20 years is a short time in the wine world. Just enough for your first vines to have become fully mature and to be providing great fruit.
Couple that with one of the best ever summers for grapes on England’s South Downs and expect some delicious wines to come from the 2016 vintage.
The first Ridgeview vines were planted in 1994 by Mike Roberts MBE and his wife Chris. Sadly Mike passed away in November 2014, but the baton has been picked up by the second generation, namely winemaker Simon and his wife Mardi and CEO Tamara and her husband Simon They are continuing the family vision of creating world class sparkling wines in the South Downs. You can check out this short video to hear Mike, Simon, Tamara and others talk of their involvement in the business.
Ridgeview has been supplying The Society since the 2001 vintage, and I have been enjoying their wines since I started at The Society in 2004. Every year I enjoy them more as the vines get more established and as the experience of the Roberts family grows.
The proof of the ever-improving pudding came when they started making our chardonnay-dominant Society’s Exhibition English Sparkling Wine. We have just this week moved on to the 2014 vintage after selling out of the maiden 2013.
When Mardi Roberts invited me down to the estate at Ditchling Common in East Sussex for a day’s picking and pressing I didn’t need to be asked twice.
On arrival I talked with head winemaker Simon, vineyard manager Matt Strugnell and vineyard assistant Luke Spalding. They were visibly excited about the quality of this year’s harvest, agreeing that it is of the best quality they have ever had at Ridgeview, although rain at flowering time has meant that pinot noir quantities are down.
Walking around the winery and meeting chief operation officer Robin, production manager Olly, winemaking assistants Rob and Inma and others, it was clear that they were energised by the quality of the grapes and by the job they had to do to ensure that we will be enjoying the fruits of their labours for years to come.The winery and vineyards were abuzz with activity when I got there: the brilliant, efficient and hard-working Romanian and Portuguese pickers were in the vines, and the winemaking team was weighing the freshly picked chardonnay grapes on their way to the press.
There are seven hectares (17 acres) of vines on the Ridgeview site, but they work with growers on a further six sites on the South Downs (five in Sussex, one in Hampshire). The viticultural management of everything they grow or contract out is fascinating. There are four experimental rows of vines nearest the winery. Here they try various techniques to improve the yields and quality of the grapes.
These include canopy management (taking away / leaving leaves on the vines), cover crop planting (which crops are best for the soil quality), frost protection measures (currently trialling a warming electric cable along the trellis that is switched on when there is a risk of frost) and other experiments. Once a method has been deemed practical, it is rolled out into their own vineyard, and from there across the vineyards of the contracted growers.
I spent some time with Mardi in the vines harvesting chardonnay. The grapes themselves were delicious – well, it would have been rude not to taste! There was a lovely acidity, a sweetness and a fine texture already in the mouth. Things bode well for the 2016 vintage, with the bunches from row 13 particularly well snipped, IMHO!
Once the grapes have been picked, the bins are brought to the winery and put into the press. The unfermented chardonnay juice was very drinkable and, after tasting it, Simon and Luke were having their habitual daily bet on what the sugar level was (75-76? Oechsle seemed to be the consensus). The sugar level is of course a good guide to the eventual alcohol content of the finished wine. In the case of the 2016 chardonnay, this will be around 12%, with no chaptalisation (the adding of sugar to the grape juice to increase the potential alcohol of the wine) necessary.
The whole team is dedicated to the cause, and doing a fine job. The genuine smiling faces all around were a pleasure to behold, and it is clear to me that our Exhibition English Sparkling Wine couldn’t be in better hands.
Conrad Braganza invites us to do lunch with his favourite warm-weather white wines from our Cellar Showroom.
There is something decadent and delightful about drinking wine with lunch on a summer’s day. But to negate the necessity for an afternoon nap when chores still demand my attention, I tend to choose a lighter style of white wine with a modest alcohol level.
Here are some of my favourite lunchtime liveners from around the world. Do feel free to suggest your own in the comments!
• Austrian grüner veltliner can offer fruit and spice in a food-friendly package.
