Top of the bottle: a year in an English vineyard

Top of the bottle: a year at an English vineyard

by Tom Shingler 28 January 2016

Nyetimber’s head winemaker Cherie Spriggs talks to Tom Shingler about the seasonality of winemaking and reveals the method used to produce their sparkling wine.

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Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

If you’d have said England could grow grapes and make wine to match – and even beat – those from the Champagne region of France forty years ago, you’d probably be met with some scepticism to say the least. But that’s exactly what’s happening now; every year, English sparkling wines take home a slew of awards at international competitions, putting our cuvees and Blanc de Blancs on the world stage.

One of the first (and most respected) of these English winemakers is Nyetimber, which started growing vines way back in 1988. Nyetimber was the first to craft English sparkling wines exclusively from the three celebrated grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and every single one of their bottles is made from one hundred percent estate-grown grapes. Cherie Spriggs joined the company in 2007 as head winemaker, and now oversees the entire process throughout the year with her winemaker husband Brad Greatrix – no mean feat, as Nyetimber now owns 170 hectares of vines across eight sites in West Sussex and Hampshire. Every month brings its own challenges and rewards, culminating in the autumn harvest; Cherie’s favourite time of year, despite the incredible amount of work it takes.

‘We generally harvest around October time,’ she says. ‘It’s the culmination of all our hard work and there’s a huge sense of accomplishment, but at the same time I’m working sixteen hours a day, seven days a week until it’s done! We hire around 350 pickers as we harvest everything by hand, and it’s a critical time from the winemaking point of view as I need to constantly check on the juice and what’s going on in the winery.’

Great grapes

There’s not a single point in the year where something isn’t going on at the vineyard. When they’re waiting for the grapes to grow there’s bottling to be done, and when the wine is being made the vines need to be looked after. ‘Winter is when we do all the hand pruning and make sure the vines are structured correctly for spring, which is when they’ll really start growing until around the end of June,’ Cherie explains. ‘The grapes start off as these tiny things the size of a pinhead before growing full size, which is when they change colour and develop all the sugars and flavours that make wine so amazing.’

The grapes themselves are the foundations for all good wine, and where they are grown is just as important. The soil at Nyetimber’s vineyard, based in West Sussex, is very similar to the soil in France’s Champagne region, making it perfect for growing grapes used to make sparkling wine. While there are many similarities between English sparkling wine and Champagne, there are some unique quirks in ours that can’t be found anywhere else. ‘The vines are grown in England so you can’t help but get different flavours,’ explains Cherie. ‘A lot of them are analogous to the amazing fruit grown in this country. Gorgeous apples, brilliant strawberries, raspberries, redcurrants – those same fruit flavours can be found in our grapes. You don’t necessarily get that in a Champagne.’

Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes are used to make Nyetimber's wines
Cherie Spriggs joined Nyetimber with her winemaker husband Brad Greatrix in 2007
The company owns 170 hectares of vineyards across West Sussex and Hampshire

Sticking with tradition

You have to pick the grapes by hand, which is important as you can be more gentle with the fruit. There are some very good picking machines out there but they’re not quite good enough and some of the grapes end up bruised.

Cherie Spriggs

Of course, growing great grapes is only half the process – actually making the wine requires an immense amount of knowledge and skill. Cherie and the team at Nyetimber utilise something called the Traditional Method (originally called méthode champenoise) to make award-winning wine. ‘It’s an EU-regulated term which has been used in Champagne for decades,’ says Cherie. ‘You have to pick the grapes by hand, which is important as you can be more gentle with the fruit. There are some very good picking machines out there but they’re not quite good enough and some of the grapes end up bruised. After that we press the fruit, stems and all, and collect all the juice. Then we add yeast and leave it to ferment from anywhere between seven and twenty-one days, which usually happens in October and November.

‘At the end of fermentation the wine is cloudy and needs to be left to develop and settle a little – usually until January,’ she continues. ‘At that stage we have what we call base wine. It doesn’t have any bubbles and tastes like a light white wine with a lower alcohol content, less flavour and more acidity. So far, the process sounds similar to standard wine production, but it’s towards the end of the process that things get interesting. We then take that wine and mix it with yeast and sugar, fill it into glass bottles and seal it with a crown cap. The yeast eats the sugar, converts it into alcohol and gives off carbon dioxide as a by-product. Because the bottle is sealed, there’s nowhere for the CO2 to go and that’s how the bubbles are formed.’

As the yeast creates alcohol and bubbles, it leaves behind sediment; however when you buy a bottle of sparkling wine, it’s crystal clear. How winemakers following the Traditional Method remove this leftover yeast is brilliantly simple. ‘After aging the bottles with yeast, we need to go through two more processes, called riddling and disgorging,’ explains Cherie. ‘Riddling is a simple action where you basically turn the bottles upside down so all the sediment and yeast collects in the neck at the bottom. You then take the bottles and dip them into a freezing solution, so the yeasty liquid in the neck turns into a solid ice plug. Then it’s time for disgorging; once you turn the bottle over and remove the cap, the pressure in the bottle pushes the ice plug out and you’re left with perfectly clear wine underneath. You then reseal the bottles with a cork, add all the labels and the wine is ready to be aged.’

The wine will continue to age and develop in the bottle, eventually becoming one of five types of wine made by Nyetimber; Classic Cuvee, Blanc de Blancs, Tillington Single Vineyard, Rosé and Demi-Sec. For Cherie, however, there’s no time to sit down and relax with a glass or two – it has taken a full year, from growing the grapes to pushing the corks in, for the wine to be made, so at that point she’s checking and pruning the vines ready for the next harvest.

Nyetimber: a timeline

The vines grow grapes from April to June and left to mature in flavour until autumn

The grapes are usually harvested in October

The grapes are pressed and fermented throughout October and November

The fermented juice is left until January to develop

Meanwhile, the vines are pruned and prepared for spring

The wine is mixed with yeast and sugar then bottled to create carbonation, then left to age on ‘lees’, which means with the yeast still in the bottle

The bottles go through the riddling and disgorging processes to create a perfectly clear wine

From March onwards, the bottles are corked, labelled and left to age – while the new generation of grapes start to grow