Thursday, 9 August 2018

Gimblett Gravels/Hawkes Bay revisit

Unison
The last time I was in Gimblett Gravels was three years ago in 2015 when I did a harvest at Unison Vineyard. I was only there for three weeks and left after all the grapes were picked. Therefore it was fitting that I went back to Unison during my extended winemaking journey but this time for post harvest work. I arrived two days after the last Cabernet Sauvignon was picked.

There is still plenty to do after grapes are picked, especially for red wine. My work included punching down, pressing, lots of racking, barrel work and blending trials. It was less frantic but still heaps to learn - how long should post fermentation maceration last and when to press; what to look for at blending, effective barrel stirring .... all under the guidance of highly-regarded consultant winemaker Jenny Dobson and owner Philip Horn.

Unison is a boutique winery with just over 40 tons of grapes processed this vintage. Working in a small cellar is totally different from working in a bigger one. It is more relaxed because everything is in a much smaller scale but it also means we have no one to pass the jobs to. More importantly, we need to be much more careful not to make any mistakes that may lead to unnecessary wastage or worst, ruin a batch of wine. After all, a litre of wine means a lot more to a small winery than a big one. We even put leftover samples back in tanks/barrels rather than chucking them down to the drain. I learnt to appreciate and save every single drop of wine.

Gimblett Gravels is a sub-region of Hawkes Bay that lies on the east coast of North Island of New Zealand. As the name implies, the soil is composed on a mixture of stones, gravels and sand. Unlike most vine-growing region, Gimblett Gravels (and in fact most Hawkes Bay) is largely flat but this free-draining gravelly soil enables the region to produce world-class wine. About 90% of vines are red varieties with Merlot leading the pack, followed by Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties. Merlot dominated Bordeaux blend is the jewel of the region but I think their Syrah, with the elegant cool climate pepper character combined with ripe dark fruits aromas, is the star. Depending on producers, Gimblett Gravels Syrah can be fruit-forward and accessible when young or refined, savoury with ageing potential.

Unison’s Syrah is of the latter style. Its current release is 2013 vintage. Philip kindly organised a vertical tasting of his Syrah from 2013 to the just bottled 2016 for me and it was fascinating. The oak regime was slightly different in each year but the wine certainly reflected the climatic condition of the year. 2014 and 2016 were warmer and both wines have good concentration while 2015, being a cooler year, resulted in a  more fragrant and slightly softer wine. I love the 2015 probably because I was there picking and processing the grapes!

Unison also makes a small amount of white wine from sourced grapes. This year there are six barrels of Chardonnay which I fervently stirred every other day, and a small tank of Pinot Gris. Because of different fermentation techniques, the wines have totally different but equally lovely texture. I found that Unison wine tends to be more restrained in general probably because Jenny has lived and made wine in Bordeaux for some 20 years.

Hand crafted wine
Perhaps because Hawkes Bay is not as well-known as Marlborough or Central Otago, winemakers are not pressured to only focus on one style of wine or one grape variety. I visited a few wineries and happy to see creative ideas abound. The most impressed was boutique winery de la terre with only 5.3 ha of vineyards consisted of Viognier, Chardonnay, Shiraz, Montepulciano, Barbera, Tannat with the latest addition being Tempranillo. Owner Tony Prichard spent 30 years making wine for big brand Montana that was eventually bought by Pernod Ricard. He said being a ‘corporate’ winemaker is like being in a trap with golden handcuffs that drains creativity. In late 2000, he made the decision to get away from industrial winemaking, built his own winery with local earth (hence the name de la terre), and since then made wine the way he wants. He said Viognier has a bad reputation of being fat and clumsy therefore he decided to make an elegant, textural Viognier that is not varietal driven. He loves being experimental hence all these non-mainstream varieties and stays away from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. His Grand Reserve Tanat is just superb!

Tony was not the only ‘corporate’ winemaker who started his own label, Warren Gibson of Trinity Hills created Bilancia in 1998 and they were joined by Rod Easthope, formerly chief winemaker at Craggy Range. Rod has two lines, Rod Easthope that is available at Naked Wines in the UK and Easthope Family Winegrowers, the top hand crafted wine that Rod has 100% freedom to do what he desires. The winery for this label is perched above the Ngaruroro River next to the family house and vineyard, a playground of Rod where he does 100% whole bunch fermentation and foot treading in 500kg bins for his red wine; and ferments white wine in concrete eggs and barrels. For those who dismiss Gamay as candied fruit drink in the form of Beaujolais Nouvelle, you have to try Rod’s Gamay Noir. It is elegant with profile not dissimilar to Pinot Noir. Apparently there are only around 6 ha of Gamay in the whole of New Zealand, and Rod has access to nearly half of it. He made his first Chenin Blanc this year in barrel but plans to ferment it in concrete egg next year.

