All images provided by Gusbourne Estate, unless otherwise indicated
English wine is on the up! From humble beginnings with low volumes and a fairly low reputation, it's now seen as one of the more exciting categories in the wine world. Unsurprisingly sparkling wine continues to lead the way with two-thirds of production dedicated to fizz. Yet, you don't have to look too far to also find still wines causing former doubters to sit up, take notice and swallow their Bacchanalian pride.
Where once the idea of an English wine winning an award would have caused an outbreak of mass hysteria, the medals just keep on coming. In the 2019 Decanter World Wine Awards, the country gained 138 medals, including 3 Best in Show, 4 Platinums, 4 Golds, 85 Silvers and 42 Bronzes.
Much of the success of English sparkling wine is based on its bracingly vibrant and fresh acidity, often allied to an orchard fruit brightness and increasingly elegant structure. English winemakers are undoubtedly becoming ever more proficient at their craft, overseeing wines that are gaining in complexity and finesse. Vines are older, reserve wines are building up allowing for more multi-vintage blends and viticulturists are gaining greater experience at determining which clones of each grape suit the soil types. Additionally, experimentation with malolactic fermentation and longer lees ageing are adding to the stylistic variance, elegance and attention to detail in the finished product. Global recognition of the quality of English sparkling wine is gaining traction with exports continuing to rise.
Climate change, or rather climate variability bringing with it increasing episodes of extreme weather conditions, is playing its part, both positively and negatively. Overall, the future looks promising and producers are doing their bit to assert their individual styles on to the world stage.
One producer doing things a little differently is Gusbourne, based in Kent, the south-east corner of the country known evocatively as the Garden of England. Their wines are currently available in 17 different countries worldwide, including the US, Japan and Scandinavia. Their Blanc De Blancs 2015 is also due to launch in Japan Airlines First Class, so what is the secret of their success?
Head Winemaker Charlie Holland has worked full-time at Gusbourne since 2013, but was involved from 2007. He recently spoke about his vision for Gusbourne and how they manage to create such distinctive wines based on their terroir.
While a third of their vineyards (30 hectares) comprise leased land in Sussex, the majority of 60 hectares lie in Kent on very different terroir. "They have heavier soils - clay/loam mixed with sand - and I think that's a key part of our style. Quite often people say that in the whole framework of English wine, Gusbourne wines are quite full, textured and rounded. Much of that I think is fundamentally down to the clay soil. We're at very low altitude, in close proximity to the sea. We're quite sheltered and as far east as you can go. All those things help to make quite a ripe climate. I would take that over the Chalk Downs any day of the week in terms of ripeness levels!"
Charlie Holland: image by Robin Goldsmith
Head of UK Sales, Neil Irvine: "We're trying to make the best possible wine we can every year and the ingredients for that can vary depending on the vintage."
The big change Charlie has noticed over the years is that they are now in charge of all their vineyards with more plots and soil types to experiment with. "We bought everything in-house in 2013. The reality is that we're in control of our own destiny. From a quality point of view, we have ultimate control and it gives us the ability to really get into the expression of the soils. So, in the early years, there may have been ten different tanks to play with to get the blends together."
This is in stark contrast to their current position. The 100 blocks are pressed separately, using up to three press fractions from each. These are vinified in 100 stainless steel tanks and 180 oak barrels, making around 280 base wines. The Gusbourne team can then select the final blends that go into their wines according to soil expression and vintage variations. "What we're trying to do is dial into each of those different areas and work out what each vineyard can give you."
Having different vineyard plots on different sites means that the winery has more control of each component and, therefore, control of style, as Charlie describes. "In Kent, where the soil is clay and loam with sand underneath, we find the wines really race away, while in Sussex, where there's chalk, this generally results in a linear, classic style of Chardonnay. However, in hot years in Kent, the Pinot Noir can be too phenolic and round, lacking direction, while on chalk in Sussex, it's perfect - bright, fruity and vibrant. Equally in a cold year, the Chardonnay on clay in Kent is much better than on the chalk in Sussex. In hot and cool years, the two sites complement each other and so we'll probably see less variation going forwards."