The Society’s Grüner Veltliner (£7.50) has been welcomed with open arms by our members and sailed through the 2016 Wine Champions tastings. Pepp Wienviertel Grüner Veltliner 2015 (£7.25) hits the spot well too.
• Australian semillon can work wonders on its own or with food.
The exclusive 88 Growers (£7.25) clocks in at just 11% alcohol and brings a zesty note to the grape’s classic greengage flavours.
• England offers a wealth of lower-alcohol choices thanks to our cooler climate.
For a floral, lychee-infused tipple that’d be perfect with chilli chicken skewers, try Three Choirs Stone Brook 2014 (£7.95). For something a little drier, Chapel Down Bacchus 2014 (11.50) is well worth the extra outlay, offering a flinty, mineral and crisp style with some sauvignon-esque flavours that would stand up very well to a goat’s cheese tart.
• Germany’s lower alcohol levels are well known, and the wines are as versatile as they are delicious.
The off-dry Ruppertsberger Hoheburg Riesling Kabinett 2015 (£6.50) is a great sipper but is also suitable for spicier food. Alternatively there is von Kesselstatt’s charming and appealing Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Spätlese 2013 (£16), which comes from a great producer and a world-class vineyard.
• Greece is a source of delicate, clean and crisp wines that go brilliantly with (dare I say it) Greek salad.
A great-value current favourite is the dry and gentle Ionos (£6.50).
• Vinho Verde is a wine made for lunch!
Fashionable again, and for good reason, these wines are fresh and dry but also aromatic and spot-hitting (and perfect with a bowl of prawns, as I found out on a recent trip to Portugal!). In the 2015 vintage, The Society’s Vinho Verde (£5.95) has never looked better, whilst Muros Antigos (£7.95) from Anselmo Mendes proves why he’s one of the region’s top growers at a friendly price.
The Cellar Showroom
When offered a ‘pinot’, I suspect most would expect either a glass of red pinot noir or white pinot grigio/gris to be poured.
But hold fire! I feel their oft-forgotten cousin, pinot blanc, offers an opportunity to try something deliciously different.
This white mutation of pinot noir was first identified in Burgundy in the 18th century. Its lowly status in the pinot family seemed to be compounded by several cases of mistaken identity: for many years some vines were thought to be chardonnay. The grape is still grown in this part of the world, permitted but rarely used in Burgundy and Champagne, but it is now planted in many areas.
It can be found in Germany and Austria under the name weißburgunder, and in Italy as pinot bianco. It also features in Hungary and a number of Balkan vineyards. We used to list a Canadian example, and homegrown English examples can also be found. The slightly off-dry Chapel Down Pinot Blanc (£12.50) is worth a try, and the grape also appears in the blend of Sussex’s Albourne Estate Selection (£12.95).
Lovely as these English examples are, my place to start would be Alsace, where this near-neglected grape is capable of remarkable complexity and elegance.
Alsace is rightly hailed for its consumer-friendly labelling, with grape varieties being displayed on the label long before others caught on, but the ever-unfortunate pinot blanc is the exception that proves the rule here. A ‘pinot blanc’ from Alsace can by law contain pinot gris, auxerrois or even white-vinified pinot noir!
Nevertheless, the whole can often be greater than the sum of its parts, and I feel that the three pinot blancs currently available from The Society reveal the appeal of this unsung grape.
Three Alsace pinot blancs to try
1. At just £6.50, Cave de Turckheim’s 2014 Pinot Blanc overdelivers: I’ve recommended this to members in The Cellar Showroom a great deal, particularly for weddings and buffets. It’s a real crowd-pleaser, whose soft subtle melon fruit and fresh tempered acidity combine in an easy-drinking wine which suits a variety of foods and palates.
2. For a fuller feel, Trimbach’s 2014 Pinot Blanc (£8.95) shows how well the grape can complement auxerrois in an Alsace blend: it has a slight smoky and spicy character with fresh acidity, and the result is very stylish. Surprisingly it can be acquired for under £10 and is also available in a handy-sized half bottle for £5.50.