Sacred Hill co-founder winemaker Tony Bish also ventured to start not only his label, Tony Bish Wines which only makes Chardonnay fermented in different vessels, but also The Urban Winery, a wine bar-cum-Tony Bish cellar in the historic National Tobacco Company Art Deco building in Napier. Tony is a big fan of egg. He designs, produces and markets his own version of concrete egg in New Zealand, and is also the first and sole owner of the 2,000l Taransaud wooden egg in New Zealand where he makes his Skeetfield Chardonnay from 14 rows of dry-farmed vines. This wooden egg was enshrined in the cellar and I had the privilege to touch it when I was visiting. Skeetfield is definitely one of the outstanding Chardonnays from Hawkes Bay but the Golden Egg, fermented in Tony’s concrete egg, is also exceptionally.

Last but not least is Jenny Dobson, former winemaker at Te Awa Winery and now consulting to a number of wineries at Hawkes Bay including Unison. She is also one of the few winemakers who made Pinotage and I was lucky to try her 2006 Pinotage three years ago and this time the 1999 vintage (Apparently there were quite a few South African
s in NZ wine industry in early days hence the plantings of Pinotage and Chenin Blanc). Anyway, Jenny is finally starting her own label and I was really excited about it. I stayed with her three years ago and again this time. She and her husband Charles are so knowledgeable that I more than double my learning during my stay in New Zealand. Jenny’s first wine is Fiano and the label has an erupting volcano in the background to emphasise the origin of Fiano. We had a couple of bottles and my conclusion was 4Fs: Fiano-Fruity-Flinty-Finesse. Jenny also has a red wine in barrel but has yet to decide on the final blend.

Because Hawkes Bay is not dominated by one grape variety, winemakers are flexible to play with less common ingredients. Jenny, Rod the two Tonys and Warren, talented and experienced, are handcrafting wines from different varieties in small quantities under their own labels; and this is exactly what makes Hawkes Bay interesting. I hope they can join force, perhaps something like The Douro Boys, to shout out to wine consumers that New Zealand is not as homogenous as we think and certainly there is a lot more tjhan Sauvignon Blanc.

Philip from Unison complained that because there is no direct international flight to Napier, the region is often overlooked. View Hawkes Bay as a hidden gem and make an effort to spend a few days there during your next visit to New Zealand. You won’t be disappointed.

Monday, 18 June 2018

Maxwell Wines: Max-well made wine

I planned my harvest gap year back in 2017 and asked for vintage work in my 2017 January newsletter. Mark from Maxwell Wines in McLaren Vale was the first to reply so there I was, for a month from mid March 2018. I only stopped at McLaren Vale for lunch a long time ago when I was visiting Australia as a tourist so it was a nice opportunity to get acquainted with this region which is only one hour drive from Adelaide.

Like most wine regions, 2017/2018 was an expected year. Most places started harvest earlier than usual, or even if they started later than usual, they still finished picking earlier as most grapes came in a shorter period of time. This happened in McLaren Vale as well. Mark told me that vintage usually starts around mid March but this year was a good two weeks earlier. By the time I joined the team, the whites (Chardonnay and Verdelho) have been picked so my work was mainly processing red grapes, mostly Shiraz but also Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Mourvedre. One of my duties were looking after the ferment including plunging-down where the side benefit was building my ABD muscles :)

Although moderated by sea breeze, McLaren Vale is still relatively warm and red grape planting is the norm.  Maxwell’s vineyard is planted with Shiraz, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon but there is also a small amount of Verdelho on poor soil. Luckily wineries are free to source grapes from other regions. Maxwell’s Chardonnay grapes come from Adelaide Hills next door and he also experiments with Kangaroo Island Shiraz. Its Silver Hammer Shiraz is generous, typical from McLaren Vale and is the best seller while the flagship Minotaur Shiraz is intense and deep. I particularly like the cooler climate wines including the Adelaide Hills Chardonnay and Kangaroo Island Shiraz. The barrel-fermented Verdelho goes particularly well with Asian fragrant herbs.

