It’s hard to predict how climate change will alter the global winemaking map, but the United Kingdom’s largest sparkling wine producer is not wasting any time making the most of its natural advantages

While the Nyetimber estate in West Sussex can be traced back to the Domesday Book of 1086, almost 1,000 years ago, the first vines were only planted some 900 years later, in 1988. That said, its current owner Eric Heerema, who took over in 2006, and the talented winemaking couple of head winemaker Cherie Spriggs and winemaker Brad Greatrix he had recruited, are now realising a shared vision of crafting the finest English sparkling wines they’ve always believed the estate can produce.

Made using estate-grown Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, it also took a unique approach to blending the varied qualities each block boasts to achieve the bright and elegantly complex wines Nyetimber is now known to make, be it its Classic Cuvee, Blanc de Blancs or its textured and generous Rosé. “We own all our vineyards, and to take advantage of that, we need to understand the nuance that all of our fields and all of our blocks provide,” Greatrix tells T.Dining Singapore during a visit to the estate in October to mark its 2019 harvest.

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“For any batch of grapes that gives us a distinct flavour—and that could be a technical reason, like a clone or a rootstock, or it could just be that we know that the top of the slope gives a different characteristic from those at the bottom of slope, those get picked separately.” As such, while Nyetimber's portfolio has only a handful of wines, at harvest, the estate produces around 100 of these “different wines” that Spriggs and Greatrix work with.

The current harvest was a generous one, says Greatrix, and the team hopes to produce as many as a million bottles. This is not as many as they were able to do last year (2018), but the fact is that Nyetimber aims to only produce wines when the harvest is good.

In doing so, the house has garnered much acclaim in a relatively short number of years. And while the issue of global warming has certainly impacted much of the global production of sparkling wines—most notably in Champagne, France—the effects on the vineyards in this part of the UK are quite different for a number of reasons.

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For starters, there’s been greater variability over the years, Greatrix shares, noting a similarly slow and steady climb in the average temperature. “So, in 2012, for example, we didn't make any wine because it was too cold, too wet,” he explains. This he admits can be blamed on global warming, but he is more concerned with the volatility that climate change brings, “because it's not that it's getting warmer and always easier for us”, he adds. “Spring frost seems to come around a lot more often; in 2016 and 2017 we lost more than half our crop to spring frost.”

Harvest dates are coming slightly earlier, and the team is still having a tough time achieving optimum results and yield. “We started on October 5 this year, and there was not a lot of daylight,” Greatrix explains. "But it’s not very warm in October in England; so, if you don't achieve the ripeness you require by now, there’s not a lot you can gain.”

Thankfully, the harvest was largely unaffected by touches of spring frost, shares Spriggs. This, she adds, was followed by "a moderately warm, if at times wet, summer—all ‘typical’ factors in the UK which have previously resulted in great wines from years like 2009". 

The team is constantly working on a knife’s edge, but things seem to be working out so far, as the grapes, Greatrix affirms, seem to thrive for sparkling wine here. This confidence is reflected in the brand’s fast-growing acquisition of prime property to plant vines.  

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Looking Up In The South Downs

Today, Nyetimber plants more than most in the UK, says brand ambassador Steffan Griffiths, from 14 hectares when Heerema took over to today’s total of 280 hectares. This year, they’ve picked from 214 hectares of vines. The average production at the moment is about 500,000 bottles (a year) but "last year we did just over a million bottles, which is a lot more than we've ever done", he shares, before pointing out 2017’s “very bad” harvest that saw production fall to around 350,000 bottles. “It’s been very up and down in terms of quantity but it’s because we’re very picky about what we use,” Griffiths confesses.

He goes on to concur that the advantage is somewhat shifting, as the Champagne region continues to struggle with climate change. “But it's not as if every year [Sussex] is becoming more and more for like the Bahamas,” he quipped, reiterating how climate change has in fact made the weather in the UK more unpredictable.

“One of our best vintages ever was 2009,” he notes as a good example. “And you talk to people about the quality of the vintage and the style of the wine and they’d say, ‘Oh, it must have been a really hot year’—but it wasn’t.

“It was quite a dry year but the temperature was normal, and yet we made some of our best wines that year, which proves that we don’t need to have warm temperatures to make great wine,” he posits.

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The key advantages of the area include the fact that the West Sussex microclimate is one of two in the UK that gets the most exposure to the sun (the other is the Isle of Wight). So, all of Nyetimber’s vineyards are south facing, making sure they’re get the best possible exposure to the sun.

Of course, many pundits would add that its soil—a combination of greensand and chalk—is the next most important aspect; both of these soil types, he explains, are very well suited to growing vines.

“We don't find that there’s a sort of qualitative difference between them, but there is a little bit of a stylistic difference,” Griffiths declares. The other notable fact about the land is that it stretches south, under the sea and all the way to the north of France, specifically the feted Champagne region. But really, it is West Sussex’s unique microclimate—a valley protected by the South Downs and North Downs (the latter is a ridge of chalk hills in the southeast)—that contribute most significantly to Nyetimber’s success.

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“You have to find these microclimates … and that's why we've been expanding so much recently; we want to be the ones to find these sites, these untapped and dare I say ‘Grand Cru’ vineyards of England before anybody else gets there,” Griffiths says. “And we've got stiff competition now from other English producers, but also from people around the world.

“I mean, we've got Champagne producers moving into the UK; Taittinger planted vines in Kent a couple of years ago, and Pommery have planted vines in Hampshire—they've already released a wine actually, made with fruit they bought from a Hampshire producer. It's great, it means that people are taking the viticulture of England seriously and realising the potential that we have here.”

No surprise then that Nyetimber is now the largest English sparkling wine producer and the only producer to own vineyards across three counties of southern England.

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