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Read Between The Wines

18.01.23

When imagining a picturesque, world-class vineyard, often the mind travels to France, New Zealand or California, although UK wine estates are continuing to make their mark, as L-J Andrew discovers

Aft­er the UK experienced what seemed like an endless summer of continuous heatwaves, many people struggled to ‘beat the heat’. However, the Mediterranean weather acted as a further boost to the growing UK wine making industry, especially with sparkling wines from the South-East.

The changing climate, mixed with the chalky soil, similar to that of Northern France, is wielding sparkling and red wines that are more than a match for those produced in the ‘Old-World’ wine-growing regions.

Twenty years ago, UK winemakers were producing 1-2 million bottles of wine a year, but in 2020, there were 8.7 million bottles produced, with industry forecasts suggesting this figure could rise to 40 million by 2040.

In 2018, production levels peaked at the equivalent of 13.1 million bottles thanks to ideal weather conditions that summer, 72% of which was sparkling. 2022’s record-breaking heatwave is set to produce English wine that could surpass the quality of 2018, truly heralding a golden era for English vineyards.

At the 2021 Decanter World Wine Awards, UK-made wines picked up one best in show medal – one of just 50 awarded globally – plus two platinum, nine gold, 81 silver and 51 bronze medals.

One renowned British estate sweeping awards is Nyetimber. For over 30 years, Nyetimber has had a single aim: cra­fting exceptional English Sparkling Wine that rivals the very best in the world. A true pioneer, the estate was the first producer of English Sparkling Wine to exclusively grow the three celebrated grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Owner and Chief Executive, Eric Heerema works closely with Head Winemaker Cherie Spriggs and Winemaker Brad Greatrix to produce wine of extraordinary elegance and quality. Eric comments: “Demand for Nyetimber continues to grow not just in the UK, but internationally as well. It’s so satisfying to see the ever-increasing number of enthusiastic consumers appreciating the expertise, hard work and commitment that goes into making each and every bottle of wine. I am delighted too, to see the industry, continue to grow with such encouraging momentum.”

Alongside masterful British sparkling wine brands, high-profile international names like Taittinger, which has a 550-acre vineyard in Kent, and Pommery, which owns a 40-hectare vineyard in Hampshire, are among those to have moved some of their prestigious production to England.

Renowned Spanish cava producer, Freixenet, bought the established Bolney Wine Estate in West Sussex, which, along with East Sussex, was recently granted protected designation of origin status, putting Sussex on a par with iconic winemaking regions such as Rioja and Tuscany. ‑e growth in the UK wine sector over recent years has been nothing short of astonishing, with vineyards and land suitable for vines becoming a well-established and fruitful business and investment opportunity.

The boom in UK wine has translated to strong demand for land suitable for planting vines with no sign of this letting up any time soon. Nick Watson, Senior Director of Land Management at specialist agents Strutt & Parker, comments: “We continue to receive enquiries from people who are keen to start a new venture – some looking for just a couple of acres so they can start winemaking as a hobby, but other operators with a strong commercial focus are looking for sites of 20-30 acres or more.”

Only a small proportion of the land which comes to the open market each year will be suitable for planting with vines, so most vineyard land must be proactively sought out and purchased privately. As such, any potential buyer tends to need to oer a premium to persuade vendors to sell. This means that, while most arable land in the UK sells for between £8,000 and £10,000 per acre, ground suitable for vineyard planting, o­ften sells for £15,000-£25,000 per acre.

Despite huge UK growth, vineyards across the world are still holding their own too. ‑e world vineyard surface area in 2020, was just over 18 million acres. This was a small decrease, but bar small changes, it has been stable since 2017, with Europe leading the way.

The European Union (EU) had nearly 8 million acres of vines in 2020, equivalent to about 45% of the world’s winegrowing areas, across 2.2 million vineyards. Most European vineyards are also more established. Across the EU, the age of the vines tends to be above 10 years; 36.7% of the EU’s vines were older than thirty years, with a further 41.3% between 10 and 30 years old.

The legendary regions of Europe draw investment from leading names in the industry including Edmond de Rothschild Heritage, the non-banking lifestyle assets arm of the Edmond de Rothschild Group. The wineries owned by the group, including Château Clarke and Château des Laurets, produce around 3.5 million bottles of wine each year.

Château Clarke takes its name from the Irish family who bought the large estate in 1771. Aft­er more than two centuries of winegrowing and successive owners, the property was purchased by Baron Edmond de Rothschild in 1973. ‑e vineyard was completely restructured, and massive investments were undertaken in order to renovate buildings and improve winemaking and storage facilities. Nowadays, the vineyard covers 136 acre of limestone and clay rises, an ideal terrain to produce Merlot, the predominant grape variety now grown here. With a passion for excellence and the best things in life, the Baron made Clarke a benchmark for the whole region.

The vines of Château des Laurets are spread over two neighbouring appellations: Montagne Saint-Emilion and Puisseguin Saint-Emilion. Built circa 1860, the château features an octagonal tower overlooking the grounds. The vineyards are planted on south-facing slopes with limestone outcrops. The excellent clay-limestone soil gives this Merlot-based Saint-Emilion wine its distinctive taste. Baron Benjamin de Rothschild acquired this superb property in 2003, aiming from the beginning to achieve its fine potential.

However, expanding into the benefits of wine estates further afield, the predominantly Bordeaux-based Edmond de Rothschild Group has acquired the 2.5 acre Akarua vineyard and winery near Cromwell, in New Zealand's Central Otago wine region, for an undisclosed sum.

The biggest wine producing vineyard country outside of Europe is the USA. Despite its vineyard area shrinking consistently over seven years, recently down to only around 1,000 acres, U.S. wine estates are still as popular as ever, as a producer, investment opportunity, but also as a travel destination.

Castello Di Amorosa in California is the most hashtaged wine estate on Instagram, leading to Forbes dubbing it as ‘‑e World’s Most Beautiful Vineyard’. ‑e Wall Street Journal cited Castello di Amorosa as a “must-see destination,” and more recently, the Contra Costa Times included the estate as one of the top destination wineries in the country. It’s no wonder this estate has earned these accolades. Every inch of the vineyards, buildings and landscape is breath-taking.

Rising above the hills in the Napa Valley, Castello di Amorosa translates to the “castle of love” in Italian. An authentically-styled, 13th century Tuscan castle winery replete with high walls, five defensive towers and over 30 acres of estate vineyards, it was built over a 15-year period by Dario Sattui, a fourth-generation winemaker and owner of V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena, California.

Aft­er decades of research, planning and studying medieval castles in Italy and Europe, Sattui commenced building in 1994. The Castello evolved to include 141,000 square feet, 107 rooms - of which 95 are used for winemaking or wine storage, 8,000 tons of hand-squared stone, 8 levels - 4 above ground and 4 below, 900 linear feet of caves, a great hall with two-storey Italian frescoes, defensive fortifications, ramparts, a drawbridge and a moat. Reminiscent of old-world castles, the Castello also has a dungeon and torture chamber, secret passageways, courtyards, loggias, a church, stables - even an outdoor oven for making bread. Finally, at 12,000 square feet, the wine barrel room is, perhaps, the single most impressive barrel room in the U.S. and is constructed with ancient Roman cross-vaulted ceilings.

The Castello, however, is merely a backdrop to showcase some of the Napa Valley’s best wines. ‑e surrounding vineyards, currently producing around 25,000 cases per year, are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Primitivo, and Sangiovese grapes which produce low yields and intensely flavoured wines. The internationally acclaimed wines are primarily Italian varieties that pair well with foods from around the world.

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