Probably because of culture but more likely because of labour issue, Australian wineries are highly efficient. Maxwell processes about 350 tons of grapes and there were only 4 people including me working in the cellar during vintage. Everyone worked individually, independently and often multi-tasked. Mark proudly explained that the grape receival flow including tipping grapes to the hopper, destemming, crushing and sending the juice either to the press or tank, was designed in such a way that only one person is needed to handle the entire process.

The family has been growing grapes for two generations but it was Mark who built the present winery some 20 years ago. He is still pretty hands-on in daily operation. Apart from being that single person responsible for grape receival (and he loves it), he tastes the fermenting juice every day and works closely with head winemaker Andrew Jericho to create the final blends.

A competent winemaker though Mark is, he is more of a marketing man and I think this is his secret of success. He conducts cellar tour and works at cellar door, talking to visitors enthusiastically and charming them to buy the wine. The wine quality is there but Mark’s extra nudge often converts visitors to customers and Maxwell has a loyal following.

While I was there, Mark was rebranding the logo from Maxwell to Max-well, a complete makeover from the more traditional visual to a contemporary one that plays on words (Max-well made, Max-well played, Max-well fed, and so on). Visit its revamped website,  it’s clever. Mark reckoned a young company without the long history and heritage needs to freshen the image regularly to attract new consumers - a marketing man talking!

The Maxwell family was in fact the pioneer of mead, wine made from honey. Mark’s father studied this ancient beverage and after numerous experimentation with different honey and yeasts, he finally released the first Australian commercial mead in 1961. As the saying goes, the rest is history. Maxwell is the largest producer of mead in Australia and success inspired others to follow suit. Currently there are four meads on offer: Honey, Sparkling, Spiced and Liqueur. They can be enjoyed straight, in cocktail or cooking. The diversification of the mead portfolio from the original honey mead is yet another evidence of the marketing thinking of Mark.

Maxwell Wines and honey mead are available in Hong Kong from wine’n’things.


McLaren Vale at a glance
My four weeks in McLaren Vale not only allowed me to visit other wineries, but also to explore the region.

The rolling hills are gentle enough for not-too-strenuous cycling, ideal for those who want to experience the region up close and at the same time, burn off a few calories. Hikers can wander around the numerous tracks in Onkaparinga River National Park and the pristine coast only 15 minutes from McLaren Vale is just perfect for beach lovers. No wonder both residents and visitors of Adelaide flock to this playground.


There are around 70 wineries in the region and they are surprisingly close together. Most offer cellar door tastings and a few, including Maxwell, have on-site restaurants that are extremely popular. The outstanding wineries I visited were:

Bekkers Wine: A boutique winery making only 1,000 cases of fine Grenache, Syrah Grenache and Syrah by husband and wife team, Toby Bekkers the viticulturist and French Emmanuelle the winemaker. They prove that wine at 15% alcohol can be elegant and with finese. Emma also makes a Chablis Premier Cru to complement the Bekkers range. They are looking for like-minded importer in Hong Kong.

Coriole Vineyards: Bound by no rules of the Old World, New World winemakers can experiment different varieties and style of wine. Coriole takes full advantage of this freedom by planting Italian varieties alongside the mainstream Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Grenache. When they released its Sangiovese in mid 1980s, hardly anyone could pronounced the name. Since then, the winery has introduced Fiano, Vermentino, Nero d’Avola, Sagrantino and Negroamaro to McLaren Vale. Owner Mark plans to experiment with a new variety every year. Their Fiano and Barbera are outstanding, and so is the Lloyd Reserve Shiraz. Their wines are available from East Meets West in Hong Kong and China.

Oliver’s Taranga Vineyards: Fifth generation family-run estate that is equally enthusiastic with non mainstream grape varieties. In addition to Italian varieties, the family also produces a Mencia Rosé (Spain), as well as thumbs-up Tempranillo and Sagrantino. Their importer in Hong Kong is Winemaster.com.hk

Waywood Wine: It’s always nice to meet someone in a far-away land and found out we are connected. Andrew Wood, owner of Waywood Wine is one such person as we both learned winemaking at Plumpton College. What attracted Andrew to settle down in McLaren Vale was his fondness of big Australian wine but what he actually made is not the typical jammy wine, but more refined and textural. The Grenache, Montepulciano and Tempranillo were impressive. Andrew’s wife runs the charming Luscious Red Kitchen, a relaxed café on site.

