OK, I exaggerate slightly, the truth is that I did the last stages of making a bottle of fizz, but if I had called this post “Finishing a bottle of English sparkling wine”, you would have thought that I had just drunk a whole bottle, which wouldn’t have been that much to shout about…
It all started on a very cold Sunday in early March. I heard on Twitter that Hambledon Vineyard were going to be at Hampshire Farmers Market at Petersfield, so I popped down to see them. I had a taster of Mill Down 2010 (Chardonnay 66%, Pinot Meunier 20% & Pinot Noir 14%) and a chat with the guys. Ian Kellett the founder and MD was very excited about an upcoming evening workshop where visitors would get to taste the effect of different dosage levels of sugar added into a bottle of sparkling wine at the final stage of its production and to actually make a bottle to their own taste, adding the cork, label, etc. themselves. He said that at the first session people had left cradling their bottles like a new-born baby, so proud were they of their handiwork.
I had a look round the rest of the market, bought myself some local Tunworth Cheese, a piece of venison and a bottle of Seyval Blanc from other stallholders as well as a bottle of Mill Down, so a good day out and some tasty treats to look forward to. I kept thinking about the workshop, though, and by the end of the next working day, I had talked to a friend and booked places for us both.
Just to clarify the process for anyone who isn’t so familiar – in the traditional method used for making sparkling wines in the UK, which is exactly the same way as in Champagne, still wines are first made and blended. These blends are then bottled with some more yeast and a cap like on a beer bottle for a second fermentation. The fermentation takes place over a matter of a few weeks, leaving a by-product known as “lees”. How long the wine is left “on the lees” is yet another decision the winemaker has to make, but at the end of that process the bottle ends up neck-down, having been riddled either in the old fashioned way using a pupitre (turning bottles by hand in a wooden frame) or more mechanically with a gyropalette. Either way, the lees ends up just inside the cap, the neck of the bottle is frozen, the cap is removed and the frozen lees fly out. At this point, there is another choice to be made – a small amount of wine and sugar can be added before the real cork is added and the bottle finished for sale. Our job as I understood it would be to choose the level of sugar to add at that final stage.
Between booking the workshop and last Friday, I visited a few vineyards and spoke to a few outstanding winemakers, so it seemed foolish not to pick up some tips! Liam, who made the Judgment of Parson’s Green winning Langham Estate Cuvée said that “amateurs” usually pick a level that is too sweet. Both Liam and Will of Davenport Vineyard said that wine will develop further after final bottling and will lose a little sweetness. Finally I spoke to Brad Greatrix of Nyetimber. He explained that freshly dosed wines always taste a bit awkward and also mentioned that I would be surprised at the changes the wine will go through after this process. At Nyetimber they usually trial 3 sugar levels and 2-3 different wines used to make the dosage, so 6-9 options to chose from, they also taste the wines 3 and 6 months after addition. All this was really interesting, albeit way more than I would be able to do with a single bottle. Brad’s final piece of advice was just to trust my own palate and to reassure that there’s no wrong answer when making a single bottle for myself.
Finally the evening came. For various reasons that day had become a bit frantic, so I ended up driving up the long drive between the vines at Hambledon somewhat bedraggled and with a lot on my mind, but a welcome from a dapper Ian himself and a glass of Mill Down soon put Susan & me at our ease. There was an excellent turnout of around 25 people. Ian introduced his team and the inimitable Joe Wadsack, a wine expert who was to guide us through the evening. I’d seen Joe described on Twitter as “quiet but confident” when tasting, which didn’t describe the ebullient character before us at all. Growing up with superb food and wine has given Joe an immense knowledge, which he conveys in what I can only describe as a lively and entertaining manner.
Joe and Ian made quite a double-act, leading us through a little of the history of winemaking in Hambledon (the UK’s oldest commercial vineyard) and then the first tasting began, for which the only qualification needed was the ability to tell our left from our right – phew, I can manage that one! The “tour of European sparkling wine” had barely been mentioned in the workshop information and was superb.
It’s typical of the professional and confident, yet not at all arrogant style of Hambledon that when comparing their wines with other styles, they had not selected something ordinary, but some very good examples of each type. Our first “left / right” comparison was a Prosecco and a Cava, but not just any old ones. A rather nice high end Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene Extra Dry NV DOCG was compared with Codorníu Reina Maria Cristina Blanc de Noirs 2011 – Susan, who’s a bit of an expert on Spanish wines was impressed. We then went on to try a Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV, followed by a comparison between a finer Champagne, Laurent-Perrier Brut NV against their very own soon-to-be released Hambledon Classic Cuvée, the first wine to bear the vineyard’s name and one which is already gaining a bit of a following. Apart from the fact that the “entry level” Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV was widely considered more impressive than the significantly more expensive Laurent-Perrier, which was deemed as probably rewarding more time in bottle, the quality kept going up. Ian stressed that he wasn’t trying to say that the Hambledon was better, but to show that it is in the same class. I was really pleased to hear him saying that English wines are, and should be, different too, expressing our own terroir, not trying to be the same as Champagne.
As if all that wasn’t enough fun, we then went on to the dosage testing. We first tasted the Hambledon with no sugar (zero dosage), then with 3 different sugar levels, 0.06%, 0.08%, 0.10%. Just tiny amounts, but as we’d been told to expect, these made a huge difference. We each had to remember our chosen figure then after a break for a tasty snack, split into two groups, one to tour the winery first, the other to make their bottle.
The first step was to take the bottle out of the machine that had been freezing their necks. Then remove the cap, which was done in a fibreglass housing to allow the lees to fly out without damaging anything. Next came the addition of the chosen dosage, corking and adding the muselet (twist-top to keep cork in place), foil and labels. Members of the team and even Ian’s family were all on hand at each stage to guide us, but we did do everything ourselves. Ian was right about leaving cradling one’s bottle like a baby, too, we did feel rather proud of our efforts. He said we should open them on Christmas Day, so I have to be patient for the 8 months until then, arguably the trickiest part of the process for us students.
We finally left, way after the appointed time of 9:00pm and that was without our winery tour, which we decided to come back for another day.
Whether you are looking for an entertaining evening out, to further your knowledge of English wines or to learn more about the process of traditional method wine-making, I can highly recommend the Hambledon Club Workshop – keep an eye out for upcoming dates. It seems quite expensive, but I definitely feel I got value for money when you include the price of the fizz you get to take home. The only thing we could have planned better was not to have been driving. If you live near enough, get a taxi, if not I’d suggest using this as the beginning of a long weekend – find somewhere nice to stay locally and there are lots of other things to enjoy in the area too, from the heart of sailing in Hamble, to shopping at Gunwharf Quays and the lovely surrounding countryside and attractions that Hampshire has to offer.
If you do go, let me know what dosage level you choose and I’ll tell you mine!