Grape & Grain
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The British sparkling wine on Bordeaux menus, and how Brexit could boost sales

The pound’s fall as a result of Britain’s vote to leave the EU has pushed up costs for the country’s wine industry but made its exports more competitive, a leading producer says. We pick three English sparklers to try

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 July, 2016, 8:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 July, 2016, 5:12pm

Sitting at a large wooden table under the shade of a sturdy oak, with views across gently sloped vineyards bathed in late afternoon sunshine, it’s hard to believe that the fledgling UK wine industry is facing stormy waters as a result of the Brexit vote three weeks ago.

These are ancient hills, south facing along the Kent escarpment of Appledore just 10km from England’s south coast. There have been battles fought here before – against Danish invaders in the 9th century, a French insurgency in 1380. Things had been smoother recently, at least until the morning of June 24, 2016.

English wines' time to shine

Ashford International station, where Eurostar trains leave regularly for Paris and Brussels, is a 15-minute drive away, a pointed reminder that this part of England has always been linked, symbolically and nowadays physically, with the European mainland.

“We work regularly with suppliers in France and Germany,” owner Andrew Weeber says as we sip the 2010 Brut Reserve of his Gusbourne Estate along with an assortment of English goats’ cheese, cheddar and a beautiful crumbly blue. “It means that overnight the cost of many of our purchases, from tractors to young vine plants, rose 10 per cent due to currency fluctuations. But at the same time a falling pound makes us hugely competitive as exporters on the international market, and the whole thing should concentrate government attention on protecting the UK wine industry that has so far developed without the use of extensive EU grants, but also without much direct help from politicians.”

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They are well placed to withstand shocks at Gusbourne. Since Weeber released his inaugural vintage of just 6,000 bottles in 2006, this estate has been leading the charge for English sparkling wine, winning a clutch of medals, including IWSC English Wine Producer of the Year in 2013. Production levels vary year on year due to the fickle English climate, but they are starting to reach a healthy 60,000 bottles per year.

The ambition is clear. About 40 hectares of the stunning 200-hectare Gusbourne Estate are planted with Champagne and Burgundy clones of the classic champagne grapes of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. These are planted almost entirely on south-facing slopes that allow a relatively dry and sunny environment, with ocean breezes keeping air moving and allowing a drying out of the grapes if necessary.

Two years ago, Weeber secured a further 21 hectares of chalky soils in West Sussex as a counterbalance to the clay and sandy loam soils here. In total, this will make Gusbourne one of the biggest wine producers in the country – a fact reflected in its London Stock Exchange listing.

And while it might have taken some time, sommeliers worldwide are starting to sit up and notice the potential of these wines. Today about 70 per cent of Gusbourne gets distributed through high-end restaurants and bars in London and New York, and you’ll find it on wine lists in France also – not only in Paris but perhaps more surprisingly, Bordeaux. It is one of a new breed of dynamic English sparkling-wine producers such as Nyetimber Estates, Ridgeview, Coates and Seely, Chapel Down and Camel Valley that are increasingly confident in their production.

“We’ve gone past the stage of comparing our wines with champagne,” winemaker Charlie Holland says. “Today we are doing our own thing, adapting the traditional rules to our own local climate. It’s an exciting stage in English winemaking, as we are beginning to experiment with which parameters work best for us, from barrel ageing to lees stirring to dosage levels for the secondary fermentation. It’s all a sign of an industry that is growing up fast.”

Sparkling wine production now accounts for about two-thirds of all UK wine production, with sales standing at about £100 million (HK$1 billion) per year. This remains a tiny fraction of the value of UK wine consumption, but the potential is huge. So is there a possibility that Brexit might have a positive impact on this industry if a lower pound spreads its success overseas? Only if, surely, new trading agreements are swiftly reached. But there is one good sign – both Ridgeview and Chapel Down were last month named as official suppliers to 10 Downing Street, so perhaps we can expect a post-Brexit government to push hard to develop a home-grown wine industry that just dispel some of the national gloom.

Wines to Try

Gusbourne Brut Reserve 2012

This is bright and lean – a perfect aperitif-style. From a blend of 42 per cent chardonnay, with the rest evenly split between pinot noir and meunier. Elegant, fresh, elderflower and rosehips, lovely mouth-watering quality on the finish. 12 per cent abv.

Gusbourne 2009 Brut Reserve, Late Disgorged

With six years on the lees, this displays a biscuity, nougat palate, with the touch of salinity that is a classic signature of this estate. Creamy and rich, more vinous than the 2012, with a toasty edge. Excellent ageing potential. 12.3 per cent abv.

Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2010

A warm year gave beautiful ripeness to the grapes but even with seven grams per litre dosage, the acidity levels that are a signature of English sparkling keep this liltingly fresh. This is charming, with a mineral edge. Excellent balance, a lovely example of what English sparkling wine can achieve. 11.9 per cent abv.