My good friend Pierre Emanuel Taittinger has decided to buy a tract of Kentish orchard, grub it up, plant vines and join the Gadarene rush into the English industry. And if he’s prepared to put his name to a drop of vin d’Albion, we really must be doing something right.
But by the time he's planted his vines, tended them, harvested the grapes and set the juice fermenting, he'll have a job catching Nyetimber, Britain's vey own grand cru, which has deservedly been turning the heads and tastebuds of the world's fiercest wine critics.
I recently went to a tasting of Nyetimber, curated by its chief wine maker Cherie Spriggs. It was only there that I realised what a truly excellent wine producer has grown up in our midst. What's more, she’s managed to craft wines that have a distinctive English character, rather than just aping their grander French counterparts.
These are wines of exceptional finesse, from the entry level Classic Cuvée to the Blanc de Blancs and single vineyard wines that are made to compete at the highest level in the international wine world. They have light initial flavours of apple blossom and elderflower, and the best show a pleasing minerality and a biscuit finish. They’re redolent of the rain-washed, sun dappled Sussex Downs.
Spriggs says she finds Chardonnay the hardest grape to grow and ripen in our Northern climate, rather than the notoriously heartbreaking Pinot Noir. She’s a long-term fan of Nyetimber; when she was still living in her native Canada, where she studied viticulture, her father asked her what she’d like him to bring back from a business trip: “A bottle of Nyetimber,” she replied. Even back in the late 80s, this small producer’s reputation was spreading. “When I tasted it I realised it was special,” she says. “This was a wine with the finesse of champagne but with real potential to have its own character.”
Soon after she and her husband were debating where they should work. “We moved on from the jobs we know were available to talking about the places we really wanted to work. And that led us here.”
Spriggs has formed a strong partnership with Nyetimber owner Eric Hereema, whose patience and deep pockets have enabled it to flourish. Hereema is nothing if not ambitious: Nyetimber recently bought an entire 108 acre golf course near Pulborough and will soon turn it over to vines. That will expand its estate to more than 500 acres – not a small spread for any winemaker. Nyetimber has no interest in being an English novelty wine, it wants to take on the world's best.
That makes its latest release, the 2009 Blanc de Blancs, even more significant. It is a statement wine; 2009 was one of those rare years in Sussex when the sun shone, the grapes grew and the harvest was abundant. This Chardonnay has matured in barrel and bottle for seven years and been carefully blended to the specifications of Spriggs' exacting palate.
At £32 a bottle (£192 for six, duty paid) from Lay & Wheeler, it’s not cheap. But compared with the £100 prices for the best Grand Marques from that other chalky region south east of Paris, I reckon it is a bit of a bargain. For less special occasions, there’s the Classic Cuvée (which will soon become a non vintage to enable Nyetimber to maintain quality and consistency) which you can find for around £20 a bottle.