Travel broadens the mind; it also lends perspective to home-formed views.
Prague and Czech wines
My European sortie started in Prague, where, for five days I travelled with a group of singles. I guess the common attraction was the city itself, otherwise we were a motley group of 30 (just four men!); although several drank wine, that was the limit of their interest in it.
Even at this level, the Czech wine industry should learn a lesson of how to profitably engage with visitors. Constraints of the travel company’s budget meant meal-time drinks were limited to one glass (beer or soft drinks were the alternatives to wine), delivered to the table as is, with no way of knowing whose or what wine it was.
Most wines were dull but serviceable, a notable exception was a truly awful red wine so volatile, it was undrinkable. My complaint to the Tour Manager was met with ‘the others found nothing wrong’, but I was given another glass of something better.
My point is, the others, who had sufficient interest to ask for a glass of wine rather than beer or soft drink, might have had a more positive experience than ‘nothing wrong’ with better quality.
A brief visit to Vinograf, an excellent wine bar in Prague, proved that such quality exists. As far as I’m concerned, it was a lost opportunity to promote quality Czech wines, not only with our group, but any visitors to the country.
A lesson also for South Africa; always ensure the best wines within the budget are served, whatever the level of interest among the wine drinkers, especially bearing in mind the ever-growing tourism market.
England and English wine
I feel for anyone who attempts to create a wine route map of English wineries. There is never just one way to reach any of them, besides many are off the beaten track which involves driving down narrow, winding lanes. Experience getting to Breaky Bottom, Ridgeview, Wiston, Nyetimber, Camel Valley, Denbies and, recently Hattingley and Holmfirth, illustrates what a nightmare it would be.
Holmfirth is interestingly different from the rest in that it produces no sparkling wine, grows only hybrids and is located between Sheffield and Huddersfield in Yorkshire. If the vines look a bit weather-beaten, it’s no surprise; the wind howls across the exposed vineyard; yields are commensurately low, ie tiny. Three wines are produced: a white from seyval and solaris, a rosé both a bit acidic but fruity and clean with an oaked rondo red the best of the trio – very
The English sparkling wines from the southern vineyards of Hattingley are in a totally different league, as those of the other vineyards I’ve visited.
The rapid rise in quality of English sparkling wine is well documented but it needs tasting to fully appreciate how good the wines have become in a relatively short time. Hattingley’s first vineyard was planted in 2008, just ten years ago. Today, this winery owned by lawyer, Simon Robinson, has 65 acres (26.3 ha), both owned and leased, roughly half near the cellar, the rest in the Test Valley.
Local winelovers used to the monoculture of Stellenbosch would find strange the lack of vineyards around Hattingley cellar, a situation not unusual in England. The closest vineyard, a short drive away, is planted on a south-facing chalk slope to chardonnay, pinots noir, gris and meunier. Like many others, Hattingley carry out experiments in the vineyards; it is hoped improved growth will result from the clear plastic sheeting in the photo.
Diseases and pests are what one might expect; rabbits are a constant menace but winemaker, Emma Rice also mentioned badgers as fancing ripe grapes. As a protected species, various methods other than extermination have to be sought.
I first visited an English cellar back in 1976; then, Wootton Vineyard in Somerset run by the Gillespies was considered a pioneer in producing quality English wine in a cellar which now would look very artisanal. They also custom crushed grapes for other growers. Hattingley cellar, planned by Robinson and Rice, enjoys the benefits of equipment designed to help produce top quality bubbles. Oak is part of this, older barriques being used for roughly 25% of the wine.
Emma Rice, a Plumpton graduate, has worked in Napa and Tasmania and twice won Winemaker of the Year in the UK. She also founded Custom Crush, a wine analysis laboratory and winemaking consultancy for English wine producers, now run from Hattingley. She has also worked in most fields associated with wine including retail.
Rice and the Hattingley team produce sparkling wines which show a serious understanding of what constitutes quality; I was particularly impressed by the Classic Reserve (£30) a 50% chardonnay, 30% pinot noir, 19% pinot meunier, 1% pinot gris blend with 15% oaked and 20% reserve wine for added complexity and richness. Dosage of 7 g/l balances the bright acidity to promote a dry finish.
A Rosé (£35) from pinots noir, meunier and precose (fruburgunder) is aimed at a fruity style; the addition of 10% barrel fermented wine and two years on lees adds extra dimension without masking the fruit. Again balance without losing juicy brightness is achieved with 8 g/l dosage.
There’s also an England first in the red sparkling pinot and I saw a Prestige Cuvée sold at retail for £80.
Hattingley is considered among the leading English producers of fizz; considering the quality level already reached, they and the others I’ve visited and/or tasted, the future looks very bright. I say this with some confidence after also drinking some very ordinary Champagnes during my stay in England.