When did English wine stop being something people joked about? When Nyetimber and Camel Valley beat Champagnes such as Bollinger and Roederer in the World Sparkling Wine Championships in Verona in 2010? When Taittinger announced it was buying land in Kent? Perhaps the proof is in the numbers – around £132 million was sold in the last 12 months from English vineyards, a figure that has trebled in the last five years albeit from a small base. At Indigo we’ve had our eyes open looking for an English sparkler which really floats our boat for a while and with Hoffmann & Rathbone we think we’ve found it! They make distinctive wines with real finesse, delicious to drink now but with clear ageing potential.
We took a trip down to Sussex last week to meet Ulrich the winemaker at Hoffmann & Rathbone, to get the full story and try his wines in situ. Their small winery it located just outside the lush village of Mountfield a stone’s throw from Battle (of Hastings fame). We received a warm welcome from Uli, marketing manager Mel and Pepper the vineyard dog, plus a glass of Uli’s zesty Bacchus while he gave us a bit of background about the project. The winery was founded in 2009 by Ulrich Hoffmann and his wife Birgit Rathbone – Ulrich has been a winemaker and consultant for over 15 years, previously working in top estates in Baden-Württemberg, Bordeaux, Navarra, and Napa, and he might have continued on his travels had he not fallen in love with both the Sussex countryside and Birgit! Together they have created a boutique business that is exclusively focused on quality. Their ethos is that the perfect sparkling wine cannot be rushed, all their wines spend at least three years maturing in bottle on lees, some longer, and nothing is released until it is ready.
Tasting the 2013 Classic Cuvée in the tank room. Barriques are used to ferment a proportion of the Chardonnay.
First stop was the tank room, as with most quality sparkling winemakers they press gently in stages using a pneumatic press. They keep all the pressings and parcels separate during fermentation to give them the maximum flexibility when it comes to blending. Fermentation is at a relatively cool 15 degrees, using yeast strains suited to sparkling wines and aromatic yeasts for the Pinot Noir. He doesn’t use wild yeasts which he feels are too much of a risk for sparkling wine. Some of the tanks undergo malo, this is on a case by case basis, depending on the freshness of the year and balance of each tank. Wines are bottled for the second fermentation in January or February.
We tasted the 2013 Classic Cuvée a blend of 60% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Meunier. It has a rich honeysuckle nose and a mouthwatering elderflower freshness with ripe fresh pineapple in the mouth. The dosage is just 7-8g/l and the wine has a beautiful balance of acidity and texture. It spends three years on lees. Ulrich says “Long aging is key to managing the acidity in English wines.” Time on lees softens and changes the character of the acidity.
We then moved into the barrel room, a small percentage of the Chardonnay is fermented in barriques. Here we had a sneak peek on the 2011 Blanc de Blanc, which hasn’t been disgorged yet. It already has a lovely stone fruit richness and some florals on the nose. In the mouth you get wonderful balance of honey and citrus and a touch of chalkiness. Talking of chalk we asked Uli his thoughts on the importance of soils and terroir for English wines, and the oft quoted continuation of Champagne’s famous chalk ridge. “The micro-climates are crazy in the UK” Uli looks at vineyard positioning, slopes and aspect as much as he looks at terroir, as this can make a real difference in Sussex.
After a quick stop into the bottling room we headed out into the fresh air and across the fields to see how the vines were getting on. Hoffmann & Rathbone don’t own their own vineyards at the moment, but work with four sites in the area, one of which is handily right next to the winery. At the top of the east facing slopes you can find Chardonnay, and towards the bottom and on the flat some Pinot Noir. A lot of local vineyards, as with many across Europe, were badly hit by the late frosts this spring, luckily this site had only lost around 20% of the potential crop. The grapes were looking healthy and the Pinot was just beginning veraison. Pests and disease are a constant challenge in the UK, the vineyard is surrounded by a high fence – not to keep people out but hungry local deer. They also plant between rows to soak up some of the plentiful rain. In this bucolic setting Uli cracked open the Rosé Réserve 2011 – a soft salmon pink with a gentle mousse. The rosé is 85% Pinot Noir and 15% Chardonnay and shows all the strawberry and red berry fruit you’d expect from a Pinot dominated blend. On the palate it is bright with a fresh finish, this is a serious food wine with the stuffing to stand up to all sorts of dishes, but more on this later.
After all these delicious aperitifs we were starting to feel a bit peckish. So it was time to head to stylish local gastro-pub The Curlew. What better to match with English fizz than their inventive modern British cuisine. The freshness of the Rosé Réserve was the perfect partner to an elegant starter of ballotine ham hock with compressed apple, soft boiled quails egg and lovage mayo. The Classic Cuvée paired wonderfully with a rich main course of halibut, charred leek, sweetcorn puree and clams. And the discovery of the meal was how amazingly well the Rosé paired with dessert of chocolate brownie, hazelnuts and pickled blackberries – a truly surprising match and proof of the versatility and palette of flavours in the wine.
Veraison starting in the Pinot Noir vines. Chocolate brownie with pickled blackberries, yummy! The Curlew in Bodiam.
One last question for Uli – why had he settled in the UK to make wine? “It’s a young industry here and you really have room to make your mark. The energy and excitement is almost akin to the craft beer scene”. We for one are certain Hoffmann & Rathbone – rising stars in the English wine scene are destined to make a very big impression indeed. The Classic Cuvee 2011 and Rose Reserve 2013 are now in stock, they’ll be on our table at Dirty Dozen on 19th September – click here for details.