Yangarra Estate Vineyard: Part of the Jackson Family, Yangarra practises biodynamic viticulture and specialises in Southern Rhone varieties mainly in bush vines including Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Rousanne and Viognier. Their Roux Beaurte, a 100% Rousanne partly fermented in cement egg for 160 days has beautiful texture and minerality. The Ironheart Shiraz and High Sands Grenache are restrained with depth.

It is convenient to use Adelaide as a base to visit McLaren Vale and the nearby Adelaide Hills wine region. And when you are in Adelaide, Penfolds Magill Estate, the original home of Penfolds, is just 20 minutes from city centre. Drop by to taste their icon wine Grange, and even better, enjoy the wine at their Kitchen, a modern eatery that serves delicious food. I managed to catch up with chief winemaker Peter Gago an
d had a glimpse of their new but sold out creation g3. Unfortunately there was not tasting but Peter made it up by disclosing his future plan that I have to keep secret - watch this space!

If you have more than a few days to spare, make sure to drive up to Clare Valley, about 3 hours from Adelaide, for some of the best Australian Rieslings.

Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Harvests in South Africa

I first visited South Africa back in 1997 as a tourist and the country just blew me away. I was really impressed with the landscape, wildlife and most of all the friendliness of the people. It was also the first time I did tasting at cellar doors – at that time I was only an average wine consumer who didn't know much about wine. And it was this visit to a wine country that made me truly fall in love with wine. With my 12th visits back to the country just round the corner, the Cape Winelands never fail to amaze me.

This was my third time taking part in harvest in South Africa and I’m lucky enough to have worked at two wineries; Villiera Wines in Stellenbosch and Paul Cluver in Elgin, both family-owned estates.

MCC at Villiera
Villiera, in the Bottelary Hills sub-region of Stellenbosch, is one of the biggest players in MCC, Methodé Cap Classique, accounting for some 50% of its production. MCC is South African answer to Champagne, a sparkling wine where second fermentation must take place in bottle and that the wine must be aged on lees for at least 12 months. Any grape varieties are allowed but most MCCs are made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chenin Blanc and Pinotage. The Cap Classique Producers Association (CCPA) was established in 1992 by 12 like-minded producers who share the passions for bottle-fermented sparkling wine and are committed to promote South Africa’s premium MCC to the world. Today, MCC is widely recognised and smaller wineries are adding MCC to their portfolios. Now CCPA has over 100 members.

I spent four weeks at Villiera for MCC harvest and learnt a lot from the team led by Jeff Grier. Picking the grapes at the right time is obviously the key factor for making quality wine but it is even more so for sparkling wine in a warmer climate to pick the grapes just ripen in order to retain the acidity. Grapes are then pressed whole bunch at low pressure up to around 0.8 bar to avoid phenolic extraction (pressure in a bottle of champagne is around 5-6 bar). All MCCs at Villiera undergo full malo-lactic fermentation (MLF) partly to soften the acid but also to ensure only minimum sulphur dosage is required. Wine from cool climate region (Champagne, England) is naturally low in pH that deters bacteria growth, but not in the warmer Stellenbosch. With no or partial MLF, a much higher sulphur dosage is needed to prevent spoilage.

The winery has a capacity of 2,000 tons. However, being big doesn’t mean lack of innovation or experimentation. Villiera produces the first low alcohol MCC with 9.6% alcohol called Starlight Brut NV with 12 months on lees. Its Brut Natural vintage MCC, a Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) with natural fermentation and no additives, spends 3 years on lees to develop a creamy, yeasty aromas with a savoury palate. The grapes come from the best parcel on the farm and only tête de cuvée, the finer quality juice from the first pressing, is used for the wine. This year, winemaker Alexander experimented with fermenting a portion of the base wine in amphorae and old barrels for more elegance and better terroir expression. It will be very interesting to taste these wines, from the same juice and fermented the same way but in different vessels. He will fine tune the proportion of wine fermented in these vessels and perhaps include concrete egg for fermentation in future.

