Nyetimber – the stuff of dreams
1st October 2014
The night before my visit to Nyetimber I slept badly. I dreamt that I was walking among crowds of people towards the vineyard and was distracted by a giant winery that had somehow been transported from Champagne to the street where I walked. I wandered inside, spent ages exploring and eventually found myself in a tasting room, only to discover that all of the wine had gone. Then I suddenly remembered I was supposed to be elsewhere and was terribly late. I woke up in a panic, fearing I’d missed my time slot at Nyetimber.
Visits to vineyards don’t usually disturb my unconscious. But this one was going to be a little bit special. Nyetimber was the first English sparkling wine I drank, on the first night of my honeymoon (spent in England, of course) in 2001. It was also the wine my wife and I drank with fish and chips on the first night in the flat we moved into ten years ago and the first of twelve 2001 vintage wines we drank to celebrate out 10th wedding anniversary (over the course of a year, not all on the same night!) I’ve wanted to visit for a long time and the fact that it has never opened its doors to the public only added to the allure. So I was very excited when I found out that Nyetimber were going to hold two open days and that at last I could see where it all began.
And I don’t just mean from a personal perspective. This is where the current renaissance of English sparkling wine started when in 1988 the then owners Stuart and Sandy Moss planted a vineyard of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the three classic Champagne varieties. These three varieties now make up almost half of all vines planted in the UK, but 25 years ago this was a novelty.
Making sure I arrived in plenty of time (no chance of over-sleeping at least), I caught my first glimpse of the manor house from the drive. Then, from the parking area, the path down to the property offered up a view of ancient buildings clustered around a small lake. I made my way to the White Barn to await the start of the tour and was invited to take in the view and walk around the immaculate garden while current owner Eric Heerema and wife Hannah mingled, making us feel like guests rather than paying visitors.
We were then welcomed and given a brief introductory talk about the property and its long history (a mention in the Domesday Book, links with Henry VIII, his advisor Thomas Cromwell and his fourth wife Anne of Cleves) before splitting into two groups to walk around the vineyards. We soon passed the old winery, used for storing machinery now that increased production has made it necessary to relocate to a larger facility and one not situated down narrow country lanes. The wine is still produced in West Sussex and, although it would make for a more informative visit to see the whole of the production process from vine to wine, this was a pilgrimage, not a factory tour.
Walking past the remains of the medieval deer enclosure we arrived at the first vineyard, planted with Chardonnay vines whose thick trunks indicated their maturity. Then on to the Pinot Noir and the Pinot Meunier. The grapes were looking lovely and the vines smartly trimmed ready for the attentions of the team of more than 300 pickers who would shortly arrive to harvest them. They tasted great too, when we were surprisingly invited to sample them from the vine. The tour wasn’t as in depth or technical as at some vineyards but was informal and informative and well pitched for the audience comprised mainly of smartly dressed couples.
Having completed the circular walk back to the manor house we stepped inside the Medieval Barn for the tasting, to find it candle-lit following a power cut. Light reflected gently off the glasses on the table, three per place setting and with the message ‘Nyetimber, British and Original’ subtly engraved on the base. At one end of the barn Nyetimber branded ice buckets, umbrellas and wooden trays stood on a counter, an altar to English sparkling wine.
The tutored tasting began with the Classic Cuvée 2009 (55% Chardonay, 26% Pinot Noir, 19% Pinot Meunier) which had a lovely depth, richness and length to rival anything from France. Then on to the Rosé 2009, crisp and taut and followed by the opulent 100% Chardonnay Demi-Sec. Nyetimber are the only English producers of this type of wine from these varieties, a style not often found even in Champagne where the trend has been towards ever lower, not higher, levels of sweetness. These three wines were presented as being both ideal for matching with a meal, from starter to dessert, or drinking on their own, and it was good to have the opportunity to compare them. There was plenty of opportunity to ask questions and although the large group size made it difficult to really engage with the audience, wine makers Cherie Spriggs and Brad Greatrix and other members of the team were available to talk to afterwards.
Everyone was encouraged to take advantage of the special cellar door prices on a range of wines, including some harder to find examples and if buying a 6 bottle case then the £20 cost of the tour ticket was refunded. If I wasn’t very soon going to be moving house I’d have taken full advantage but as it was, I settled for a Classic Cuvee 2005 and a 1998 Blanc de Blancs. After all, I’m going to need something to drink with the fish and chips again this time.
Glass of Bubbly
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