3. Finally, but still under £10 a bottle, Domaine Ginglinger’s 2013 Pinot Blanc (£9.95) is wonderfully aromatic and delivers ripe roundness that lingers. This is a great option for food matching, working especially well with egg-based dishes and with spicy food.
The Cellar Showroom
To celebrate the arrival of the first English wine under The Society’s Exhibition label we wanted to mark the occasion by getting members involved in the festivities.
To that end, with the support of Ridgeview Wine Estates, we are running a photo competition with a six-bottle case of The Society’s Exhibition English Sparkling Wine up for grabs.
All you need to do to enter is send us a photo of you enjoying the wine (preferably somewhere in the UK) to email@example.com, or upload to our Twitter or Facebook page using #PhotoFizz.
Of course, at The Wine Society staff love to get in on the fun as much as anybody and whilst they can’t win the grand prize we have had some entries from a couple of departments.
Here are Chris, Drew, James, Allan and Dulcie grabbing a quick moment between calls in Member Services.
… and a raised glass from some of the ever-welcoming Showroom team in Stevenage
We have already had some entries, but would love to see more.
About the wine
The Society’s Exhibition English Sparkling Wine is a special cuvée put together exclusively for us by the award-winning Ridgeview team at their estate in the South Downs in Ditchling, West Sussex. This blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier is made in the same way as Champagne and has vibrant freshness and ripe fruit, and also now a touch of that toasty bready complexity you get with ageing the wine carefully on its fermentation lees. A delicious (and patriotic) way to start a celebration or toast the end of the working week!
About the competition
Upload a photo of you enjoying the new Exhibition fizz to our Facebook page (facebook.com/TheWineSociety) or tweet them (@TheWineSociety) using #PhotoFizz by Friday 4th December. To find out more and to read the terms and conditions visit thewinesociety.com/photofizz
‘England can’t make decent wine’ is a phrase that I have been forced to roll my eyes at far too often.Despite all the appreciation from wine writers and the international awards and plaudits loaded upon the wines of our fair isle, many people are still entrenched in the idea that the wines will never match up to those from more established wine regions.
Personally, I take great umbrage with this and feel that it is an assertion made either upon out-of-date experiences or a place of comically overdone wine snobbery. In response to this I feel the need to fly the flag for English wine whenever the opportunity arises.
Our new English wine offering is just such an opportunity.
In my opinion what will change the minds of all the naysayers are the sparkling wines produced in England which are a particular speciality of ours.
With producers such as Nyetimber, Camel Valley and Ridgeview it isn’t hard to see that quality is there. The wines from these producers generally cost about the same as the cheaper wines from the Grand Marques Champagne houses, but I find are often of a quality that far surpasses these and are easily worthy of competing amongst the Champagnes priced at £40-50.
The wines offer wonderful balance, finesse and refreshing acidity, they are delicious to drink young and some have the ability to age fantastically too. Their quality has been praised by wine writers such as Oz Clarke, Victoria Moore and Hugh Johnson to name a few, and have accrued countless medals and trophies at the Decanter Awards, International Wine Challenge and the International Wine & Spirit Competition.Now as a reality check, it has to be acknowledged that it is hard to make top-quality wines in England: our climate is too cold and wet for a whole host of grape varieties. Indeed, considering the weather we have experienced this summer it is a surprise that we can grow grapes at all! It is unlikely that world-class red wines will ever be made in the UK, but with Cornwall less than 90 miles north of Champagne it’s easy to see that with the right grape and site selection it is more than possible to make great sparkling wines.
Alongside the general climatic difficulties, in common with other wine-producing regions, we do experience vintage variation. This can be especially dramatic in the UK; when we have a bad vintage it can be devastating, such as that in 2012 when some producers dumped their whole harvest. In Champagne they would have been able to utilise the less-good fruit, beefing up the blend with better wine from previous vintages. This isn’t the case in the UK yet, being a young producing country the reserves of old vintages haven’t had time to build up to such an extent yet. But this will come in time: as English producers become even more established and build up good reserve stocks, vintage variation will lessen and blends overall will improve further in quality.Finally, one very exciting aspect for me about the current state of English wines is that ther are new wineries being founded and new vineyard new sites that are being found around the UK all the time.