Apart from wine, what makes Villiera stand out is their commitment to sustainability, both for the environment and people. The estate installed solar power back in 2010, the largest in South Africa at the time, and feed back surplus to the grid. The country has been in drought for three years and Simon, the viticulturist cousin, is looking for ways to minimise water lost in the dams through evaporation. The family, in conjunction with two neighbours, set aside 220ha of land for indigenous plants and turn it into a wildlife sanctuary. They are planting 100,000 indigenous trees in order to become carbon neutral. To help future generations, Villiera provides space and buildings on site for the Pebbles Project, a charity organisation that runs over 100 mobile farm schools for children living on farms. I was talking to the cellar team and the staff is grateful that the company sponsor them for various training courses. All these initiatives are reflected on the back labels of the wine. Check them out.

Good news is that the full range of Villiera wine is available in Hong Kong. Contact wine’n’things for more details.

Cool climate wine at Paul Cluver 
Paul Cluver family owns De Rust Estate in Elgin since 1896. In 1989, the farm became the first farm to plant commercial vineyards and supplied cool climate grape varieties to Nederburg. Subsequently, the family built its own cellar and produced wine under its own label, Paul Cluver Wines, in 1998. At that time, popular red grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz were the norm. Following the advice of the late Paul Pontallier after his visit to the farm, the family switched the focus to Burgundian varieties. Thanks to Paul Cluver, Elgin today is recognised as one of two South African cool climate regions for excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

However, instead of blindly following Burgundy, Paul Cluver, the fifth generation and managing director, realised that Elgin is not Burgundy: Elgin’s soil is shallow while Burgundy’s is deep; Elgin rains for four months in winer and spring whereas Burgundy rains every two weeks in summer. Vines are therefore irrigated but they also work to improve the soil structure with optimum microbial activities so vines can be more resilient to climate adversity.

Andries Burger, cellar master and brother-in-law of Paul, experimented with different winemaking techniques to make wine that reflects South Africa and Elgin. The results? Paul Cluver produces Pinot Noir that expresses the purity of fruit supported by a poised structure, multi-dimensional Chardonnay, and an elegant Sauvignon Blanc with creamy mouthfeel and mineral finish. The soon to be released 2017 Riesling is delicate with fresh citrus and floral notes.

Andries is very strict with what goes into the fermentation tanks. At the first day of harvest, he personally explained, with photographs, to the 20-persons sorting team what must be removed from the sorting table. He believes the extra attention paid in sorting is responsible for the last 5% of quality increase in wine, pushing up the wine from good to very good. Not every winemaker may agree but this is his philosophy.  Only winemakers with strong beliefs can make wine with personalities and identities, and I fully respect that.

In addition to wine, the family also produces an apple cider, Cluver & Jack, with another winemaker Bruce Jack. This hand-crafted cider is made with freshly pressed apple juice from apples grown in De Rust Farm using the methodology of Jack family. It is refreshing but with the complexity that high volume ciders made with apple concentrate lack.

Paul Cluver’s website described the family correctly as a close-knit group with a visionary, pioneering spirit. What they didn’t say is that the family is also caring. The great-grandmother started a school in the farm that eventually became independent schools with vocational training in the community. More recently, The Hope@PaulCluver Amphitheatre was initiated where funds raised from the live performances at the farm’s amphitheatre were donated to improve lives in the community. In terms of environment, 50% of its 1,000ha estate is set aside for conservation and forms part of the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve. Last but not least, Andries and Anné the winemaker make sure us, interns, enjoy and learn during our brief stay on the farm.

Paul Cluver does not have an importer in Hong Kong yet but some of his wines are available at Marks & Spencer.

After thoughts
South African wine industry is generous. Social responsibility is at the hearts of most wine estates. Villiera and Paul Cluver are just two leading examples. In fact, the Cape winelands are pretty much involved in the Pebbles Project, a non-profit organisation that supports children and their families in farming communities by providing schools, child care, training and healthcare, The latest Hemel-en-Aarde Education Project, started in early 2017, supports nearly 100 children from the valley. The annual Cape Wine Auction in February raised a whopping 17million rand (around HKD11million) for Pebble Projects. Another industry group, The Cape Winemakers Guild, runs a Development Trust and various programmes to support social development through further education in the industry.

