By Athena Lucero
Wine country in England? Say what?
When I learned about winemaking in Hampshire, an hour's train ride south of London that's producing world-class sparkling wine, I beelined over the pond to see the vines with my own eyes. The weather was dry and unusually warm as we drove through the rolling hills in one of the largest agricultural regions in England tucked inside South Downs National Park.
Clive Tillbrook of Hampshire Tours was behind the wheel of a Land Rover Discovery. He's among the first to acquaint visitors with Hampshire wine country, including tastings and tours of the vineyards.
"Winemaking in the U.K. goes right back to Roman times," Tillbrook said, "but the sparkling wine business is young."
England's got the same chalk soil as Champagne, France, as well as the long, hot, dry summers. The main production here is sparkling wine, with an estimated 6,200 acres of planted vines, more than 500 commercial vineyards and more than 130 wineries.
We visited three different and notable operations — Hembledon Vineyard, Raimes Family Vineyard, and Hattlingly Valley, all part of "Vineyards of Hampshire," a friendly collective that raises awareness of the acclaimed wine region that's attracting even the French.
Touring 200-acre Hembledon Vineyard, the U.K.'s oldest commercial vineyard and the birthplace of England's bubblies, was a fantastic mini-course on the story of English sparkling wine.
The first grapevine was planted here in 1952 by Major Gen. Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones, a diplomat in Paris and wine-lover. His friends at prestigious Pol Roger Champagne House nudged him to take the winegrower's leap of faith, and by the late 1960s his still wines were winning awards. Today Sir Guy's vineyard thrives, rolling down the south-facing slope to the road.
In 1999 a restoration of Hembledon happened when biochemist, food analyst and wine-lover Ian Kellet acquired the historic vineyard. His research on the soil, climate, economics and study of oenology concluded that conditions were ripe for growing chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier— the noble grape varietals used for making Champagne. In 2013, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall — she's from a winegrowing family and was president of the U.K. Vineyards Association — opened Hembledon's winery, the only state-of-the-art gravity-fed winery in the country.
"Grapes are handpicked to minimize damage," said Steve Lowrie, Hembledon's marketing chief, as he led me through every step of the winemaking process. Simple gravity moves wine or must between tanks, "...not pumps, which can cause chemical changes."
Felix Gabillet, Hambledon's onsite winemaker and sparkling wine guru, and head winemaker Herve Jestin, among the best in Champagne, create utterly elegant cuvees.
It takes two fermentations to make sparkling wine. The second fermentation is when the yeast and sugar interact, creating flavor, aroma and bubbly magic. After aging on the lees (dead yeast cells) a minimum of 33 months, the yeast sediment is removed through the riddling process to achieve crystal-clear champagne.
"Riddling was invented by the Widow Clicquot," Lowrie said. In 1816 Veuve Clicquot, the grand dame of Champagne, found a way to remove the yeast sediment that caused cloudy champagne. She twisted upside-down bottles slowly until the loose yeast formed a "glob" at the neck and was then removed.
The same method is used today, but the neck of the bottle is frozen so that the yeast plug is popped out through disgorging. The bottle is finally corked, wire caged and labeled.
At Raimes Family Vineyard wife-and-husband team Augusta and Robert Raimes, fifth-generation tenant farmers, have diversified into viticulture with two 20-acre vineyards. The awards they have garnered attest to the quality of grapes they cultivate.
"It's truly a labor of love," said Augusta, who studied oenology. She and Robert (an agronomist) maintain the vines with other family members. For the bigger jobs, such as pruning and the harvest, they bring in larger teams.
"We are absolutely loaded!" Augusta said as we walked a row of picture-perfect fruit. "We're seeing an average of 20 bunches per vine — compared to only three last year because of the major frost event."
An active leader in Hampshire's agricultural organizations, Augusta is excited about the future of English sparkling wine.
"Hard work got us to where we are today, she said. "But future generations — our children — will enjoy the rewards."
At 60-acre Hattingley Valley, owned by Simon and Nicola Robinson, I got the bigger picture of the English sparkling wine "movement." Portuguese-born Claudia Lopes, who assists with Hattingley's marketing, events and tours, explained the all-important contract winemaking business because small vineyards (such as Raimes) don't have wineries and therefore rely on the services of contract operations like Hattingley Valley or Hembledon Vineyard (on a smaller scale). Both use French-designed Cocquard PAI presses, the Rolls-Royce of presses that squeeze out the precious juices with gentle horizontal pressure.
Emma Rice, Hattingley Valley's award-winning winemaker (two world championships), heads a talented team that makes 40 different wines. It's hard work keeping up the pace, Lopes said, but it's a feather in their caps when clients win awards. Hattingley's signature style incorporates the use of old French oak barrels in a small percentage of its wines.
With major expansions underway at Hembledon and Hattingley and with 2018's "harvest of the century" doubling capacity, the sparkling-wine business has awakened the sleepy English countryside as winemakers, pubs and lodgings open their doors to welcome local and international visitors eager to discover Champagne's sister across the Channel.
WHEN YOU GO
Hampshire Tours: www.hampshiretours.net
Tourism Hampshire: www.visit-hampshire.co.uk
Hambledon Vineyard: www.hambledonvineyard.co.uk
Raimes Family Vineyard: www.raimes.co.uk
Hattingley Valley: www.hattingleyvalley.com
Athena Lucero is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
The original vineyard at Hambledon Vineyards, the UK's first commercial vineyard, is the only gravity-fed winery in the country. Photo courtesy of Athena Lucero.