Bluebell is a great example of a newcomer to the scene, having only released their second vintage this year. The wine is delicious and very distinctive to those from other English producers with a fuller-bodied, creamier and more developed style than the lighter and elegant Ridgeview or Camel Valley wines.
Our English offer has been put together to showcase some of the best wines that England produces and in a variety of styles. For me the England’s Finest Sparklers case in particular is a terrific showcase of the top-quality wines that can be made here.
With the superb quality of the 2014 vintage, the ever-increasing experience of the UK’s winemakers and their commitment to quality we should all be looking forward to seeing the development of our wineries in England over the next decade and with this the new treasures that will be unearthed.
Marketing Campaign Manager
As part of Saturday’s World Gin Day, The Cellar Showroom’s fine wine co-ordinator Conrad Braganza celebrates mother’s ruin
Not many drinks can claim to be British classics but gin definitely has my vote. It draws on so many ingredients or botanicals gathered from around the world to create the unique flavours I feel mirror British culture and history.
However, gin’s roots have a Dutch origin; indeed it is believed the word ‘gin’ is derived from the Dutch for juniper jenever, the common ingredient in all gins.
Along the way gin has been credited with making soldiers braver (‘Dutch courage’), helping the medicine go down (quinine was mixed with gin to counter malaria in the far reaches of the British Empire) and for the decline in morality (‘mother’s ruin!’) in the 18th century.
When I heard that Saturday 13th June was World Gin Day I felt obliged to offer my appreciation of this British institution. Where would we be without a Singapore Sling, a Tom Collins or the host of cocktails that use gin as its base? Let alone the quintessential long cool aperitif, a G&T.
At The Society we have accumulated a selection of gins. Traditionalist could try the citrus-dominated The Society’s Gin (GN91) with its classic juniper fragrance or for those preferring a bit more intensity try The Society’s High Strength Gin (GN101) with a with a higher natural alcoholic strength. Both are crying out for tonic, ice and slice, and for me a great partner to curries.
Taking a neutral spirit and adding a host of flavours to create a pleasurable drink is both and art and a science. Recently there has been a wave of small-batch gins on the market that are not only using the established botanicals, like liquorice root, coriander seeds or lemon peel, but also introducing other flavours such as elderflower and even samphire.
Using Northamptonshire natural spring water and a range of botanicals, including elderflower that imparts its characteristic fragrance, Warner Edwards Harrington Dry Gin (GN141) is a handcrafted smooth gin. Some of the ingredients are a secret, but it displays plenty of spice and ginger.
From Kent and sourcing the botanicals locally in the ‘Garden of England’ comes Anno Dry Gin (GN151), an artisan gin which displays the characteristic juniper and citrus notes but with a smooth spicy finish.
Not forgetting Sloe Gin (LR111), a delightful Yorkshire spirit with a cherry and almond palate, perfect sipped neat, as the alcohol is a modest 20%.
With summer round the corner, a refreshing cocktail or a classic G&T is on the cards. I will just have to gin and bear it, which really isn’t a hardship!
How times change!
Vines have been in England since Roman times, even listed in the Domesday Book; however, the depth and diversity that is now on offer is remarkable. The experience many winemakers have had in other wine-producing regions, such as Martin Fowke from Three Choirs in New Zealand and Josh Donaghay-Spire of Chapel Down, in Champagne, Alsace and South Africa, along with investment in cutting-edge equipment has resulted in an increase in quality, aided by a climate that is making grape growing more favourable.
This week The Society’s Cellar Showroom in Stevenage is hosting no fewer than 10 English wines to try: three sparkling, six white and one rosé.
The award-winning sparkling wines would make the perfect fizz for summer days to come. Gloucestershire’s Three Choirs bring us the crisp Midsummer Hill (£7.50 per bottle), to start a picnic in style and, of course, the red-berry delight that is Three Choirs Rosé (£7.95).
It would be folly to forget the charms of the bacchus grape, which does so well in England. Chapel Down Bacchus (£11.50) and Camel Valley Bacchus (£13.95) both show off the flinty and fragrant flavours of this grape, which make a worthy alternative to sauvignon blanc and, as such, fine choices with a goat’s cheese tart or salad.
