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From Domesday to Now: Nyetimber
BY NEAL MARTIN | SEPTEMBER 02, 2021
When William the Conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxons, he must have looked around and wondered what in Christendom he had actually conquered. What was this land? What were its fixtures and fittings, exactly? What was it worth? After all, this island was so muddy and rainy, and the food so feckless and tasteless, that he might have flogged it to another European country that fancied some British real estate. So William ordered his minions to compile a register of land ownership that was completed in 1086 – the famous Domesday Book. Unfortunately, it does not offer information on the quality of local schools, but it does record some 45 vineyards clustered in southeast England, either introduced by Norman oenophiles or owned by the clergy. Viticulture prospered here for a few centuries, until the Brits accepted that the French made far superior wine and let them get on with it. We packed it in and focused on selling wine instead.
Fast-forward a few centuries to 1952, when the first commercial vines were planted in Hampshire, though due to our cool, damp climate, they were selected hybrids such as Seyval Blanc and German crosses such as Müller-Thurgau. Let’s be honest, our acidic green wines did not cause Krug or Taittinger to lose much sleep. Our wines suited our rubbish cuisine.
As any chef will tell you, you need quality ingredients to make a tasty dish, and our ingredients just did not cut it. Enter two Americans, Stuart and Sandy Moss, who saw the parallels between our white chalky soils and Champagne’s white chalky soils and thought: “Hang on a moment… Those Champagnes taste OK. Why don't we try using the same grape varieties?" So, in 1988, they planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in the lee of the South Downs. Inspired by the locale recorded as Nitimbreha in the Domesday Book, the Mosses named their estate Nyetimber. Guess what happened? The wine tasted delicious. It began winning awards and, would you Adam-and-Eve it, beating Champagne in blind tastings. And they have never looked back, give or take the occasional washed-out season.
Last August, I drove down to Nyetimber’s winery and spent a day with wife and husband Cherie Spriggs and Brad Greatrix, head winemaker and winemaker, respectively. After inspecting their nearby vineyard, we conducted a comprehensive vertical that included current releases and a look back to the wines from the Nineties.
There was nobody about due to COVID restrictions, but you can see how Nyetimber looks the part with its manicured gardens, water features and converted medieval barn, just part of the long-term renovations.
Cherie Spriggs & Brad Greatrix
“We are both from Canada,” Brad Greatrix explained. “Cherie is from Vancouver Island, and I’m from Ontario, just north of Toronto. We met over there as biochemistry undergraduates at Queens University with an interest in wine. We were thinking what we wanted to do career-wise, so we made a trip to Europe and visited Burgundy. We happened to be there in September, saw the harvest, got the bug and started thinking about winemaking. Initially we ended up doing master’s degrees in wine back in Vancouver… wearing lab coats and talking about trial fermentations. But what really caught our imagination was the production of wine. The sun on your back, the purple hands, the energy and excitement of harvest.”
“So we moved to Adelaide University to do the oenology post-graduate program, formerly the Roseworthy program, and then set off on a self-imposed internship, working for winemakers we admired. There is only so much you can learn from books. We scrubbed tanks, cleaned drains, all the menial jobs, just so we could be around these winemakers. This led to harvests in McClaren Vale doing part-time harvest work while we completed our studies, sometimes doing night shifts straight after lectures. We came back to North America to work in Oregon at Domaines Serene and Drouhin, then in the Hunter Valley for a large contract facility. We realized we wanted to work with fine wine, though working on an industrial scale enabled us to keep our feet grounded. I completed a harvest in Central Otago at Amisfield while Cherie was working at Carrick, and then while I did a season at Château Margaux in 2006, Cherie did a season at Avril Creek on Vancouver Island. That was a tiny place, and Cherie did all the processes herself.”