Their winemakers are not stingy in sharing. I had more than a few mind stimulating discussions with them, ranging from technical and science to soil and winemaking philosophy. One simple question could often end up in a 15 minutes exchange. Andries Burger, cellar master of Paul Cluver, loves to draw benzene rings to explain chemical reaction. Nathan, winemaker at Villiera, had thought-provoking questions on the differences between fortified wine from Portugal and South Africa, and sparkling wine from England and South Africa.

Harvest in South Africa is also sociable. Weekly wine hour, pre-harvest party, intern night, evening braai ...  Winemakers, interns and friends of various nationalities share jokes and experiences over glasses of wine. I miss the country and the people already!

Monday, 12 March 2018

English Sparklers

England has been making commercial wine for some 50-60 years but the wine was a joke as most of them was thin and tart. However, this did not deter the Englishmen from trying. Because of the marginal climate, the pioneers focused on sparkling wine made in traditional method using Germanic varieties such as Reichensteiner, Kerner and Huxelrebe. In mid 1990s, English sparkling wine started winning awards in international wine competitions and that attracted serious producers in the names of Ridgeview and Nyetimber. They planted only champagne varieties - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier to make sparkling wine that rivals Champagne.

The success of Ridgeview and Nyetimber inspired further planting of sparkling wine vineyards in Southern England. The investors were not only retired hobbyists but big boys from the city, farmers who converted their farms to vineyards, and not to mention foreigners with deep pockets. Existing wineries also jumped on the bandwagon and replanted vineyards with champagne varieties. The result? England and Wales now has some 2,000 ha under vines, with over 60% being Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier from 500 vineyards. Wine is made in the 133 wineries scattered from Cornwall to Kent.

England was part of the continent millions of years ago and the geology of the South Downs limestone ridge is in fact an extension of the Champagne region just 88 miles away. Combined this with the coolest cool climate and appropriate grape varieties, England, at least in the south, has the ideal terroir to make excellent fizz. Having tasted wines from more than 20 wineries, I am convinced that given the right marketing platform, English sparkling wine will have its rightful place in the international market. The fact that Pommery and Tattinger are setting up base in England is a testimony that even the French cannot ignore English bubbles.

English wine producers seem to have a fondness of Blanc de Blancs and Rosé sparkling wine. Blanc de Blancs from most wineries are excellent with precise acidity complemented by apple and citrus fruits with nuances of brioche and toasts depending on the time on lees, which ranges from 24 months to over five years. Chardonnay adapts very well to the English weather and soil, producing wine with finesse and elegance. Most Rosé sparkling is vibrant yet delicate with summer red fruits, again with crisp acidity. Some wineries are also experimenting with Blanc de Noirs and Cuvée Noir (red sparkling wine). Malo-lactic fermentation, a process that converts the harsh green apple malic acid to softer, creamier lactic acid in wine, is not generally encouraged in order to maintain the steeliness, which some winemakers described it as ‘Englishness‘.

Fizz aside, English still wine is also making a come back. Bacchus, a cross between Riesling x Silvaner and Müller-Thurgau, seems to find its home in England. It has the herbaceous notes of Sauvignon Blanc but not as pungent. The best I tasted was from Albourne Estate, a seven years old boutique winery. Probably because of sparkling wine, a few wineries are also making still Pinot Noir. Bolney’s and Gusbourne’s are the most impressive. And watch out for English Pinot Gris. The body is similar to Pinot Grigio but it has the depth of Pinot Gris.

But this is not where it ends. English wine industry does not have the rigid regulations of Old World therefore wineries have free hands to create what they think fit from their vineyards. Hattingley Valley makes Entice dessert ‘ice’ wine from frozen Bacchus grapes and Aqua Vitae distilled from the wine made from a parcel of Chardonnay that did not ripen sufficiently for sparkling wine. Gusbourne makes a Vermouth from Pinot juice while Bolney recycled the grape musts and pressings into a beautiful hand crafted Foxhole Gin.

The industry owes its success partly to Plumpton College, the only institution in the UK that offers a hands on wine production course where students tend the vineyards and make their own wine. Most winemakers and viticulturists were trained or have taught in Plumpton. Needless to say, Plumpton also has its own wine made from students. Its winery grew from a simple facility in a shed 20 years ago to a state-of-the-art winery where students can do various researches and experiments.