Other varieties which members may be more familiar with in our Alsace range can be seen in Chapel Down Pinot Blanc (£12.95), a lovely example of this grape with hints of melon on the palate and an ever-so-slightly off-dry finish, and the smooth Bolney Pinot Gris (£16), which has this variety’s characteristic spice and honeyed quality.
If you can’t make it to The Showroom, we include links to the wines above should you wish to join in the celebrations from the comfort of your own home!
The Cellar Showroom
‘I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.’ (Confucious)Over the years I have attended many Wine Society tastings and events, but a recent visit to the Three Choirs Vineyards in Newent this weekend stands out as one of my more memorable experiences.
I enjoy these events for the wines we taste, for the opportunity to meet other members and share enthusiasms, and for meeting the producers themselves who speak with such an infectious passion about what they do and why, that it is impossible not to be inspired. I also enjoy these events because, like many members, I am curious about the people, the process, and the product; learning about them enhances my enjoyment.
This, however, was a tasting with a difference. As is usual at these events, we were given a fascinating introduction to the vineyard and its wines from Martin Fowke, award-winning winemaker and head of Three Choirs Vineyards (and I am resisting the temptation to tell you what I learned from him about the Geneva Double Curtain, among many other intriguing details of wine production); we also enjoyed a delicious lunch in the Three Choirs restaurant with wines selected from Three Choirs and The Wine Society List. But the highlight for me, and I think a first for a Wine Society event, was the blending workshop that took place among the vats, tanks and barrels of the Three Choirs winery.
Members were organised into teams and challenged to produce a wine blended from three grape varieties produced in the Three Choirs vineyard (madeleine angevine, reichensteiner and phoenix); we were also given a small amount of suss reserve (concentrated grape juice) which is added to adjust the level of sweetness.
In effect we were being given the opportunity to gain a practical insight into the task that Martin Fowke and Mark Buckenham, Wine Society buyer, had recently carried out in blending the next vintage of Midsummer Hill, a wine produced by Three Choirs exclusively for The Wine Society.
To reflect the realities of wine production we were given very specific parameters within which to work: restrictions were place on the relative quantities we were permitted to use of each variety, just as yields and individual characteristics of each single variety affect the choices available to a winemaker in any one vintage. This ‘learning by doing’, with the additional pressures of limited time and collective inexperience, was really hard work! It was a unanimous view of the members present that this was also a great deal of fun.
As our team blends were reproduced in bottle (we were to have the opportunity to try out our wines at lunch) and we made our way to the restaurant, I reflected on something Martin had said at the beginning of the day as he described the development of vine growing and winemaking over his thirty years at the Three Choirs Vineyards: in the process of winemaking we are ‘learning all the time’. Cheers!
A few weeks before England’s harvest in September, a few colleagues and I were fortunate enough to visit Ridgeview Wine Estate in Sussex. Some of us at The Wine Society are currently undergoing our Level 3 studies for our WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) qualifications. The purpose of the trip I organised was to understand and learn about the whole process of producing wines. Not being able to travel the world to further my studies, I thought the best or more viable chance would be to visit a UK winery.
Ridgeview’s multi-award-winning sparkling wine is well known worldwide. First founded in 1994 by Mike and Chris Roberts, it’s a family company dedicated in the production of the highest-quality sparkling wine using traditional sparkling grape varieties and methods at the foot of the South Downs in Sussex.
After a three-hour journey from The Wine Society in Stevenage (it would have been shorter had we not been caught up in the Tour of Britain bike race!), we were greeted with a lovely lunch put on for us by Ridgeview, before heading off on a vineyard tour. This was presented by Daniel, one of the very knowledgeable and experienced assistant winemakers. He told us about the techniques that Ridgeview uses to grow and produce such great-quality grapes which go in their sparkling wine.
Thirteen French clones of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier on three different rootstocks were selected to emulate l’assemblage of the Champagne houses that combine together the vintages of small vineyards, thereby creating imaginative blends.