“After that, we felt we had to settle somewhere but struggled to find somewhere in Canada that wanted to do something special. We were bumping our heads against the wall. One day, I asked Cherie: If you could work anywhere, where would it be? She remembered tasting a bottle of Nyetimber a few years before. So when we got back from that walk, we sent an e-mail off to Nyetimber via their website. The message got passed to the owner, Eric Heerema, and he said that he was looking for people at that time. We had a phone call together very early in the morning and then two weeks after that, we started our first day at work. It was the right place at the right time.”
Eric Heerema purchased Nyetimber privately in 2006. Born to a Dutch family who made a fortune from shipping, Heerema sold his stake and moved to West Sussex, close to Goodwood, as he was fond of classic cars (according to an interview for Drinks Business magazine, he owned a Ferrari 250 GTO that sold for £27.8 million, a world record). Having gotten a taste for English fizz, Heerema converted some of his land to vines before acquiring Nyetimber. With just 16 hectares under vine, he invested considerable sums into the estate, expanding the total vineyard area to a considerable 260 hectares.
“We bonded over a determination that quality is above all else and a belief that the south of England is the best place to be making traditional-method sparkling wines,” Greatrix recalled. “In 2007, the industry was small, and even Nyetimber was a bit of a fixer-upper, a bit of a rough-cut diamond. Here we are 14–15 years later, the 30th vintage for Nyetimber, so half the vintages have been made by us.”
Head winemaker Cherie Spriggs and husband Brad Greatrix pictured in the vines in August 2020.
“The vineyard was planted on south-facing slopes in the South Downs in 1988,” Greatrix continued. “They are on chalk and green sand. The latter had a green tinge and is geologically older than chalk, rich in glauconite (a low-weathering iron potassium phyllosilicate that forms from marine deposits). There are six sites that are chalkier, and all the others are green sand. The vineyards are located in West Sussex, where the vines were planted in 2006 and 2007; Hampshire, planted in 2009; and Kent, the most recent planted in 2017. They are mostly planted on Gravsac rootstock.
“At that time [of the original planting in 1988], there was a headwind against classic grape varieties, and the emphasis was more toward those that were resistant to disease. Our first wine was the 1992 Blanc de Blancs that Nyetimber released four years later and that went on to win gold [at the IWC Wine Competition in the UK]. The big change came in 2006 when the estate was purchased by Eric Heerema, who could see its potential.”
“We own 11 vineyard sites that have all been planted by ourselves. There is the original site planted back in 1988 in West Chiltington by Stuart and Sandy Moss. The 10 additional sites were not previously vineyards, but they ticked all the boxes in terms of aspect, soil and so on. The broad overarching theme in terms of vineyard husbandry is a vine density between 4,500 and 5,000 vines per hectare and single- or double-Guyot pruning, though for that we lay the canes down in the same direction. What is really interesting about Nyetimber is our parcel-by-parcel approach – there is no formula across the sites. We examine the vigor of sites and use cover crops to reduce it where necessary.”
I inquired about their latest vineyard acquisition in Kent.
“Kent is still in early days,” Greatrix replied. “Last year was our first harvest from there and certainly it is very promising. It’s our first Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier coming off chalk sites, which will bring a new dimension to our wines. Our other chalk sites are in Hampshire (all Chardonnay) and a new one in West Sussex on the Downs, but that one isn’t productive yet. I’m looking forward to the next few years as the vines settle in.”
I was interested in whether Nyetimber has adopted organic or biodynamic approaches in the winery.
“We did have a seven-hectare trial of organically cultivated vines with a control block for several years that worked reasonably well with similar yields. But we found that in blind tastings, the organic [wine] came out as the second choice after conventionally cultivated vines. So we moved the trial to another area and started using biodynamics with a control. Viticulturally, it was far more challenging, but there was comparable quality of the wines. So it’s a question of how well biodynamic wines can fare in the English climate. It’s ongoing.”
“All fruit comes from our own vines. Anything with Nyetimber on the label is 100% from our vines, so production depends on the season. In 2012, it was so wet and cold that we did not harvest any fruit and either cut off or removed bunches during pruning and used them for compost.”
