With the immense growth in the planting of vines in England over the last few years (see Wine GB for stats), and with a steadily increasing stable of English wineries, one question that people have started to ask is “who is going to make all this new wine”. It’s a question that led CEO, Henry Sugden, to embark on a rather ambitious plan to create a contract winemaking hub in the thriving English wine county of Kent. Defined Wine launched in 2018 with the intention to only make wines for their customers, not from their own labels. Now on their second vintage (the hugely promising 2020), I caught up with Henry and Head Winemaker, Nick Lane, as part of an online group talk and tasting of some of their upcoming releases.
Henry began by explaining that because their focus is 100% on contract winemaking, their attention is entirely on making the very best from each and every wine, following every process from crate to case. The winery houses everything needed to handle the processes of still and sparkling wines of all types, including the more experimental categories of Orange Wine and Pet-Nat. With over 100 stainless steel fermentation tanks and a theoretical tank storage capacity of 400,000 bottles, Defined Wine is certainly positioned well in this current English Wine boom.
With nearly thirty customers on the books already, clients’ backgrounds range from those with no winemaking background to those with their own full-time winemakers. Customer briefs range from those going into exact specifics such as yeast choice, while others give general stylistic guidance of what they want to achieve. Henry says that a common request is to produce a Provence style rosé, to which he replies, “This is Kent, not Provence”. What Henry was keen to emphasise is that, “we don’t want to have a house style [as a contract winemaker]. We want people to say what they want, we want to see how the grapes work out, and then we will go from there.”
Quality and consistency have driven all of the key choices in the winery, both from an equipment (currently totalling £1.5million of investment) point of view through to the winemaking team themselves. At the helm of this impressive facility is Head Winemaker, Nick Lane, who brings a wealth of winemaking experience from both France and New Zealand. Working alongside Nick is Operations Winemaker, Poppy Seeley, having graduated from Plumpton and working on vintages in Australia, California, New Zealand and South Africa. Production Manager, Peter Brissenden, brings a craft brewing background, while consultant winemaker, Owen Elias, brings a wealth of English winemaking experience spanning over thirty years.
Looking specifically at Nick Lane’s background, his winemaking journey began in France, where he discovered wine and aroma. Nick also has a penchant for technique, and marrying those two things together in winemaking was really easy. He studied at winemaking school in South West France, before going on to work for the Moët Hennessy group from 2003, with the first thirteen years at Cloudy Bay (owned by Möet) in his home country of New Zealand. He then returned to France to work in Champagne for a further six harvests at Veuve Clicquot and then Dom Perignon. I can’t think of a better grounding for an English winemaker, with the comparisons between Champagne and English Sparkling, and more recently English white wines like Bacchus showing similarities to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
So what brought Nick to England? He explains that while being part of a big winery and brand has many benefits, he wasn’t getting the personal satisfaction of being part of something new. “At the moment, wine in this part of the world is very dynamic. It’s probably the most exciting new country for sparkling wine at the moment, so I really wanted to be part of that.”
“It’s probably the most exciting new country for sparkling wine at the moment, so I really wanted to be part of that”
– Nick Lane
After introductions from Henry and Nick, we then turned our attention to a selection of six wines from the 2020 vintage. The six wines covered grapes coming from East and West Sussex and Kent, but Nick mentioned that grapes also came in from Essex and further afield in the west in 2020. The range of wines really gave a great cross-section of geographical regions and the key styles that are thriving in England right now: crisp, zingy white wines from Bacchus, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, a delectable Pinot Meunier rosé, a sumptuously smoky Pinot Noir and also a sparkling base wine.
Overall, I thought it was a rather inspired move for Defined Wine to reach out to and engage with a diverse group of both traditional wine critics and the new breed of wine commentators, champions and enthusiasts. A lot of people overlook the role that contract winemakers play in a young but rapidly expanding industry. This session not only demonstrated the wealth of variety that England offers, but was also a brilliant yardstick for the Defined Wine team to see how their wines fared with the discerning taster. As a collective voice, no single wine emerged as a clear favourite, which shows just how exciting this increasing English wine diversity is.
Bewl Water Vineyard 2020 Sparkling Base
Based in East Sussex, parts of this vineyard planting date back to over fifty years ago. The Pinot Noir used to make this sparkling base was planted more recently. Tasting sparkling base wines is always fascinating – the acidity is the first thing you notice, crucial for that brisk English Sparkling character we are all familiar with. This slightly bronzed wine features precise cranberry and citrus flavours, with a cherry and peach hint. It’s destined to become the inaugural Bewl Water Blanc de Noirs 2020, which will be released in a couple of years. www.bewlwatervineyard.co.uk
Yotes Court Vineyard Bacchus 2020
Yotes Court is just outside Maidstone and is a vineyard on greensand. From a 2018 planting of Bacchus, this wine demonstrates the classic typicity of that grape, with fragrant aromas of elderflower, lime zest and green orchard fruits. The palate is intense and zingy – very citrus fruit-focussed, but with bursts of tropical fruit and juicy apples. Several commented on this having a Sauvignon Blanc-like character which felt very appropriate considering Nick’s background. This will be one of the first wines to carry the Sustainable Wines of Great Britain hallmark. www.yotescourt.co.uk
Ashling Park Rosé 2020
The most well-known of all the vineyards here (they had a multi-award-winning 2020), this rosé is made from 100% Pinot Meunier grown on loamy soils in Sussex. This was one of the most charismatic wines of the line-up, drawing you in with a nose of cranberry, cherry, candy floss and pear drops. That slightly confected note is less prominent on the palate, with clean, tangy redcurrant and cranberry flavours, pink grapefruit zing and a subtle suggestion of savoury and herb – really exciting. www.ashlingpark.co.uk
Heppington Vineyard 2020 Pinot Gris
There’s something very special happening with English Pinot Gris, and the energy and dynamism this wine is showing confirms this. Heppington is based just outside Canterbury and is planted on chalk. This is their second vintage (the 2019 was made by Hattingley Valley) and is due for release in late 2021. This wine has real drive, with crisp, tangy green apples, citrus and a lick of white peach. There’s a lovely, crunchy, zingy fusion with a lengthy mineral finish – one to look out for. www.heppingtonvineyard.co.uk
Wayfarer Wines Chardonnay 2020
Another vineyard with a vintage under its belt, Wayfarer was planted in 2016 near Hollingbourne in Kent. This particular Chardonnay actually came from Heppington, but was presented to demonstrate the variety of styles on offer. This is very expressive, again focussing on that familiar fusion of green orchard fruit and citrus, with suggestions of honeysuckle and a light lick of oak (this wine was partially fermented in three-year-old French oak barrels) – very promising. www.wayfarerwines.com
Artelium Pinot Noir 2020
Artelium is already one of my ‘producers to watch’ following chance encounters and a rather brilliant sparkling wine launch. This Pinot Noir comes from their ‘Artelium East’ site from Malthouse in East Sussex. The vines were just two years old, and this youthful, vibrant magenta-hued wine exhibits a remarkable aura. There are aromas of ripe red cherry, raspberry, black pepper and a sort of dark chocolate, mocha and spiced oak infusion. The palate has concentrated red berries, suggestions of dark fruit and mellow, smoky spice. There’s incredible softness already for such a young Pinot. This is going to be very special. www.artelium.com