Henley-on-Thames. What comes to mind when hearing that name? A beautiful riverside setting, a rowing regatta, and an attractive market town, I’ll warrant. But what about rolling chalk hills and English Sparkling Wine? Probably lower down the list, if at all. But since 2011, Jan Mirkowski and his wife Anthea have been working to change that perception. Jan previously worked in telecoms and he figured that the stresses of winemaking would pale into insignificance compared to his exacting commute and working in an office. Now his office is a sloping field in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with glorious views across the valley to the south west.
Situated less than half a mile from the centre of town, and in a picturesque fold of The Chilterns, Fairmile Vineyard is in an ideal spot for producing top-class sparkling wine. Anthea told me that the proximity of the railway station in the town means that they get lots of visitors up from London wanting to try their wines. She sells wine from the courtyard three times a week and groups can book a visit to enjoy a glass in the vineyard.
On free-draining chalk, and sheltered from winds by trees both inherited by Jan and planted by him, the vineyard contains the three classic Champagne varieties, Chardonnay (40%), Pinot Noir (40%) and Pinot Meunier (20%). Jan pointed out that some Champagne houses plant as little as 1% Meunier but he values this grape because it tends to miss the frost and because it adds a tangy flavour to his wines. He has only experienced an air frost once (in 2020, when he lost a number of buds) and, mercifully, bougies have only been lit once in his time at Fairmile. This year has been an outstanding one, although, owing to the poor weather last year, not quite as productive as 2018. Jan says that their winery (Hambledon in Hampshire) reckons that they will make 24,000 bottles this year; from 3 hectares that is quite some going (although 2018 garnered a record 36,000 bottles).
Jan has just released a Blanc de Blancs from 2017 fruit and a 2018 Blanc de Noirs is imminent. He also has a Founder’s Reserve up his sleeve for later in 2023 to celebrate the ten years since they put vines in the ground. They have two non-vintage wines currently on sale: a Classic Cuvée (based largely on the 2017 vintage) and the Rosé (also made predominantly from 2017 fruit: 77% Chardonnay, 18% Pinot Noir and 5% Pinot Meunier). He remarked that the variation at harvest time is like gardening, with “the roses [doing] better then it’s the rhododendrons the next”. I asked Jan if there were any plans to make a still wine. The clones planted at Fairmile are more suitable for sparkling and would, he said, “make a truly terrible still wine”.
I tasted the 2016 base in July of last year and my tasting notes said: ‘After a noticeably toasty and yeasty nose, there are flavours of nuts, toast, smoke, pronounced red fruit character (raspberry and pomegranate) and then a squeeze of lemon on the finish.’ 14 months on and the smokiness on the nose and the red fruit character has increased, making the wine more intense. The current Rosé is also a serious wine with aromas of iron, cranberries and baked cherry pie. The multi-layered palate has notes of ripe strawberries, tangy lemon and orange, apple (from the predominance of Chardonnay) and almond biscuit.
Jan was persuaded to enter a Decanter competition for his first Classic Cuvée and, much to his surprise, it came out top, beating the heavyweights Nyetimber, Gusbourne, Hattingley and Hambledon. They have also won a Gold medal from the Independent English Wine Awards (IEWA) for their 2016-based Classic Cuvée and a number of Silver medals for both the Classic Cuvée and Rosé. I’m sure the awards will keep coming for this outstanding vineyard. And it will, in the near future, be more than just the cognoscenti who will associate Henley with English Sparkling Wine.