Climate Change – A Silver Lining?

Climate change is a subject that’s been high on the public agenda over the last few months, especially if you’ve been trying to navigate around London during the protests.

According to NASA we’ve seen 17 of the warmest 18 years on record since 2001.  Following the unseasonably warm weather in April and May I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy at the prospect of a long hot summer, but in all seriousness, things are really heating up.

Alongside industries such as energy, fishing and even skiing, the production of agricultural crops, including the grapes destined to be turned in to wine, is poised to change dramatically, potentially to the point where we need to re-write the book.

Vines thrive the world-over where the climate meets their individual varietal characteristics.  A good example of the scale of change can be found in the revered French wine region of Burgundy. 

At a northerly latitude once deemed to be at the top end for successful grape production, the cool inland climate allows the thin-skinned Pinot Noir grape to perfectly ripen throughout the long warm summers without being scorched.  Even though the French don’t tend to varietally label their wines, it’s well known that the Pinot Noir grape is the heart and soul of the world-famous Burgundy.

What though if the climate gets too hot for this delicate grape?  Suddenly the entire profile of the wine would change as the vines were pulled up.  Hardier grapes from the warmer south of France would potentially need to be moved northwards as the temperature rises.  Could we be seeing Burgundy made from the spicier Grenache or Syrah varieties in the future?  It seems unbelievable, but that’s what some experts have said may happen in as little as 20 years time.

Alongside the warmer temperatures we are also seeing more and more evidence of volatile weather conditions hitting the vineyards.  The US has suffered devastating wildfires, sudden hailstorms have decimated the years-worth of work in minutes across France, Germany and Italy, whilst South Africa and Australia have suffered from severe droughts.

As something of a silver lining to the doom and gloom, we’re now seeing new wine regions appear in the land where it was once too cold to successfully produce well-ripened grapes.  The most obvious of these is our own home-grown wine industry which, thanks to rising temperatures, has turned from little more than a hobbyist activity to a serious world contender in roughly 25 years.

English wines have been served to royalty and heads of state, have taken off in the US, and go from strength to strength in wine competitions year after year.  If our world leaders continue to stall on addressing and tackling the seriousness of climate change, given that we now successfully compete with the quality of the Champagne region some 250 miles south of London, how long will it be before the south of England becomes the new Burgundy?

This article was originally published in the June 2019 edition of The Ocelot. For more of my articles, please click here.

Digby Fine English & Gurasu: Introducing the English Sparkling Wine Glass

I’m a big fan of stemware and devote much house space to carrying different glasses designed to enhance varying wine styles. Given the number of tie-ups that proliferate the wine world (I’m fresh from trying UB40’s Red Red Wine!?) I’m actually surprised that more wine critics haven’t jumped on the stemware bandwagon over the years.

Wine guru Jancis Robinson launched her new glassware a couple of months back. For those not familiar, Jancis has pared her range back to just one glass, suitable for all wine styles. The logic being that, whilst there are certain small fractions of extra pleasure that can be gleaned from style-specific glasses, the regular drinker has no space to store them all, and the proliferation of styles available means that wine begins to become a little less approachable.  All very true.

Digby Bottle

Shortly after I was interested to see negotiant Digby Fine English announced a new shaped glass, specifically designed to draw out the best qualities of English sparkling. Although English sparkling goes from strength to strength in terms of quality and renown, work continues to drive its identity (is it English sparkling, Merret, British fizz?). The clear visual identity of a bespoke glass is a logical step, but would it actually make a difference to the taste? I popped along to the launch to find out.

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Patrick Schmitt MW began by explaining that the launch was very timely, tying together two of the hottest wine trends at the moment: English wine and stemware. He likened the Digby concept to the well-publicised comments by Maggie Henriquez, CEO and president of Krug, who led the field in suggesting that Champagne should no longer be served in flutes. Arguing instead that the wider rim of a white wine glass would better release the full aromas and sensory potential, she said that drinking Champagne from flutes was akin to “going to a concert with ear plugs”.

Proceedings were then handed over to Trevor Clough, CEO of Digby, and Joanna Maya, the designer and owner of luxury crystal glass producer Gurasu. Trevor took the lead, explaining that the new design was 2.5 years in the making, being required to hit a number of touchpoints. For him, fine wine is all about the nose, the complexity, the personality, and what he described as “the length of the conversation”.

The grapes that Digby buy in all come from producers along the chalky south downs of Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset. Having a wide pick of grapes on chalk gives their wine fresh acidity and drive, and Trevor wanted this precision to be reflected in a modern, linear design, as well as being able to quickly express the complexities of the quality fruit.

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We were offered up their 2010 Vintage Brut in four different glasses: A flute, an ISO glass, a coupe, and the new Digby design. All of the wines had just been poured, and all at the same time (we were not told if all the flutes had been filled first, and the Digby’s last).

A couple of years back when there was a general shift away from the flute to serving Champagne in a white wine style glass, I made the transition and have never looked back. Here though, the flute was more like a test-tube, extremely thin and long. The wine never stood a chance.

