Catnip to ‘homeless’ grape growers.
Yawn, contract winemaking. Surely this is one of the dullest sectors of our industry? But no – it is a vibrant and vital division of the English and Welsh wine scene and there is a liberal dusting of stardust in the air making some of these hook-ups more than magical partnerships.
Opposite, I have picked three wines which are catnip to ‘homeless’ grape growers. This is not an article about rosés, but I have intentionally chosen this style because it is the most technically challenging of all sparkling wine styles in our land.
If you own a vineyard and have a strong desire to design and sell your own brand, but you do not want the stress and expenditure of setting up your own winery, then you need to find a skilful partner. If you buy and drink each of the wines opposite, they are the liquid business cards of each of their respective winemakers, management, support staff and winemaking equipment.
I will admit a modicum of bias here, as I have known Emma Rice for a very long time and I have followed her career from working for Domaine Direct, an elite Burgundy importer, via her move into winemaking and all of the way up to the current day where she makes no less than 60 wines for her own brand Hattingley Valley and hosts of others, too.
Emma sees every grape from 21 different vineyards turn up at her winery door and she decides what to do with them and where they will end up. This is multidimensional skill of extremely high-level vinous intellect. On the one hand, smaller, often fledgling, brands can subtly use Emma (and therefore Hattingley’s) name to underline the gravitas of their wine when it comes to their own marketing, but on the other hand, Emma’s own wines directly benefit from top quality fruit as the barter system of ‘we will take some of your grapes in return for making your wine’, allows Hattingley to grow their market share, while using great raw materials, without having to buy more vineyards.
These symbiotic relationships, along with the mutual respect which is critical to arrangement, clearly encourages those involved to grow better fruit at the same time as allowing the winemaker to make finer wine.
Obviously, pure contract winemaking is a one-way street, but fruit-swopping and then collaborating along the path of making a wine is extremely exciting. While some clients simply drop off grapes and then wait a few years for clean-skin, or labelled bottles, to be sent back to them, others get involved in blending, dosage trials – the whole nine yards.
Emma lets her growers know what is possible, when she assesses their fruit, and also what is not and then they work together to make the best wines they can. She is not alone. Simon Roberts at Ridgeview and Dermot Sugrue are the other two people whose many wines are featured on the facing page and who wouldn’t want these massively talented chaps making your wines?
Contract winemaking is not only a contract but a commitment, a relationship, a mutual respect mechanism which benefits both parties, and ultimately the most powerful way to improve the quality, year on year, of an impressively large number of wines in our country.
Hattingley Valley, Hampshire
My featured wine is one of the most alluring and controlled rosés in the country. The nose is hypnotic and the texture is silky and long. It is everything you could possibly want and it is clearly everything that the following list of wine brands also admires.
It was immense fun talking to Emma about these estates because she couldn’t help herself blurting out just how much she loves the fruit coming in from some of these vineyards. This further underlines how passionate and involved she is with bringing her clients’ wines alive.
Here is a list of the hall of fame of brands which passes through Hattingley Valley’s winery and, while some of these are not yet on the market, these are all names to look out for – Raimes, Alder Ridge, High Clandon, Laverstoke, All Angels, Roebuck Estate, Louis Pommery England, Priors Dean, Winding Wood, Southcott, Cottonworth (a huge favourite of mine, too), Heppington Vineyard, The Grange, Bath Sparkling. Past alumni include Black Chalk, Court Garden and also Blackdown Ridge. Phew.
NV Fitzrovia Rosé
As well as the imperious Marksman label at M&S along with The Wine Society’s and Booths’ own label sparklers, which I have featured in this column before, Simon Roberts makes sparkling wines for Beacon Down, Castle Brook Vineyard and Tinwood Estate, Ridgeview’s larger partnership vineyard.
I have followed Ridgeview’s progress since they burst onto the wine scene twenty years ago and I see refinement as every single year passes in their wines. It is remarkable that this is possible, but not surprising when you consider how meticulous the teams are in every department of this inspirational company.
Fitzrovia was a wine which I would normally skip past heading for their Blanc de Noirs – usually my favourite wine. But in the last few years, this has become one of the most riveting rosés in the UK and that is down to extraordinary hard work and impeccable taste. I also love the way that their tell-tale rosehip notes are still present in the glass – the nose alone gives me goose bumps!
NV Cuvée Rosé, South Downs
My third rosé is Wiston’s non-vintage wine which, curiously, I favour over their own vintage version! This is because I like light-hearted, bright, generous rosé and I do not necessarily need this wine style to make the long haul.
Wiston’s cheeky, early-drinking rosé manages to gather gravitas and palate depth while not overstepping the mark on weight or power. This is very clever indeed. Dermot Sugrue is the wizard behind (or, more often, in front of) the scene.
Along with the handsome Wiston portfolio he makes Ashling Park, Black Dog Hill, East Meon, English Oak Vineyard, Jenkyn Place Vineyard, Malthouse Estate, Oastbrook Estate, Southlands Valley Vineyard, Woodchurch, Digby Fine English and also Dermot’s own elite brand Sugrue, which includes my highest scoring English wine to date, Sugrue ‘Cuvée Dr Brendan O’Regan’. Wiston also disgorges the Breaky Bottom sparklers, too. This list features hobby estates and powerhouse brands and it is to Wiston’s and Dermot’s credit that they all retain their character and typicity in the glass. Bravo.