Vineyards of Hampshire 5th Wine Festival & Cottonworth Vineyard Tour

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The 5th annual ‘Vineyards of Hampshire’ wine festival was held recently and, welcoming the opportunity to try a whole host of local wines not too far from my doorstep, I popped along.

‘Vineyards of Hampshire’ is an umbrella name for 8 producers:   Danebury, Exton Park, Cottonworth, Hambledon, Hattingley Valley, Jenkyn Place, Meonhill and Raimes.  With each site taking it in turn to play host, the festivities this time were held at the Decanter and IWSC award-winning Cottonworth Vineyard, located in the heart of the Test Valley.

The wineries, alongside a line-up of local food producers, were set up in a marquee surrounded by the delightful installation of a vine maze.  Especially planted at the site as a focal point for events, the circular maze has some light-hearted obstacles to keep you searching for the exit, or perhaps to keep you trapped within with a glass of something nice.

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I wasn’t able to spend too long investigating though as, true to form, the late July weather was marked with grey clouds and some very heavy downpours.  This forced pretty much all of the attendees in to the central marquee causing much difficulty when trying to spend some quality time with each producer.  The deep queues also made further sense when I heard our host saying that attendance this year was something like 50% increased on last year.

Breaking free of the festival crowd I took a tour of the site with owner Hugh Liddell, who came across not just as knowledgeable, but also incredibly passionate about the vines and land itself.

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Having started out in the vineyards of Burgundy, his own personal winemaking philosophy is based around an intense relationship with the land.  Multiple times in conversation he was keen to point out how he aimed to harness and celebrate the chalky aspects of his south facing slopes.

A humorous moment came as he described the effect of the free-draining chalk soil on the vine roots, leaving them ‘stressed’ and searching for nutrients.  He mused that, like the best artists and poets, this stress brought about the best results.  Later on at the festival we were able to taste his Classic Cuvée and Rosé and both were notable for their pale colouring and soft and uplifting qualities on the palate.

With a terroir reminiscent of the Cóte des Blancs, Cottonworth are naturally growing the 3 classic Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier along with a tiny amount of Pinot Précoce.  Since the first plantings went in to the ground just over a decade ago they have been carving out their own corner of the growing UK sparkling wine market.

Forming part of the larger family farm, the grazing land once used for cows has been transformed plot by plot.  Covering some 30 acres, Hugh has specifically chosen individual sites where he believes the grapes will grow to the best of their ability.

We discussed the recent frosts that hit the UK (as well as many of the grape growing parts of northern Europe) and Cottonworth was badly affected, losing between 50-70% of their crop dependent on the plot.  Whilst they don’t currently produce a Vintage wine, 2017 will see them dipping in to their wine reserves to maintain a decent level of bottles available to market.

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The badly hit 2017 harvest wasn’t Hugh’s first brush with frost and the crippling crop losses that can occur.  He explained that the family had sold off some of their land to well-known UK producer Nyetimber allowing him to buy two vineyards in Beaune, France, taking him back to his winemaking beginnings.

The first year they suffered 90% crop losses due to frost and, adamant that the same thing wouldn’t happen again, worked in collaboration with other local vintners to burn wet bales of hay to form a protective layer of smoke above the vines.  Hugh recalled how the widespread smoke made it almost impossible to breathe in the vineyards, but the vines remained safe!

The conversation then moved on to pruning which, as a grower of vines myself, I found extremely interesting.  Hearing his views on how best to trim, canopy manage and prepare the vines for the following year will definitely affect how I look after mine.

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Following the tour it was then back to the festival to try some more wine, and thankfully the sun had appeared meaning that there was a bit more space to manoeuvre around the stands.  All in all, this was a very interesting and informative event, and I look forward to returning in 2018 to see who the next host will be.

Technical Info

Cottonworth Classic Cuvée NV – 45% Chardonnay / 46% Pinot Noir / 9% Pinot Meunier, Alc 12.5%, Dosage – 6g/l, RRP £28

Cottonworth Sparkling Rosé – 43% Pinot Meunier / 32% Pinot Noir / 18% Chardonnay / 7% Pinot Précoce, Alc 12%, Dosage 9g/l, RRP £30

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Wyfold Vineyard Visit – June 2017

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I recently had the pleasure of doing a little working stint at Oxfordshire based Wyfold Vineyard, helping to re-trellis just a few of their 9000 vines as they look towards their summer growth spurt.

