There must be something in the water down at Nyetimber. And in the air and the trees and the soil, too. This is England at its most green and pleasant — some beguiling microclimate, some republic of sunshine, which defies wet Octobers and laughs in the face of grey mornings. Down on the rolling, vast West Sussex estate, as you career past rows and rows of green and stately vines, heavy with swollen grapes, you sense something familiar and yet different — an uncanny valley with actual valleys. “It’s just like France!” you want to say, only you stop yourself, because really it’s just like England, and we’ve just forgotten.
The fact is, they’ve been growing grape vines in the UK for ten centuries or more. But back then they mostly planted dour, flabby Germanic varietals that rarely delighted and paled in continental comparison — and so we left the winemaking down to our frenemies across the channel, and contented ourselves with mild ales, rocket-fuel ciders and lots and lots and lots of gin instead. Until, of course, some enterprising winemakers set up camp on this sloping section of little England, back in 1988, and planted the grapes everyone said they shouldn’t: chiefly Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunière, and Chardonnay. These are the stately stalwarts, you’ll notice, of the Champagne region. But to airdrop them into leafy West Sussex must have looked foolhardy in the extreme, like building an ice hotel in the Serengeti. Some thirty-ish years later, however, on an unfeasibly warm day in mid October, Gentleman’s Journal headed down to Nyetimber and this gorgeous microclimate to reap the benefits of such folly. Rarely has innovation tasted quite so exquisite.
The day begins at Nyetimber’s White Barn, where the vista cascades slowly through mature gardens, chubby topiarised hedgerows and very English ponds to the rolling valleys below. It is just a short jaunt by charabanc from here to the handsome vineyards which are being harvested as we speak, where the vibrant green vines hang rich with pert black grapes, and an especially thin tractor makes its quiet way down the many symmetrical tramlines. The grape bundles are still cut by hand here with heavy, sharp, silver secateurs that are fine objects in themselves (the tools, with all these things, are almost as important as the process.)
- We’re told to cut the taut, juicy bundles near the stem, but only when they’re the right shade of deep, ruby-black — anything green and tart will have to wait a few days. We then lower them, handful by handful, like precious purses, into 15kg crates that dot the furrowed field (anything larger and the grapes will begin to crush themselves, so to speak.) These are collected by tractors, who take them into one of the most spectacular buildings I have seen in recent years — a sort of Thunderbird lair of stainless metal vats, whirring conveyor belts, tumbling equipment, jostling robot arms and amber blinking lights. What comes out the other end, however, is as natural and earthy and life-affirming as toast — a kind of uber grape juice like you’ve never known before, already exhibiting structure and sophistication and a refreshing tartness, but rounded out by fresh sugars and sun-filled depths. This is a stepping stone to the final product, of course, and you could have forgiven the genius winemakers for stopping right there. But when we taste the real thing — over lunch hosted by CEO and owner Eric Hereema, down in an artfully slung stretch tent in a clearing in a sun-drenched vineyard — you understand why they go the extra furlong.
Each of the Nyetimber offerings is a classic in its own right, and distinctive enough to justify the broad, ambitious range. The Classic Cuvee plays things with a straight bat — fine golden bubbles with toasty, spiced notes — before apple strudel flavours and a touch of the old almond croissant sing through. The Blanc de Blancs is the very spirit of elegance herself, its fragrant honeysuckle flirting with white peach and leavened with a fresh, zesty acidity.
The Cuvee Chérie, meanwhile, is a wine with notes of honeyed apricot and an almost savoury finish, which does its best work after a forkful of decent pudding. But it’s the Tillington Single Vineyard that, in my opinion, seems to triumphantly steal the show — a shimmering, pale gold wine with toasted meringue caught in its bubbles, and beguiling notes of fine strawberry and mandarin on the palette. It is the perfect and most pleasing reminder of what the very best sparkling wines can be. But more than this, it is a wonderful evocation of the fields and trees and gentle slopes around us — a place always green, ever pleasant, and unmistakably English.
For more information on the range, do visit the Nyetimber website.