Despite the recent expansion, vineyard planting in the UK is only 6% of that in Champagne’s. The unpredictable yield (most wineries did not produce wine in 2012 at all because of disastrous weather), high labour and material costs mean that English sparkling wine will, at least for a while, remain an artisan product with a matching price (retail price between GBP25 and GBP75 for limited release). Having said that, the majority of the wine at the moment is being sold in Britain that may not be able to absorb all the future production. Wineries with vision realise this and they are looking at overseas markets in order to sustain the industry. Apparently, the US is the most promising because Americans just like everything English (think Meghan Markle and Prince Harry)! Asia, especially Hong Kong, is another market that wineries are pondering.

For importers looking for a niche product to complement their portfolios, here are a few suggestions. All of them make award-winning wines and are committed to raise the bar of the English wine industry even further.

Bluebell Vineyard Estates: A pig farm turned vineyard owned by a Singaporean couple in East Sussex. Winemaker Kevin Sutherland experimented with part barrel fermented/ageing base wine for the Blanc de Blancs with impressive results.

Bolney Wine Estate: Founded in 1972, Bolney is one of the oldest wine estates in England making a range of still and sparkling wines in all colours. The Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir are outstanding while Blanc de Blancs 2013 was served in British Airways First Class. They have outgrown their second winery built in 2006 and are planning a new one. Sam Linter, the second generation and winemaker, has creative ideas in moving forward, such as the production of hand-crafted Foxhole Gin. Other ideas are in the pipeline.

Chapel Down: The biggest winery in the UK producing just under 20% of English wine with a few out-of-the-box creations, such as the Chardonnay Albarino with a nice savoury palate, an Orange Bacchus fermented on skin and aged in barrels, and the just released grape based vodka and gin. Their wines are available at Victoria Wines in Hong Kong.

Court Garden: A father and son team who diversified into vinegrowing from sheep farming in 2005 because of foot and mouth disease. Originally intended to sell grapes to other wineries, they decided to develop their own brand, making both sparkling and still wine.

Gusbourne Estate: Owner Andrew Weeber, a retired South African surgeon, has big plan. They just built a new visitor centre and are planning to increase production. The flagship Blanc de Blancs has a minimum of 36 months on lees and the Pinot Noir is delicate with ripe red fruits and a hint of pepper. Their wines are available at BB&R in Hong Kong.

Hattingley Valley Wines: Another farm (cereal crops) turned vineyard, and also a project of retired lawyer Simon Robinson, Hattingley Valley makes excellent sparkling wine in a fairly oxidative manner and with a high proportion of base wine fermented in old barrels, thus adding complexity and depth to the wine. Winemaker Emma Rice, who was voted UK Winemaker of the Year in both 2014 and 2016, is also making use of by-products to make experimental wine including Entice dessert wine and Aqua Vitae. There is also a brandy, currently in English oak barrels, waiting to be released. By the way, Emma was just voted England most influential woman in wine by The Drinks Business.

Hush Heath Estate: Owner Richard Balfour-Lynn is dedicated to produce a world-class Rosé sparkling wine therefore for seven years (2004-2010), the estate only produced one wine – Balfour Rosé Brut. Now they are producing all kinds of sparkling wine, still wine and also a white and rosé apple cider where the secondary fermentation took place in bottle, just like their sparkling wine. When I was there, they were in the middle of expansion including new planting and a new winery. Available from Castello del Vino in Hong Kong.

Ridgeview Wine Estate: Founded in 1995, Ridgeview was on of the pioneers dedicated to produce sparkling wine and is probably one of the most well-known English sparkling wine producers in the international arena.  Also a favourite of the Royal Family, Ridgeview sparking wine had been served at state banquet to Barrack Obama and Xi Jinping, as well as the celebrations of the Queen’s 80th birthday and her Diamond Jubilee. Like other wineries with positive outlook, Ridgeview is planning more plantings and a new winery.

Wiston Estate: The estate has been owned by the Goring family for more then 200 years but it was only until 2006 that vines were planted because of the passion of Pip Goring, wife of Harry Goring originated from Cape Town. Out of the 6 ha vineyard, they make Brut, Rosé, Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs in both non  vintage and vintage style (8 wines in total). I only tried their Brut NV and it was gorgeous with depth and a nice marmite palate. The winemaker is reputable Dermot Sugrue who also has his own brand Sugrue Pierre.

By the way, there is a English wine and British gin tasting on 22nd March in Central (for trade only) where some of the wine mentioned above will be featured. Enquiry at events.hongkong@fco.gov.uk.