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Not open to the public, and well hidden-away down some very tiny country lanes, the two hectare Wyfold site is part of the empire of Barbara and Tony Laithwaite, the couple behind leading mail order wine merchant Laithwaites.

Roots and Soil

Planted in the early part of the century on stone and gravel soils at an altitude of 100 metres, the cool climate site is home to just the classic Champagne grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier).

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Used to create an exceptional multi-award winning sparkling wine since 2009, the range has now expanded to add a sparkling Rosé from the 2014 vintage for the first time.

Son Henry Laithwaite now runs the show on a daily basis alongside his business partner Ben Postlethwaite and all were present on the day to guide us through our tasks which, on the page, didn’t sound too taxing.

Merely being required to adjust several different trellis wire heights to direct the vines skyward, the generous springtime summer sun heat was both a blessing and a curse.

Like most vineyard work in the UK, payment came at the end in the form of a wonderful home-cooked meal supported by copious amounts of wine.

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In addition there was the provision of musical entertainment in the form of ukulele based band Pure Fluke as well as the genial conversation of vineyard friends both old and new.

The Band

To top it all off we were basking in the late eveing sun in the lovely surrounds of a vineyard, and any heat fatigue and other aches and pains instantly disappeared.  All in all this was an insightful and rare visit to a vineyard not readily accessible, and another chance to directly help towards the success of English wine.

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With thanks to Laithwaites for arranging this vineyard visit.

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Pol Roger Champagne Masterclass (Part 3)

Presented here are the second half of my tasting notes from the recent Pol Roger masterclass in London, presented by 5th generation family member Hubert de Billy and managing director of the Pol Roger portfolio, John Simpson MW.

A few notes on the wines:  Pol Roger had been using concrete vats since 1930, introducing cask barrels in 1975.  Stainless steel came in to play in 1985 and their entire operation moved to steel in 2012.

Vintage Pol Roger is a blend of 30-40 villages.  They have 92 hectares of their own, but have access to 33,200 hectares in total.   They have stated that they will happily buy up any adjoining land to their vineyards that comes up for sale but, as the average cost of a hectare of land is 1.4 million euro’s, they are sometimes adding plots the size of an average UK back garden.

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Pol Roger Brut 1999

This wine is the colour of dark hay but carries with it a lovely golden rim.  The nose is dense with a good intensity and leaves a full and rich impression.  This begins with dried yellow fruits, honey and light brioche, and moves in to darker tones of old wood and candied burnt sugar.  The palate manages to retain vibrancy whilst showing the signs of good ageing.  A mellow acid glides you through burnt toast, herbaceous notes and a clear biscuit character.  These give way to dried apricot and pineapple, and a clear long finish extremely reminiscent of toffee.  This is a well-structured wine which wasn’t hugely respected at the time (coming straight after the great 1998 and just prior to the millennial vintage), and is ready for drinking now (although will last for a further 20 years).  For me, it was probably the highlight of this masterclass.  Wonderful stuff.

Pol Roger Brut 1996

I may have been imagining it but there were almost hints of red in the dark gold colour of this wine.  A distinct ‘high’ nose spoke of a wine just starting to oxidise and tire, it gave off touches of wet undergrowth, leather and coffee.  The nose was also distinctly yeasty (it took me right back to visiting the Guinness factory in Dublin).  The palate was still vibrant although also showing age with over-ripe and dried yellow fruit, a light tannin and slightly cloying candied sugar.  Dark and brooding with coffee and nuts, a light cream and the persisting acid mean that it is an austere wine that can still give pleasure, but needs drinking up soon.

Pol Roger Rosé 2006

This was the dark colour of wild salmon, but the nose was light, floral and expressive, with red cherry and smoky, savoury characters.  The cherry leads the palate, followed up by strawberries and cream.  There’s a clean medium acid running throughout which glides you through some smoky characters and just takes the edge off the underlying sweetness of the wine.

Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2004

Released this year, this grand cuvée is deep golden yellow in colour.  The nose gives off fresh citrus lemons and ripe yellow melon before heading off in to sweet coffee and rich cream, toast and a popcorn-like buttery character.  There was also some fleshy green apple and pips hidden amongst the darker notes.  The palate is dense, nutty (certainly walnuts), ground coffee, savoury (some cheese), with sweet spice and mellow acid.  A lovely long finish, and somehow ‘golden’ in taste.

Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2000

Even darker gold in colour than the 2004, this wine also has amber hints to it.  The nose begins with stewed green fruit, and a slight oxidised character.  The herbaceous, sweet woody notes tell you that this is a wine that has seen some good ageing.  The palate is full and round, very dense and very creamy.  Guided with a medium acidity, the lemon citrus and apple flesh lead on to dried pineapple, peach skin, milky coffee, and nuts.  Despite these later darker tones the wine retains a vibrant and refreshing mousse and is a juxtaposition of light and dark.  Wonderful for drinking now or keeping.

These tasting notes round out my blog on what was an extremely pleasurable and memorable event.  The first part of my tasting notes from this event can be found here.

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Pol Roger Champagne Masterclass (Part 2)

Presented here are the first half of my tasting notes from the recent Pol Roger masterclass in London, presented by 5th generation family member Hubert de Billy and managing director of the Pol Roger portfolio, John Simpson MW.

A few notes on the wines:  Pol Roger had been using concrete vats since 1930, introducing cask barrels in 1975.  Stainless steel came in to play in 1985 and their entire operation moved to steel in 2012.

Vintage Pol Roger is a blend of 30-40 villages.  They have 92 hectares of their own, but have access to 33,200 hectares in total.   They have stated that they will happily buy up any adjoining land to their vineyards that comes up for sale but, as the average cost of a hectare of land is 1.4 million euro’s, they are sometimes adding plots the size of an average UK back garden.

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Pol Roger Pure Non-Vintage

The ‘Pure’ release has no dosage added to it, meaning that no final sugar mix is added and it is extremely dry in character.  This non-vintage (and the Brut release below) is an even split of the 3 Champagne grape varieties (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier), and hail from between 60-70 different villages.  The colour is a clean youthful lemon, and the citrus carries on to the nose where it is joined by yellow tropical notes.  The body of the wine is light and airy, crisp and linear with just a touch of cream.  The palate is equally light and airy with the lemon notes coming to the fore.  Without the sugar, this is indeed a pure wine that allows you to detect even the smallest of traits, and I can just detect subtle red fruit characters from the pinot noir that would usually get lost.  The downside is that, without the sugar, the acidity is extremely noticeable.  Whilst it has a good length it is fairly one-dimensional (and tasted extremely thin after tasting the Brut).

Pol Roger Brut Reserve Non-Vintage

Like the Pure before it, this wine has been aged for four and a half years instead of the required three years to ensure that, even at NV level there is some complexity.  The blend here is therefore comprised mainly of reserve wines from the 2010 vintage, with both 2009 and 2008 also included to round it out.  The Brut has additional colour to it, adding gold tones in to the lemon yellow.  On the nose you can sense immediately that it is denser and richer (especially so for an NV Champagne), and you get the stalwart characters of honey, bread and cream.  The palate is much rounder than the Pure, giving you a creamy full mouthfeel.  Vanilla, toast and nuttiness are detectable as well as preserved lemon and cream.  The acid is much more restrained and integrated here.

Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs 2008

Encouraging us to commit this wine to memory we were told that there are now no longer any bottles of the 2008 left for sale (these bottles had been especially partitioned for the tasting).  Pol Roger make very little Blanc de Blancs and the grapes all come exclusively from Grand Cru vineyards.  The nose was floral and rich with discernible vanilla nestling alongside the lemon and tropics.  There was also hints of smokiness.  The character of the wine is very light, but the body is weightier and adds peaches and apricot to the citrus cream.  Delicate with lots more peach in the finish.  This wine needs 10-15 years to reach its full potential.

Pol Roger Brut 2006

Released just a month ago, this vintage needs 10-12 years to mature fully.  There are gold hints in the lemon colour.  The nose is extremely distinctive, expressive and intense, with nuts, dried honey and dried yellow melon coming through clearly, followed by toasty notes.  Conversely the palate is light and airy and, although still quite closed, you can detect the citrus developing in to broodier characters with touches of smoke.  Whilst vibrant and quaffable, this will need time to open up fully to show its true character.

Pol Roger Brut 2004

Like the 2006, this wine shows gold in its lemon colouring and has a distinctive nose, this time moving towards dense wood and oak.  Behind this you get preserved lemon and fruit, candy spice, violets, and floral spices.  The palate is rich with cream and butter characters, and there are touches of nut and toast, but the sum total isn’t as dense as the nose would lead you to believe.  The palate almost needs to catch up with what the nose offers, and needs 10-12 years to develop fully.

The second part of my tasting notes from this event can be found here.

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