The Nyetimber Vineyard (Photo by Chris Gorman/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

An unaccustomed wine

30 years ago English wine was changed forever, and a vinicultural revolution began

Among all the excitement of the Platinum Jubilee, one important anniversary seems to have been forgotten. 30 years have passed since the first harvest at Nyetimber, the Sussex estate that put English wine on the map. Rather than make pale imitations of German wine — which is what most of the homegrown wine industry was doing — Nyetimber aimed at the very best of Champagne. Astonishingly, it succeeded with its very first release, a 1992 Blanc des Blancs. 

I was lucky enough to try a bottle last year, and after nearly three decades it’s still full of fruit and fizz but with a hazelnut quality like a fine old Burgundy. It came from the cellar of a Frenchman called Jerome Moisan who has a somewhat eccentric obsession with English wines, collecting old bottles and researching its history. The occasion was the launch of his business Pelegrims which makes high end toiletries from the leftovers of wine making.

Moisan thinks that first Nyetimber is every bit as important as such landmark bottles as Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 1973, the wine that introduced Californian wine to the world at the Judgment of Paris’ tasting in 1976, or Penfolds Grange 1951, which did a similar thing for Australian wine. For him English wine is particularly fascinating because we get to witness the birth of a new wine region, “a once in a generation occurrence”.

As Cherie Spriggs, the estate’s winemaker since 2007, put it, “without Nyetimber, there is no English wine industry”. And we owe it all to Americans. The founders were a couple from Chicago called Stuart and Sandy Moss. He had made a fortune from manufacturing dental equipment while she was an archaeologist and antique dealer. They bought a mediaeval manor house, Nyetimber, that had previously belonged to Henry VIII.

Moisan thinks that prices at auction will top £1,000 soon

But the reason they wanted the estate was not just for the house, but for the greensand soils and warm microclimate. Their plan was audacious: to plant only Champagne varieties, chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, and only make champagne-method sparkling wine. They weren’t the first in England to plant these varieties, nor were they the first to make sparkling wine. But what they did bring was money and a singularity of purpose — two things that were distinctly lacking in English wine when they planted vines in 1988. According to Sandy Moss, who I spoke with recently: “we couldn’t figure out why we couldn’t do it, so we could”.

The experts thought they were mad and advised them to plant apple trees, but the Mosses were vindicated with that very first vintage. Released in 1996, this all chardonnay Sussex sparkler beat the best of France in a blind tasting in Paris. As Stuart Moss put it: “The gods smiled, we had the right sites, the right varieties and everything went well for us.” It started a goldrush in the English wine industry with specialist sparkling wine producers like Ridgeview coming on the scene while established names like Breaky Bottom switched to champagne-style sparkling wines. 

Following a run of successful releases, the Mosses sold up in 2002 to songwriter Andy Hill who you might know from hits such as “Making Your Mind Up” for Bucks Fizz. It’s now owned by Dutch billionaire Eric Heerema who has poured an estimated £100m into the business with the aim to turn it into a global luxury brand. The wines are made by husband and wife Canadians Brad Greatrix and Cherie Spriggs. In 2018, Spriggs became the first person from outside Champagne to win Sparkling Winemaker of the Year at the International Wine Challenge. 

According to Greatrix, Nyetimber doesn’t have anything planned for this important anniversary, and the 92 vintage is now too rare for them to release any more for sale. Overall there are probably fewer than 100 bottles globally, and a good many of them are in the Moss’s cellar in California. Nowadays, sadly, the few left have become collectors items. Moisan thinks that prices at auction will top £1,000 soon, so it’s unlikely I’ll ever get to try it again. 

But never fear, here are five other bottles to celebrate English wine week, 18-28 June, and toast those amazing Mosses. Cheers!

Westwell Wicken Foy NV (£27.50)

A special cuvee launched by this small-scale Kentish producer (who supply Pelegrims with grape matter) to celebrate independent wine merchants. It’s a blend of vintages from 2014 to 2019 and aged for only 18 months to accentuate the fruit. Absolutely delicious and a snazzy label, too. 

Bolney Estate Cuveé Rosé 2018 (£30.90)

Made from 100 per cent pinot noir grapes which are given a little skin contact for colour, this is a rosé with guts. It’s all about big red cherry fruit and herbal notes, like a light red wine, with creamy notes from maturity. Enormous fun. 

Nyetimber Classic Cuvee NV (£36.50)

Nyetimber’s entire range is impressive but it’s the classic non-vintage that shows why it’s still the biggest name in English wine. This is creamy with lemon and orange fruit, with a subtle richness lurking in the background; impeccably balanced. 

Ridgeview Blanc de Noir 2015 (£50)

Ridgeview is the master of English sparkling wine, making a variety under its own label and for other producers. This is one of its high end wines and its extremely good. Made only from pinot noir and meunier, this is rich and mature with powerful dark cherry fruit, spice and tobacco. 

Breaky Bottom Cuvee Koizumi Yakumo 2010 (£69)

When the rest of the English wine industry switched to champagne varieties, Peter Hall persisted with seyval blanc. Tasting this you can see why it’s astonishingly fresh and lemony, now deeply flavoured and perfectly balanced by 12 years ageing. A cult wine that’s worth every penny. 

Vines in a Cold Climate: the people behind the English wine revolution by Henry Jeffreys will be published by Atlantic summer 2023.

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