At Gusbourne, they focus on the three classic varietals - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier - with no plans to plant other grapes. They have 14 vineyards, split into around 100 blocks using 45 clones divided equally between Champagne & Burgundy clones. This allows for plenty of varietal expression and blending options. "To get consistency in different years, each block where possible is picked, pressed, fermented independently and tasted blind. From that, we try to recreate the blends. The Chardonnay elements that are more elegant, saline, mineral and citrus-driven will go towards the Blanc de Blancs. The ones that are rounder, fuller and fruit-driven will go towards our Brut and Rosé. So, we are able to get a consistent style, but still reflect the year."
Burgundy clones provide particular benefits that suit Gusbourne's wine style, as Charlie explains. "They are lower yielding. This is good for us, as we do a lot of green harvesting and we drop the fruit to increase the intensity and ripeness. Burgundy clones seem to respond well on our heavier Kent soils."
"With English wine, the best thing we can lay our hat on that gives us vibrancy is acidity."
Key to a wine's appeal, longevity and quality is balance and this remains firmly within Charlie's winemaking philosophy, linked inextricably with terroir. "Soils and clones give the fullness you want to have. In the winery we're trying to accentuate that to a certain extent, but balance it with the acidity. Acidity can often be a dirty word, but it's really important as it's vibrancy, freshness, exciting to drink. We're trying to get that balance between what's exciting to drink versus what's underripe and sour. So, you get the fullness of expression and acidity at the same time. We work hard at that."
The use of oak carefully balances the sparkling wines' acidity, taking into account vintage variations, as Charlie notes. "We use about 10% oak for barrel fermentation, that's 7-8% old and 2-3% new. The main point is that our wines have great attack with the acidity and a good finish, but I think sometimes they can be a bit flat in the middle. So we use oak to fill that gap. In a hot year, we can use less than 10% and in a cool year, we can use more. You're not getting that toasty oakiness, but rather the texture and weight. There's salt and pepper spice and a little bit of complexity. That's our general principle. With lees ageing, our Brut is generally around three years, while our Blanc de Blancs is about four years. We find our wines need longer lees ageing to give that weight, texture and structure. Then we give them at least six months to a year on cork, to give that taste integration as well."
Additionally, bâtonnage is used judiciously during barrel fermentation and in tank. This is particularly important in cooler years like 2019 to build weight and structure in the base wine.
At Gusbourne, they currently have vines planted in single and double guyot, but they are moving towards double for better vine balance. "If you use single guyot", Charlie explains, "all the energy goes to the end of the vine and you sometimes get less growth or blind spots in the middle. So, by having two [canes and spurs], "you limit that risk. We do some arching of canes as well and that's to promote mid-growth. So really, it's just about not having big growth at one end with just a little in the middle. I don't think it necessarily has an effect on flavour, but it's to make sure the vines are in balance."
While in England, the trend is to focus on non- or multi-vintage blends, Gusbourne is very much focused on vintage. "Whether our wines are sold by a sommelier or by someone in a small bottle shop, it's about telling the story of the wine. Vintage is part of that story, but it brings challenges."
Blanc de Blancs, made from 100% Chardonnay, is one of the most terroir-expressive sparkling wine styles and probably the most age-worthy. Tasting six wines back-to-back, encompassing 2015, 2014, 2013, 2010, 2008 and 2006, showed both differences in vintage expression and potential for development.
In cooler years like 2015 and 2013, the Chardonnay exhibits an elegant, zesty vibrancy with a linear, fresh, citrus-led approach. In contrast, the 2014 which was a warmer year, displays a fuller, rounder character with generous mouthfeel.
"These wines have had between three and four years' lees ageing", says Charlie. "The real difference is in cork age. The 2015 has 5 months, 2014 has 1½ years, 2013 has 2½ years and 2010 has had 6 years on cork. There are not many English wines that have had such significant cork age. With time, all that oak binds together with the autolysis and cork age and you get that lovely creamy mouthfeel."
"Of all the wines, the 2008 seems to be in the best place with roundness. It's moved from minerality - there's still some there in the background - to brioche, toasty sesame seed and butter. This has had 8 years on cork, 3 years on lees and was disgorged in March 2012."
