Our sparkling wine is exceptional, and it’s all down to the grit and determination of a handful of winemakers.
Never ask Ian Kellett about his spreadsheets. The founder and managing director of Hambledon Vineyard in Hampshire is a former market analyst and before he put a single vine in the ground, he created a spreadsheet. ‘Each page has 150 columns and there are 40 pages. It looks forward 15 years, month by month. You change one number, say the cost of a trellising post, and the whole thing rebuilds itself…’. He would have carried on, if I hadn’t distracted him with a question about grapes.
And you thought that sparkling wine was all about having fun. Well, it is. But never underestimate the extraordinary obsession that goes into creating each and every beautifully poised bottle of bubbles. Making sparkling wine by the traditional method – fermenting it in the bottle, like they do in champagne, rather than pumping it full of bubbles, as they do in prosecco – is a long game. We’re talking three years before you can pick the grapes, another two (at least) before you can release the wine – longer if the wine is very good as the better the wine, the longer it needs to age in bottle.
Then, you have to contend with operating in a marginal climate, where frost at the wrong time, or too much rain, can wipe out an entire year’s income. To be successful you need ambition, a Kellettian level of attention to detail, strategic thinking, and a readiness to think in terms of decades (almost centuries) and across generations when it comes to building a business.
Is this why the English wine industry is populated by people with as much grit as an RAF pilot who finds himself in a tight spot? You can take that figure of speech literally. Bob Lindo, who planted vines at Camel Valley in 1989, is a former RAF pilot who broke his spine in an aviation accident, so left the service early and went to live on his Cornish farm. He was still in pretty bad shape – unable to sit or stand – when the electric fence came down. ‘So I crawled round on my side mending it. That was the beginning of doing things.’
We’ve reached a point where English sparkling wine can challenge its French counterpart. Ours is a tiny industry, but we still have over 500 commercial vineyards and a turnover of £132 million a year. I’m excited about the potential shown by single-year wines with more ageing: Coates & Seely and Wiston both produced tremendous examples from grapes grown in 2009 and 2010 respectively. I’m also looking forward to the release this summer of the first sparkling wine from Rathfinny Estate, established in 2010 on the South Downs. It has a £5.5 million RIBA-nominated winery, accommodation, walking trails… did someone say ambition? No shortage of that here.
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Victoria Moore is an award-winning wine columnist and author. Her book, The Wine Dine Dictionary (£20, Granta), is out now.