Jumping forward to the coupe, there is a good reason that this was dropped as a sensible vessel for sparkling wine.  Swirling the liquid to aerate it is nigh on impossible without spilling, the nose of the wine was non-existent, and the journey of the bubbles was short and largely non-visual. Aside for one thumbs-up for the coupe on the grounds of ‘romance’, both the coupe and flute scored a monumental thumbs down from all present.

Here’s where it got a bit harder as, for me (and the general consensus), there was actually very little between the standard ISO wine tasting glass and the Digby. Both gave well on the nose and we could start appreciating the bready, toasty notes and citrus/orchard fruit. For me, the ISO filled out the palate making it feel fuller and rounder, whereas the Digby really lifted everything, making it smoother, softer and a lot more about the mousse.

With the flute and coupe almost out from the start, and feeling the odds had been somewhat stacked towards the Digby, I asked why we hadn’t had the opportunity to taste against a white wine glass, as per the Krug conversation. Apparently, this was considered but ultimately not run with. I wonder why?  In summary, there was a Digby difference but, I may err toward Jancis, in that it becomes fractions of extra pleasure.

Digby Glass

Clearly Digby and Gurasu have taken their time over the design, going through many iterations before hitting on the one that gave them the elegant, Georgian, classical style they are rightly proud of, but I was also interested to know if there had been any sort of ‘space-race’ to be first to market?

Trevor explained that, whilst they had worked on the project in something of a bubble, he was not aware of any other English producers who were doing a similar thing. He went on to say that, if any were and created a differing design, it would be welcomed so as the consumer could get the most from their wine.

Digby range

Available through the Digby website and via Harvey Nichols, a single glass is available for £32.50, or you can purchase two with a bottle of the Digby Vintage 2010 for £100. Each is handmade from lead-free crystal (the exact make up is a secret!), and is dishwasher safe.

With thanks to The Drinks Business for proving access to this masterclass.

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Wyfold English Sparkling: 2006 – 2009 Vertical Tasting

The multi-award winning English Sparkler Wyfold has just released its 2013 Vintage, and when the chance came up to taste the original trilogy of Vintages, including two never commercially released, I jumped at it.

Wyfold trilogy

Following the death of Formula One engineer Harvey Postlethwaite, his widow Cherry was keen to fulfil his vineyard-owning ambitions, and in 2003 she purchased land in the Chiltern Hills and planted 14 rows of vines.  Teaming up with best friend Barbara Laithwaite (Director of the eponymous wine mail order giant), both passed their viticultural qualifications at Plumpton College, and a new venture was born.

As a start-up winery with no onsite production facilities, this was given over to famed English producer Ridgeview who, in return for a sizeable portion of the crop, would turn the grapes in to a fully realised sparkling wine.  Both the 2006 and 2008 Vintages fell under this agreement and, as such, the final production numbers were too small to justify a release.

Wyfold is made in the traditional Champagne method using the classic grape varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  Of interest is the solid reliance on Pinot Meunier, sometimes considered the lesser Champagne variety.  Even though it forms just 16.5% of plantings, with the variable UK weather it can sometimes fare better than the Pinot Noir (33.5% of plantings).

In 2006 the number of vines was upped to 4,000, and increased once again in 2014, with 9,000 vines now spread over 2 hectares.

Vines3Wyfold (June 2017)

Following the two successful production runs (2007 was a write-off due to poor weather), fully contracted wine-making was put in place from the 2009 Vintage to ensure that all of the bottles produced would be labelled under the Wyfold name.

The resulting wine was quick to receive critical acclaim and won the prestigious Judgement of Parsons Green.  The subsequent releases of the 2010 / 2011 vintages have fared just as well, winning a succession of medals, trophies and high scores by esteemed wine magazine Decanter.

Wyfold Vineyard Brut 2006 (52% CH/32% PN/16% PM), Oxfordshire, UK, 12%, £N/A

Even though 2006 was a generously yielding year, due to the SWAP agreement the final number of bottles produced under the Wyfold name was just 576!  This first vintage is also unique in having a label that was thereafter discarded as being ‘too rustic’ to compare to other quality Sparkling/Champagne wines.

Wyfold 06 Label

Medium golden yellow in colour with rusty bronze tints and an extremely fine beading from the traditional production method.  On the nose there was mature, woody, bruised/baked golden delicious apple, a touch of dried lemon curd, cinnamon and biscuit.  This smelt just like an apple orchard in autumn.

The palate delivered upfront mousse that immediately frothed up, and a clean striking acidity laced with light refreshing lemon citrus and green apple.  The aged fruit complexity was there but it still managed to deliver youthful character and vibrancy.  Light as a feather but carries a huge creamy weight that fills the mouth. The syrupy bruised fruit finish was medium plus.  I’m a big fan of this ‘very-English’ tasting sparkling.

Wyfold Vineyard Brut 2008 (76% CH/9% PN/15% PM), Oxfordshire, UK, 12.5%, £Unreleased

Under the SWAP agreement, a mere 296 bottles of the 2008 were crafted.  Due to the minuscule production, bottles were adorned with standard labels as opposed to vintage specific ones, and the Vintage, although bottled, went undeclared and unreleased.

