Meet the Winemaker: Charlie Holland – Gusbourne Estate

14th September 2015

It’s true that terroir and the work in the winery makes for good wines. Sometimes exceptional wines can be made from exceptional grapes derived from exceptional terroir in the hands of an exceptional winemaker. Down in the sunny south east of England we have terroirs that rival some of the best in Champagne, and new ones will inevitably be found as England’s vine acreage increases. Down here some of the best sparkling wines you’ll find anywhere are being made.

In our first article in this series we meet winemaker Charlie Holland, of Gusbourne Estate in Kent. Gusbourne Estate has quickly carved its niche in the world of top quality sparkling wines. Releasing its first (2006) vintage to great acclaim in 2010, it has since seen considerable investment in extensive new plantings and is planning a new winery soon.It is the only UK vineyard floated on the AIM stock exchange. In 2015 Gusbourne Estate pulled off a truly impressive haul at the IWSC with all six of their competition submissions taking Gold or Silver Medals.

We at The English Wine Shop are proud to stock their exceptional wines, including their Brut Reserve and IWSC Outstanding Gold Medal winning Blanc de Blancs 2010.

Charlie, was initially destined for a career in marketing but a season at a South Australian vineyard some 15 years ago, making a shiraz, changed all that. Bitten by the wine making bug he tells us how he became a winemaker, where he trained and those that influenced him. He’s part of Gusbourne’s story too, and understands the vineyards, perhaps better than most there, and crafts the wines into some of the very best available, here’s the interview:

How long have you been a winemaker?

I completed my first vintage 15 years ago, but have been making wine full-time for the last 10 years.

Where did you learn your craft? Not just in terms of your formal education but who influenced you and why?

My first harvest was in McLaren Vale in South Australia and this is where I cut my teeth as a winemaker. The passion and enthusiasm of the people I met there encouraged me to return to England and undertake a BSc in Oenology and Viticulture at Plumpton College. I have been lucky enough to work with some very talented winemakers around the world, but not least here in England, whom I constantly refer to for inspiration.

Tell us about your winemaking travels and experiences?

I have had the fortune to live and work in some amazing wine regions around the world. My work has taken me to Australia, France, California, Germany, New Zealand and England – each of them full of exciting and beautiful people and places.

Tell us a little something about the place you work and the vineyards there?

Gusbourne is an historic estate based in the village of Appledore and very close to Coast in the Kentish garden of England. The vineyards here are planted upon an ancient escarpment, which many years ago used to form the seabed. As a result the vineyards have interesting and unique soils that are reflected in our wines.

We also have more recently established vineyards in West Sussex. The soils here are quite different from our Kent vineyards, more chalk and silex, giving different expressions and characteristics.

Do you strive for a style or an ideal that people might relate to? Or are you your own sort of winemaker?

Our winemaking philosophy is somewhere between old and new world. We follow the traditional method of sparkling wine production, using winemaking techniques that have been used for centuries to create the best sparkling wine. However, we match this with the latest winemaking technology and science to ensure we are making the best wines we possibly can. The concept of minimal intervention is also very important to us. We want our wines to reflect the soils they come from and to do this we try to interfere with the natural processes of the wine as little as possible.

What makes the grapes from your vineyards so special?

England has one of the longest growing seasons in Europe. This means that because it takes longer to accumulate sugars, the grapes have more time to develop flavour and complexity.

The Gusbourne vines are primarily Burgundy clones as opposed to the Champagne so often grown for sparkling wine. The Burgundy clones tend to have a lower yield meaning that although we produce less wine, it enables the vines to fully ripen its grapes giving more flavour and complexity.

Are there special places or vines in your vineyards that really adds something to your wines?

It is difficult to choose a favourite as they all have their virtue and behave differently year to year. However, if forced to choose I think our Boot Hill vineyard in perhaps my favourite. Planted adjacent to the winery this is always the first site to ripen. We believe this is the result of a great microclimate (gentle south facing slope/low altitude/gentle breeze/complex soil) but also low yielding Burgundy clones that focuses all of its energy into the fruit. This is generally where our limited production still wine comes from.

Do you do anything special in your winemaking process that is just a little different and produces something a bit special?

Our key emphasis is to reflect the amazing vineyard sites we are lucky to work with. Therefore, none of our winemaking activities should detract from that. However, two of our greatest winemaking tools are time and patience. We are committed in not releasing a wine until we are confident that it is ready. As England is on the edge of global viticulture, our wines often take longer to develop, but it is more than worth the wait.

What’s your motivation for making wines?

I get immense satisfaction from putting a bottle of wine on the table that you have made and having something tangible you can share with your friends and family.

What do you think the future climate holds for your vines and your wines?

Our oldest vines are now teenagers with the best years of their life ahead of them. As they continue to get old, then wines should become better and better. It is difficult to predict what the future climate holds for English wine, but at the moment the weather is perfect for sparkling wine production.

What in your personal view, do you think, sets English and Welsh sparkling wines apart from the rest of the world?

Acidity. Often maligned, this is one of the most important components of sparkling wine. Fresh, ripe acidity makes our wines vibrant, exciting and refreshing.

The English and Welsh wine scene is also becoming more and more interesting. As a relatively new wine-producing region we are not restricted by many of the laws and legislation others are bound to. Whilst the focus must always be on quality, this freedom of restriction leads to creativity with more and more exciting new wine styles and winemakers.

Dosage is sometimes a point of contention. Do you have a view? Is less more?

Dosage can have a massive influence on a sparkling wine. It gives sparkling winemakers an advantage over our still winemaking friends as we have an extra opportunity to slightly adjust the wine before it goes out for sale.

I believe that every wine must be carefully considered and dosed accordingly to compliment the style of the wine. Balance is perhaps most critical, but the choice of base wine, the volume added and the sugar concentration are all important factors.

Dosage cannot simply be done by numbers – there is much more to wine than sugar and acid. Whilst dosage can help add complexity to the wine in my view it should not be obvious, more akin to seasoning. With this in mind less is definitely more.

What particular characteristics (or terroir) do you think your vineyards imparts into your wines? Do different parcels work a different magic on your sparking wines?

At Gusbourne chardonnay seems reflect terroir more than the pinots and tends to demonstrate more minerality. In particular some of our Chardonnay blocks pick up salty, maritime characteristics making it the perfect accompaniment to locally caught oysters.

Any views or points you’d want to make on vintage vs non-vintage?

At Gusbourne we choose to make vintage wines. That is because we believe there is a story in each year that we wish to express. However, making vintage wines each year does present the issue of how to maintain product consistency from year to year. Rather than create a Non-vintage we prefer to manage consistency through the blending process. By keeping all of our vineyard blocks and clones separate we end up with a large number of cuvees, allowing us to replicate house and blend style each year. Subtle use of oak, reserve wine and the length of lees ageing also help to create a consistent house style.

Glass of Bubbly

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