"The 2006 is the first vintage from 2½ year-old vines. It's more oxidative, but it's amazing that it's lasted, especially as from such young vines."
Overall, it's certainly a good sign for English wine that it can develop like this in different vintages and cooler years are not necessarily a disadvantage
"In cold years, there's a certain element of blood, sweat and tears", observes Charlie. "All the years where we have a really tough vintage, like 2010, 2013 and 2015 - where it's really late, there's often a bit of rain and you're not sure where it's going to end up - they generally produce the best wines. They last longer and evolve and mature in the bottle in the right way."
"2010 is a classic example of this. At the moment, the minerality is really accentuated in it - almost like an iodine/oyster shell type of wine. If you're trying to reconstruct the Blanc de Blancs every year, we look for three things - citrus backbone and structure, minerality and the creaminess you get from Chardonnay that you can build with lees ageing and time in bottle. This has always seemed to have those three in perfect symmetry. Now it's definitely moving towards a more middle stage."
"The thinking is that in England, your hotter years will be your best years, as it's a cool climate. In reality, I find it's the other way around for us. I think that in cool years, you have wines that are really age-worthy."
The latest Gusbourne sparkling wine release is the Blanc de Noirs 2016, made from 100% Pinot Noir. For Charlie Holland, this represents a logical step in Gusbourne's journey. "I always thought there was a gap. The Blanc de Noirs must be the opposite of the Blanc de Blancs - the Yin and Yang - broody, powerful, big and juicy, all the things Blanc de Blancs isn't. We can do it in a hot year like 2016, but not every year as we don't have enough Pinot Noir."
The grapes for the Blanc de Noirs come from both Sussex and Kent, split equally between the two. "That highlights the benefits of both worlds", describes Charlie. "You have the ripe, full muscularity from the clay and the elegance, lift and structure from the chalk. So, we play around with those different elements and they help. Quite often in a hot year, you need the chalk to bring you elegance and in cool years, you definitely need the clay to give you ripeness. They balance each other out."
On tasting, the wine certainly lives up to these observations with an enticing light bronze colour, concentrated Pinot fruit purity on nose and palate plus a savoury edge on the finish.
Further new releases are being planned, including some single vineyard wines. As Neil Irvine, Head of UK Sales says, "We want to start celebrating the sense of place and time." In essence, the Gusbourne team are keen to express the best characteristics of each vineyard with every release. Currently, their wines are a blend of grapes from both sites. Some have a majority of Kent grapes, while the latter vintages have more Sussex fruit in them as these younger vines come into maturity.
Gusbourne also supplies third parties, including Asterley Bros. who use their Pinot Noir for Vermouth and Amaro production. "It's really nice for us that we can provide them with wines that we don't necessarily need to put into our programs", notes Charlie. "Sparkling wine in particular is a wasteful process. You don't use all of the pressings, so we're trying to find different outlets for this. We think it's important to be environmental in what you do."
English wines are diversifying in style and Gusbourne's show a clear identity. "In the early years", recalls Charlie, "everyone was following the same recipe for sparkling wines. We weren't getting much lees ageing or cork age. Generally, there was a lot of similarity within the wines, but as the industry's become older, people are experimenting more. Some people are doing non-malo, barrel fermentation or longer lees ageing. We have much broader flavour profiles which is really exciting."
The Gusbourne Effect is not the name of the latest blockbuster sci-fi film! It's a leading English wine producer's vision of turning grapes grown on English soil into world-class wine that reflects the vintage and soil in a unique way. With more styles of both still and sparkling wine emerging within our relatively young home-grown industry, Gusbourne's position is clear and hugely positive. "There are lots of different styles", says Charlie Holland. "It would be boring if we were all making the same wine. So, I think that's really encouraging." Encouraging and exciting indeed!
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gusbourne is continuing to offer free delivery to all UK mainland destinations with no minimum purchase requirement. More details on the English wine industry's response to the coronavirus lockdown here. They've also launched an initiative to support the hospitality trade, called Time Well Spent, sharing thought-provoking food and wine insights. More information can be found here.