (4), the winemaker.
Our second stop took us to Coates & Seely, only 1h30 drive from London. This 12 hectare estate, mainly planted with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, was born from a beautiful friendship story between Nicholas Coates, a former London banker – now converted into a passionate winemaker – and Christian Seely, managing director of AXA Millésimes ; two longtime companions.
It was during a dinner at Château Pichon-Longueville, in 2007, that these two men took the leap. “Christian already had a business plan in mind”, Nicholas explained.
Around Christmas 2008, and after eight months of research, Nicholas found a vineyard less than 2 miles away from his home. The Coates & Seely’s adventure could begin. Both men had the same goal: to produce sparkling wines that draw both on the tradition of 300 years of great champenoise winemaking methods, while remaining proudly British (5).
At lunch, Nicholas told us the fun story of the “Britannique Method”, otherwise marketed ‘Britagne’. An acronym from the words “British” and “Champagne”, well reflecting the humor of our British friends.
After all, what is best : to make “a French quality sparkling wine” or a wine of “Champagne” wine ?, Nicholas asked us.
“A number of English sparkling wines regularly beat French wines in blind tastings. It was time to invent a generic word for our own English sparkling”, he added, smiling.
The friendly (and eternal) rivalry between the French and the English do not only touch on rugby. And that’s fair !
“Producing the best sparkling wines in the world”, is the ambition of Andrew Weeber, the founder of Gusbourne, an estate created in 2004.
With the expertise of key people such as Ben Walgate (managing director), Charlie Holland (oenologist), and Laura Rhys MS (in charge of sales and who joined the team earlier this year), Gusbourne is on track to play in the big leagues. “Although we must be patient”, Ben admitted, since a lot of the vines are still very young. Stay closely tuned, the beginning is already very promising…
We ended the trip with a dinner at Ben’s place. His wife Emy prepared a delicious chili with homemade guacamole. We ate outside around the fire at the end of their garden, enjoying some ‘local craft beers’… once did not hurt. After dinner, we headed to the village pub for one last pint. A must practice! “All of the villages in England has at least one pub”, Ben said.
An opportunity to remember that although sparkling wines are more than ever at the heart of the debate, Britain first remains the kingdom of beer.
Thank you to Exton Park, Coates & Seely and Gusbourne estates for their warm welcome. Thank you to Gérard Basset for his valuable recommendations of wineries to visit. Thank you to Laura Rhys for having shared her precious wine knowledges with us.
Finally, thank you to all of you who participated in the financing of the WINE Explorers’ Truck : the VIDELOT group, Chateau Calon Segur, Chateau Lafon-Rochet, Chateau La Conseillante and all the friends and relatives of the project to who we will offer some well-deserved rewards once the project is completed.
(1) Archaeological excavations have revealed amphoras and bronze cups of wine dating from the 1st century BC in southern England.
(2) The famous “French Claret” imported since the twelfth century under the leadership of Henry II – King of England, are wines of a light red color, ranging from a color similar to that of burgundy to that of a rosé. They have made the fortune of Bordeaux at the time.
(3) There are actually 135 wineries in the country, for 470 vineyards and 1,884 hectares under vine.
(4) Corinne Seely is a brilliant winemaker, who first started winemaking at Chateau Lynch Bages, where she was part of the team that created the first white wine from this estate, before becoming the oenologist at the Domaine de Chevalier, one of the most beautiful vineyards of Bordeaux for white wines.
(5) An English sparkling wine that is named “Britagne” must at least be made from Pinot noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, have its second fermentation in bottle (plus a number of other wine growing and winemaking techniques that must be strictly adhered to). These wines will therefore be designated as made according to the “Britannique Method”.