“One big change in terms of harvesting is that we were one of the first to go and taste the grapes at harvest. In our first vintage, we had a consultant who asked what we were doing when we went out to taste them, arguing that picking was based on sugar and acidity levels. But our strong belief is that flavors dictate everything, especially in a challenging and variable climate. You cannot rely on sugar and acidity levels to give you flavors and that is what you taste and enjoy. Also, in using the parcel-by-parcel approach, we taste grapes to inform us where there are differences between blocks or within the block due to undulations, so that we can harvest them separately. That has continued as we have grown. We use only three varieties but with all 11 sites in full production, we will have well over 100 base wines.”
The vines in the original vineyard planted in West Sussex in 1988.
In the Winery
One of the features of Nyetimber is their use of traditional Coquard presses. I wanted to find out more about their advantages and why sparkling winemakers covet them so dearly.
“We have five 8-ton Coquard presses and one 4-ton Coquard press. We also have a small press nearby, close to the Tillington vineyard, with three 8-ton presses, making nine in total. Up until 2007, everything was pressed using a Magnum bladder press. The Coquards were introduced in 2008. With new vineyards coming on stream in 2008, we went shopping around, and after extensive tastings, we settled on Coquard, the traditional wide and shallow basket presses used in Champagne.”
“The Coquard presses are specially adapted with an inclined plate [called pressoir à plateau incliné or PAI]. This is very gentle and low in solid pick-up. Sometimes the juice is so clear that it looks as if it has already been racked. It’s a simple principle. The original press, where the plate moves down, means that you can never get all of the juice out in one squeeze, therefore you have to mix up the skins and press again, usually using pitchforks. By moving the plate to a backward incline, the grapes lean at an angle. All you have to do is retract the plate so that the grapes slip down onto the floor, and when you press again, they buckle up into a new configuration, so that the mixing action is completely slow and gradual.”
Readers can see a useful animation of how it works here.
“When we used membrane presses and Coquard presses side by side in 2008, you could sort the juices just by looking at the solids. There is lower acidity in the membrane press, more elegance in the Coquard. So, we have only used these since the 2009 vintage. The other advantage is that the Coquard presses have a very large drainage surface area. The plate itself and the floor of the press are actually drain screens that allow the juice to escape easily. It’s like squeezing a bag full of water. The more holes you puncture the bag with, the less you have to squeeze the bag to empty it. The free-run juice comes by gravity and the early and late press gives more options for us to work with. The juice is settled into tank by gravity, which is better for the solids that don’t get beaten up and controls the phenolics.”
“We want the vineyards to shine through in our wines and make them distinctive. As I mentioned, we have this parcel-by-parcel approach and we tend to settle the juices clean at 100 NTU or less and build back texture with fermentation lees, since the juice lees can vary from season to season. Fermentation lees are a little more reliable. Almost everything, including our reserve wine, is fermented in stainless steel except for around 3% of the Blanc de Blancs, which is fermented in new oak barrels, and also the red wine used as a component for the rosé, which is matured in used Burgundy barrels for two or three months. We have a couple of cultured yeasts that we like, as they are quite neutral and high-performing. We ferment at a cool to moderate temperature, depending on the wine.”
“All the wines go through malolactic fermentation. From 1992 until 1998, all the wines went through full malo. The consultant at the time felt that in order to produce age-worthy wines, they need acidity, and so from 1999 to 2007 there was a kind of rule that Nyetimber should never go through malo. Cherie could not understand this. We were told there was a problem with doing malolactic in England. Some people thought there was a protein that prevented it! I think it was because there was lack of knowledge of how to do it. Anyway, that is what Cherie and I did when we made our first vintage. However, a blocked malo doesn’t seem logical in such a cool climate, certainly in most years. On our sites, the acidity can be too high and the wines can be interesting to taste but not interesting to drink. We want people to drink the entire bottle. In 2008 we had total acidity of 18g/L and so that rule went out the window and brought us back to doing full malolactic. Since then, the acidities have always warranted it.”
