Remember when the phrase “English wine” was an oxymoron? English wines are winning awards and plaudits the world over, with home grown sparkling wine, in particular, competing with Champagne now thanks to the chalky, sheltered South Downs region being similarly suited to the grape varieties of that region.
And, at the vanguard of the English bubbly revolution is Cherie Spriggs, a Canadian born viticulrual maven whose sterling work at West Sussex winery Nyetimber has just earned her a Sparkling Winemaker of the Year award at the International Wine Challenge 2018. So what are her wine-making secrets?
Would you describe your approach as scientific?
There’s a very appealing balance of the science and art of making sparkling wine. Without a doubt sparkling wine is far more technical a process than still wine and therefore science is important. It’s always very important to ask good questions and look deeper into what you’re doing: these are the very founding principles of the scientific method. But there are still many things that science doesn’t know. For example, the blending of our wines is not at all scientific and is fully determined by the tasting characteristics we find and the inspiration we get from our vineyards.
What are the main factors behind English sparkling wine having become such a success?
The chalk and greensand soils in the south of England are our driving force. At Nyetimber we only use fruit from vineyards we own and these soils are what we chose to have our vineyards on. The same chalk soils that supply Champagne also exist in the South East of England. These soils, combined with the cool climate we have in England, allows beautiful, delicate flavours to be developed in the grapes we grow. We’ve also planted our vineyards in locations that are protected from the coastal winds, and only on fully south-facing slopes to maximize the amount of sunlight our vines receive.
What specific rules do you bend or break when it comes to traditional winemaking?
The traditional method is really proven as the best method for achieving the quality of bubbles we strive for, and the flavours we want from the yeast aging process. We didn’t bottle any of the 2012 vintage as it was too cold and wet that year for the grapes to ripen and develop the flavours we expect to make world-class sparkling wine. It was difficult for us in a business sense, but we’ve never regretted that decision.
What’s the advantages of 100 per cent estate owned and grown grapes?
The meticulous attention to detail that can be achieved as a result. There are no conflicts of interest when it comes to motivations for what needs to be done in the vineyard to achieve what we need. Furthermore, the vineyard and winery teams are all part of the same company, and therefore all pulling in the same direction. And, as we gain deeper and deeper understanding of our vineyards, we can lay down long-term plans to get the best from our sites.
Have consumer expectations of good wine changed of late, and how?
More and more, the consumer demands provenance, traceability and transparency in food and that translates through into wine. Nyetimber very much leads the way in this manner in our philosophy to only use our own vineyards but even more. We pioneered the disclosure of the three critical winemaking dates for sparkling wine: Bottling, Riddling and Disgorging. Consumers have access to all three of these dates plus detailed blending information, which they can access by putting the lot codes found on our bottles into our website.
What drew you to England – other than Nyetimber?
There are many things I love about the UK as my father is British and I’ve had dual citizenship (British-Canadian) for as long as I can remember. You can’t beat the beautiful countryside here in Sussex, nor the gorgeous taste of fresh, British produce. England will always be considered home for us.
You talk a lot of perfectionism – were you born with it or has the job instilled it in you?
I think I was born with this. My parents certainly say I was always like this! There’s an extremely technical production process behind sparkling wine and it demands perfectionism to make something that competes on the international stage. The reason I love being a winemaker is because it combines my two passions of science and art, which require precision and creativity [respectively], so I have to allow for a certain extent of flexibility – although ultimately, yes, I have never compromised on quality and standards and I hope that has attributed to the success of the Nyetimber brand we know today.