Since then, they have expanded from the single site to develop close partnerships with local growers who are predominantly in or adjacent to the South Downs National Park. Only being 70 miles (as the crow flies) from the Champagne region of France, their soils and climate are not too different. The location is also good for producing fully ripe grapes with great flavour, but which aren’t high in alcohol. With the climate of the UK (we get cold nights even in summer, after all!) English grapes have super acidity, a prerequisite for high-quality fizz.
The winery is purpose built with an underground cellar where the wines can be stored in perfect conditions for the secondary fermentation and lees ageing. Their grape press is capable of pressing four tonnes of grapes to create 2,000 litres of grape juice after the free-run is discarded and gyropalates help rotate the bottles, moving the dead yeast lees to the neck of the bottle before the final closure is made.
Afterwards, we were fortunate to have a special tasting hosted by Mardi Roberts (sales and marketing manager) who gave us an informal tutored tasting of their range.
At present, we stock two of Ridgeview’s sparkling wines. The Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2011 (£23 per bottle) is a chardonnay-dominant blend which is supported by the fullness of the red grapes pinot noir and pinot meunier. It has a light gold colour, a lovely mousse and an enticing nose of citrus fruit with a hint of melon and honey. The chardonnay brings finesse, along with crisp fruit freshness and toasty notes, while the two pinots add depth and character. This will age very gracefully, if you can be patient!
Both wines, price wise, are very similar to many Champagnes and dare I say give more of a pleasurable experience both on nose and palate compared to wines 80 miles south of Ridgeview – but that’s my opinion and feel free to disagree!
If you are ever in the area, I would highly recommend popping by to visit. More information can be found on the Ridgeview website. We would like to say a huge thank you to those from Ridgeview for providing us with a very educational and interesting experience in visiting their winery.
My first Society buying trip was to the picturesque vineyards of Three Choirs, outside the town of Newent near Gloucester. Travelling with The Society’s Buyer for English wine, Mark Buckenham, our mission for the day was to blend two exclusive wines that Three Choirs produce for us: Midsummer Hill and Stone Brook. Following the tricky 2012 English harvest, we were keen to taste the 2013 vintage.
For any members who have not been to Three Choirs Vineyard, I would thoroughly recommend a visit. Situated on gently undulating south-facing slopes at the convergence of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, it is a very pretty spot indeed. Growing conditions here are defined by the unique microclimate: sheltered by the Malverns and the Brecon Beacons, the grapes are kept cool and clean by the breezes coming up the valley from the River Severn. A lone wind turbine in the middle distance somehow adds to the bucolic scene, rather than detracts.
Three Choirs grow a miscellany of different grape varieties, many of which go into our Midsummer Hill blend. The 2013 vintage here is characterised by its relative lightness and by a good balance of acidity – vital for freshness and crispness in a white wine.
This was my first experience of blending – something at which Society buyers are particularly skilled. The tasting room at Three Choirs resembles a science laboratory, with clean white surfaces, pipettes and measuring jugs. The process begins with a taste of the previous vintage so as to re-familiarise ourselves with the style. Incidentally, I was impressed at how well the Midsummer Hill 2012 was showing: still fresh and lifted, with lovely citrus and pear fruit. Next came the tricky part. With samples of various varieties in front of us, Mark and I, along with Martin Fowke and Liam Tinston of Three Choirs, began to blend different proportions to try to reach a wine that we think members will enjoy. We then repeated this painstaking, fascinating process for the Stone Brook.
When finally satisfied with the white blends, we turned our attention to rosé. Three Choirs have a number of dark-skinned grape varieties under vine, and the rosé blend will change from vintage to vintage. The 2013 blend is crisp, refreshing and vibrant, with a palate full of ripe cherry and red berry fruit.
One of the benefits of having such a wide variety of grapes under vine is that one can tweak the blends to maintain consistency of style and, more importantly, quality. Whilst the varieties themselves may not sound familiar (madeleine angevine , reichensteiner, seyval blanc, phoenix, siegerrebe, schönberger to name a few), I think that these 2013 Three Choirs blends are exceptional, and will make for perfect summer drinking.