“We try to get the bacteria in as early as possible after the yeast goes in, as we like the style that a co-inoculation produces. After the malo is complete by the end of November, we allow the wines to naturally clarify, and start doing assessments in the New Year to decide what we might consider for the blending. During that time, we decide whether it should come off the lees or if it would benefit from a stir.”
The state-of-the-art winery at Nyetimber.
“There are no rules for aging. Generally, rosé tends to be two to three-and-a-half years, Classic Cuvée around three years, Blanc de Blancs four to five years on the lees, Tillington between three and five years, where we want to show the quality of the site though we don’t want to push the lees aging too far. Cuvée Cherie, our demi-sec, is just over three years, and “1086” is five to seven years or more. When the wine is bottled, we taste the cuvées every six months and decide the optimum point when they should be riddled, which is when most of the lees aging stops. We were the first to reveal via the website the bottling, riddling and disgorgement dates for each wine, which gives context to understand what is in your glass. An absolute minimum for post-disgorgement aging is three months – most are six months or longer if we think it will benefit, which is especially true for the “1086.” Since 2007, we want the dosage to sit in the background but want it to impart body, flavor and evolution, so the dosage is usually around 7.5 to 10g/L. We conduct trial disgorgements before making a decision and making the commercial disgorgement.”
“We are forever trying to move things forward. A major innovation is our use of nitrogen at bottling, which we don’t talk about often. Sparkling wine needs a yeast culture added just before bottling, the dogma being that in order to survive and thrive during bottle fermentation, the yeast needs a lot of air to do its job, and consequently, the wines got a lot of splashing and racking. But that’s not true. The point that the yeast needs oxygen is when the culture is growing up. It is not the wine that needs to be aerated. So, when we were considering introducing a bottling line in 2009, we asked the supplier to come up with a way they could inject nitrogen on the line as a way of lessening the oxidation that happens at the filling stage. The supplier tried to talk us out of it, warning that the yeasts would be starved of oxygen, but we were confident in our idea, and after a small-scale trial, we found it was successful and noticed a qualitative improvement in bottles flushed with nitrogen. This small step can put the wine on a completely different trajectory, often showing more freshness with time. It’s like aging a wine in larger format.”
The Market and the Future
“Around 15% of Nyetimber is exported and growing, a little behind other producers because we wanted to be cautious. It’s easy to make initial sales, but we want to find good partners and grow in an organic way. The United States, Scandinavia, Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong are all important markets. In 2020, restaurants were shut, so our on-trade sales went virtually to zero, but retail sales were up, not quite enough to offset the shortfall completely, but it softened the blow. Sales through the website increased dramatically. In the next 10 years, I think export is the future. In my first 5–7 years here, people I spoke to did not know that England made wine, but now everyday consumers are aware. So now it is convincing importing countries and convincing people on merit without that patriotic factor.”
Finally, I asked how the 2021 vintage was shaping up, given the rather gloomy, cool summer we are enduring at time of writing.
“The 2021 is tracking late, but continuously picking up ground,” he replied. “The benefit of the lateness is that we largely dodged the frost risk period, a perennial challenge in England, but then the trade-off is that harvest might run too late into October. But so far, we seem on a good track, similar to 2013 and 2015, which turned out well. It’s certainly a year where I’m glad we’re all estate-owned because in a challenging year, it’s a great advantage to not be dealing with someone who has a contract per ton.”
I should maybe start with the Brut Classic Cuvée, since I suspect this is many people’s entry point into Nyetimber. The blend is usually 55% to 65% Chardonnay, 30% to 40% Pinot Noir and 5% to 15% Pinot Meunier, sourced from their vineyards in West Sussex and Hampshire. Tasting three different disgorgements, I found them consistent, which is something that you want to aim for in a non-vintage cuvée where consumers need a rough idea of what they will find in the bottle. My pick was the 2016 disgorgement over the 2014 and 2020, the latter perhaps just showing a little more tropical fruit than I personally like, although that may well lend it wider commercial appeal.
