So there I was. A still awkward, slightly rebellious, young, twenty-something lawyer. Curious. Assured. Full of hope and expectation. Fresh from six years of university and post-grad education. Doing an organised, corporate tour of a winery in 2003. Britain’s oldest commercial vineyard at that. Probably one of only a handful in operation in England at the time.
I didn’t really drink. But I was curious to learn more about winemaking. To me, wine was made in France, Italy, Spain, Australia and parts of the Americas.
I still remember the tour.
There were six of us. Our tour guide led us through the vineyard cycle into the winery process over a crisp spring morning at Hambledon Vineyard in Hampshire. There was lots of science, some stainless steel tanks, other bits and bobs, and a relatively small, bedraggled vineyard. We sampled a few wines at the end of the tour. No fancy tasting room. Just a few glasses in the crisp open air.
And it happened.
I was rather taken by a white wine. The wine served in the House of Lords and also parliamentary ministers in the House of Commons, London. It was a complex wine, at least by my then standards. And really rather nice.
I had never had a wine like it, so I actually acquired two bottles. Perhaps one day I will be like those Lords, I would have subconsciously thought. It was a purchase that would have dwarfed the total spend on wine during my university days. A time for me when wine functioned as an alternative to a British, warm, yeasty beer.
The cheaper and sweeter, the better. That’s what I thought.
Little did I know that I would visit Hambledon Vineyard again, some fifteen years later. Now a partner of an Australian law firm, a father, and visiting, overseas wine journalist. Notebook in hand. Nose and pen primed. Having travelled 10,500 miles to learn more about this English Sparkling Wine revolution. A revolution that I keep hearing about from the sun-kissed shores of Australia.
Much has changed. Much hasn’t.
The lovely red brick Mill Down House is still there. Now with an amazing prestige car parked outside (well-heeled visitors, I think). The vineyards under vine have grown, previously four acres, now over 200 acres. The operation is on a scale and level of gravity-fed sophistication that I doubt Ian Kellett and associates, Hambledon’s owners could dare dream of 19 years ago when they acquired a neglected Hambledon Vineyard.
And it’s exciting times ahead for Hambledon. As you pull up and park under the sparse autumn trees that cloak the winery’s carpark, leaves peppering the ground in reds and browns, you are confronted by an enormous white hole at the top of the vineyard’s driveway. It’s the new Hambledon caves being etched into the chalk hills that will be used for lees ageing and storage. On top will sit a brand new tasting room and visitor centre overlooking the vineyards. Sure signs of a noteworthy, new chapter in Hambledon’s 66 year history.
But that’s not the biggest change since my last visit. There’s a decidedly French feel to Hambledon Vineyard. You can hear Hervé Jestin, head winemaker and Felix Gabillet, his assistant working away, speaking French to one another and to others.
“We hardly speak in English, most days” says Felix.
It’s not the only changement français. Bacchus and other niche grape varieties have been replaced since my first visit by the classic Champagne grape trio of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier following consultations with Pol Roger in 2010. There’s the Coquard gravity fed press, the first in England, and French oak barrels neatly stacked around the winery.
Hambledon, like many other English wineries, have embraced the English Sparkling Wine revolution, no doubt inspired by the fame and fortunes of Champagne, some 300 miles South as the crow flies. It’s a revolution started in the early 1990s by Nyetimber, who announced their bubbly presence when their Blanc de Blancs won an IWSC Gold Medal with their first 1992 vintage. It went on to beat, blind, the likes of Bollinger and Roederer in the Bollicine del Mondo in 2010. And you can tell from the trophy pictures on the wall, Hambledon are proud of their international successes and those of other English wineries.
It’s no secret why English Quality Sparkling Wine is doing so well. The likes of Hambledon Vineyard, Nyetimber and many notable others are located on the rolling chalk hills of the South Downs, Steve Lowrie, Hambledon’s sales manager explains using his geology map. A terroir not too dissimilar to Champagne in France, particularly given the recent climate warming in England.
As we taste Hambledon’s latest Sparkling Wines, the warm and knowledgeable Steve Lowrie introduces us to Felix and then to Hervé. We taste our way through the Classic Cuvée, the Premiere Cuvée and the Classic Cuvée Rosé. All excellent wines. Especially the Première Cuvée.
The Première Cuvèe is an utterly beguiling wine. I nicknamed it the widow slayer because it immediately had me thinking it was so much better than the mainstream non-vintage Champagnes. It is made mainly from 2013 fruit and barrel-aged reserve wines from 2010, with 7g/l dosage, 100% malolactic fermentation and 46 months on lees. It’s predominantly a Chardonnay (73%) and Pinot Noir (24%) blend with a dash of Pinot Meunier (3%). My tasting note concluded:
Prodigious nose. Bruised apple, elderflower, blackcurrant leaf, minerals and cream. The fruit, so vivid. Mouth-filling creamy mousse. Energetic drive, charged with blackcurrant leaf, a pâtisserie of baked bread, vanilla and background notes of hawthorn. Long, long finish. Utterly beguiling.
What was even more interesting was the next generation Première Cuvée Hervé and Felix had just disgorged the week before my November 2018 visit. They were super proud of it and were keen to get the thoughts of me and my dear friend, Andy Barker, who accompanied me. What made it so interesting was the dosage at 1.68g/l. It was truly incredible as you’ll see from my tasting note:
A stunning nose, so bright and fresh. Resplendent with a lovely spectrum of yellow, red and blue fruit, brioche and flowers. Crisp, bone dry blackcurrant leaf snap, with citrus and Granny Smith apples. And a fine, lingering dry finish. Such a different experience to the 7g/l version. We both really liked it and thought it would make an amazing food wine with it’s near bone-dry demeanour.
What a difference 15 years makes. Hambledon Vineyard is flourishing. The sparkling wines are incredible, sophisticated creations. And the Hambledon team are buoyed and filled with ambition. Such exciting times. I won’t leave it 15 years until my next visit. I can’t wait to see the new cellar door and caves when they’re finished. And to try the new low dosage Première Cuvée when its formally released.
What a homecoming.
- 200+ Acres