Herbert Hall Brut 2011
It was only a few days ago in Bordeaux that I was handed, as an aperitif, a glass from what was once certainly the most widely known English producer of sparkling wine, Nyetimber. I suspect they may have been overtaken by Ridgeview in the fame stakes these days, but Nyetimber still enjoys a special place in the history of English wine. After years of reading that England's chalky slopes, cool soils and tiresome weather could be ideal for making top quality sparkling wine, it was a taste of Nyetimber that convinced me that talk of serious English sparkling wine really was more than hot air.
Putting to one side the element of surprise that inevitably comes from encountering English sparkling wine exported to France, the obvious question is this; so how did it taste? Well, it was very good indeed, much better than I recall the wines of this estate being when I first tasted them (even though they were good then), which must be at least fifteen years ago now. It reminded me of the delights that England's vineyards can offer, and it hinted again at something I have suspected for some time, and that is this; although I really enjoyed some English sparkling wines when tasted more than a decade ago, they were just the beginning of the story. England is still an emerging wine region, and this glass of Nyetimber, and recent encounters with other English wines such as the Balfour Hush Heath suggest that the quality level is much higher than it has ever been before.
Enthused by this encounter this weekend I decided to investigate the latest offering from Herbert Hall, one of the more recent additions to the English wine scene. The Herbert Hall vineyards are located in Kent, just south of a small town named Marden, barely forty kilometres from Hastings and the English Channel. The vineyard is just 4 hectares in size, akin to a small estate in Pomerol such as Château Lafleur or Château L'Église-Clinet, and running a vineyard this size facilitates a gardening-level attention to detail. The soils are clay and gravel, the vines benefiting from a very slight south-facing aspect. The varieties planted are those now considered the norm for such projects, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, allowing English winemakers to hold a mirror up to Champagne, which is of course not that much further south than the Channel. The vines here are managed organically, with certification from the Soil Association, and they are harvested by hand.
The grapes here see fermentation in steel for the majority, nuanced with fermentation in oak for just 10% of the harvest, and the malolactic is not encouraged. There is no denying that these two practises have a significant effect on the style of the wine, which is tense and cool, and gives us something very different to the Champagne imitations so commonly found elsewhere. The 2011 vintage of the Herbert Hall Brut - or Lot 1-2011 as the label declares it - has a bright and nettly style, the texture of a mouthful of pebbles, and for moments at least it calls to mind the sparkling wines of the Loire, Saumur in particular, with all their tension and brightness, wines that seem to taste of the limestone from which they originated. It is a blend of 40% Chardonnay with 30% each Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and the dosage is 10 g/l. In the glass it declares its youth with a plentiful bead, highlighting the pale straw hue of the wine. The nose is where that nettle-like freshness first becomes apparent, later showing a firmer, more stony definition. But there is also clearly some ripeness to the fruit behind it all, the stone gradually giving way to more prominent citrus-fruit notes with time. I find the same fresh, slightly floral, citrus-tinged character on the palate, alongside the pebble-like texture alluded to above, and there is plenty of acid cut and a firm mousse to give it definition. It culminates in a rather short but delightfully acid-bound, cleansing finish. There's no doubt that this is an attractive wine, and it's an interesting addition to the pantheon of styles now coming from the Garden of England. 16/20 (7/4/14)
Disclosure: This wine was a sample sent by Herbert Hall.