I tasted a vertical of the Blanc de Blancs that also comes from West Sussex and Hampshire. Going back to their beginning, the 1992 Blanc de Blancs was a fascinating wine to taste as it was such a game-changer. This was a very limited disgorgement from February 2020 that is only poured at selective tastings at the estate. Greatrix told me that it had a slightly higher pH, as the French consultant at the time added “cream of tartar” during the cold stabilization process. If I am being brutally honest, I felt that it had seen better days, and this was reinforced by the excellent showing of the 1996 Blanc de Blancs. Maybe because this came from magnum, it exuded more freshness and more mineral tension than the 1992. If you find this, you will be in for a treat.
I was less charmed by the wines made in the period when Nyetimber eschewed malolactic fermentation. The 2001 and 2003 both felt a little one-dimensional by comparison, the former very shrill and the latter only slightly more balanced. Subsequent vintages showed much better when the wines were allowed to go through full malo, my pick being either the 2010 or 2014 Blanc de Blancs, which had wonderful salinity. Incidentally, in 2011 there was no Blancs de Blancs as yields were too low, and in 2012 there was no wine produced at all at Nyetimber due to the challenging growing season. With regard to the Brut Rosé, I tasted two recent disgorgements in 2019 and 2020 that were impressive, particularly the latter, which was blessed with wonderful tension on the finish.
Of the three vintages of Classic Cuvée, again, I felt that the 2006 and 2007 were hampered by the lack of malo, especially on the nose, although the 2010 is showing well, with more aromatic complexity and even a Blanc de Noirs character thanks to the 51% Pinot Noir in the blend, twice as much as earlier vintages.
The Tillington Single Vineyard cuvée is located near Petworth in West Sussex. It is not produced in every vintage, undergoes three years of lees aging and, unlike the “1086,” is not designed for longevity. “We want to capture the fruit profile that we find in the vineyard,” Greatrix explained. I tasted the maiden 2009 and 2010, my preference being for the former, which had a little more verve and precision. With regard to the “1086” cuvée, which comes from their vineyards in West Sussex, Greatrix told me: “We wanted to create a wine for the longer aging profile, five-plus years on the lees and the ability to do post-disgorgement aging. So we introduced a white and rosé version. It is a blend of the three noble varieties. We select the epitome of what we make.” Again, I loved the maiden 2009 “1086,” disgorged in October 2016, which was fragrant and slightly minty on the nose, the extended lees aging lending light brioche and chai notes on the finish. I can see this aging well in bottle. Of the two “1086 Rosés”, they were aging very close, but the 2010 has its nose out in front at the moment with a subtle fish scale scent, although the 2013 might surpass it with bottle age.
Nyetimber has certainly come a long way since those first vines were planted in 1988 and its owners were mocked for choosing varieties like Pinot Noir that could surely never ripen and would be susceptible to rot. Under Eric Heerema, it is clear that a great deal of investment has gone into the expansion of the vineyards and into the facilities. Take it from someone who has toured every state-of-the-art winery in Bordeaux, where no expense is spared: Nyetimber does not look out of place. In terms of brand perception, their marketing strategy means that it is the one English sparkling wine producer that people know for having been served in Downing Street and for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
With regard to the wines, there is a reassuring consistency through the range. Apart from older vintages where they stopped the malo, this is a producer that does not put a foot wrong. The flip side is that I would like to see Nyetimber throw a bit more caution to the wind and create sparkling wines with even greater edge and complexity, which might come through more single-vineyard bottlings. As English sparkling wines improve and producers become more competitive, the bar can and should be set higher, particularly if, as Greatrix said himself, the category is to compete on the global market without that patriotic advantage.
The Domesday book recorded 45 vineyards in 1086. How many there will be a millennium later?
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