Wyfold 08 label

Medium straw yellow with golden hints and a fine bead, this is noticeably more youthful than the 2006.  The nose has bread, butter, honeyed citrus, yellow tropical fruit, and is much more in line with a traditional Champagne as opposed to English Sparkling.  The aromas are there but needed teasing out, and this still feels a little closed/restrained.

The palate once again had a vibrant fresh mousse and a good splash of fresh lemon juice.  This time around the apple played much less of a part.  The lighter mid-palate of the 2006 has really been filled out here, but overall, this is probably more singular in tone.

I asked Barbara Laithwaite as to where Wyfold was stylistically sitting in terms of England vs. Champagne and she said she is looking to balance the two.  The south facing gravel/limestone site is perfect for the Champagne style but, being fairly high at 120m altitude, you also get the late start/long season which encourages the hedgerow/apple orchard fruitiness.

The medium finish added a touch of syrup and the pleasant bitterness of grapefruit.  This one is only just starting to come in to its own and has a life ahead of it sadly only limited by the small number of bottles available.

Wyfold Vineyard Brut 2009 (63% CH/17% PN/20% PM), Oxfordshire, UK, 12.5%, £33

Now free of the SWAP agreement, the full run of 2,449 bottles were produced which, in the time between tasting the wine and writing up these notes, have now completely sold through.

Wyfold 09 label

Medium straw yellow in colour with golden tints, the nose was full of fresh zesty lemon citrus.

The lemon carries through to the palate which adds a bready richness, light white pepper spice, and the customary syrup to the end palate.  The overall sensation is rich and dairy, and the cream is just starting to settle in against the acidity which still characterises the palate.  As before this is a very even blend that fills the mouth.

Very quaffable and easy drinking, the medium length finish is all about the lemon, with just a touch of grapefruit bitterness at the end.  I have no doubt that this will settle further with time.  Overall this was a wonderful and rare tasting of the initial 3 productions from Wyfold showcasing a crystal clear evolution of labelling and style.

With the new plantings bedded down and a good sized 2014 harvest, a Rosé has now been added to the range.  Check out the latest news at the Wyfold website, or click here to buy the 2013 release (whilst stocks last).

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On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – Grape picking at the Queen’s private Vineyard

DSC_0007 (1)An autumn day blessed by gorgeous summer sun

Having children and living not too far from Windsor, a trip through Windsor Great Park on the way to Legoland is almost a certainty.

Early one Saturday in late September I was able to make an unusual turning off of my usual route and, by putting a special vineyard pass on to my car dashboard, pass through a set of unassuming white gates that, on any normal day, you could easily miss.

In rock-star terms what was actually happening was an ‘Access All Areas’ moment and the neon-jacketed walkie-talkie wielding guard waved me through to a private area within the parkland owned by the Queen, and on the periphery of her Windsor Castle residence.

DSC_0024 (1)Vines gently sloping down towards the water

Outside of Royal staff, access to the private area is very much by invitation only and, as a guest of Laithwaites, I was about to visit their hidden-away vineyard and pick the grapes of the 2017 harvest.

DSC_0012 (1)Helpful hints as to what grapes to pick and which to discard

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Leased from the Queen, Tony Laithwaite is now the man trusted to oversee the production of the Royal Sparkling wine and, with Tony being a Windsor native, it seems only right that he should do so.  The vineyard has been in existence since the 12th century, planted for Henry II during his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine, but with the location so remote it was no surprise to hear that during recent times the production of wine had stalled.

In 2011 the Crown Estate and Royal Farms allowed Tony to re-plant the vineyard to revive an almost 1,000 year old tradition.

DSC_0019 (1)Vineyard roses, used as an early warning sign for disease

My day was spent working with their Chardonnay vines (they also produce the classic Champagne varieties of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), picking the clean bunches and manually removing the compromised berries from bunches where rot or mildew had set in, so that only the best fruit remained.

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These were then collected up ready to be transported off to leading UK producer Ridgeview for processing as there are no on-site production facilities in Windsor.

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The first harvest of Great Windsor Park was the 2013, with the 4 hectare south facing plot yielding grapes to make just 3,000 bottles.  Released in 2016 with a good deal of hype surrounding both the resurgence of the vineyard as well as the Royal connection, all of the available bottles were snapped up straight away.

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The second vintage of the wine, the much anticipated 2014, is about to be released and on a break from the picking I was lucky enough to give it a try alongside Tony Laithwaite himself.  If the first release was characterised by crisp apple, peach stone fruit and a more delicate style, this second release has more body, weight and richer fruit tones, and feels like a real step forward.

DSC_0029Master of Wine and BBC’s Saturday Kitchen wine expert Peter Richards lends a hand

The grapes of the 2017 harvest will now undergo 3 years of ageing and finally hit the shelves (if the bottles don’t sell out straight away) in 2020.  I look forward to picking a bottle up as a fitting way to remember a great day.

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