Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

New World Wines – Old World Terroir

March 2017. Simpson’s Wine Estate is a totally new property created, here in the old world, in the purest spirit of the new world. The location: Barham in Kent, “the garden of England”. Three 10-hectare plots of land were chosen where no vines had ever grown before; a winery was created within the shell of an old barn, complete with offices and a (projected) tasting room; and Kent-based fruit pickers were induced to transfer their fruit-sensitized fingers from apples and pears to the more fragile fruits of the vine.

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This country had numerous vineyards in the Roman era but viticulture faded away thereafter for many centuries. A slow revival began in the 20th century but the vines then used were mostly German crossings. The resultant wines, while often well vinified, tended to lack character. The true revival was spearheaded by Nyetimber in the early 1990s. They used only the classic Champagne varietals, which ensured a kind of stylistic purity. In the process, they showed that this green and pleasant land (albeit a chilly one) could produce genuinely excellent sparkling wine in the champenoise mode.

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Today, the total UK area – of all vines intended for winemaking – is around 2,000 hectares, divided among more than 130 wineries. Annual production amounts to roughly 6.3 million bottles.

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As Hugh Johnson observes: “the very best of England is as good as good Champagne – though not the very finest Champagne.” He added, however, that “they had got several hundred years’ start!”.

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Charles and Ruth Simpson are the owners of Simpsons Wine Estate.

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If the Simpsons are absolute beginners at making English wine, they’re seasoned veterans when it comes to Languedoc wines. Down there, at their Domaine Sainte Rose, a 43-hectare property not far from Béziers, they can draw on fourteen years of experience of every aspect of viticulture and viniculture, having obtained intimate knowledge of such crucial factors as microclimate, geology, terroir, vegetative cycle, maladies, canopy management, alcoholic and malolactic fermentations, etc. The problem is that all that experience, great though it is, cannot be applied wholesale in England, where conditions are completely different. “Here in the UK”, says Charles, “wind is the big killer. That and frost. In fact, viticulture in England is marginal, precisely because we’re so prone to wind and frost, and have much less sun.So it’s essential here to have south-facing slopes, good drainage, and decent wind-breaks. And you also need chalk-rich soil…”.

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The latter of course is vital for white wines in general and for sparkling wines in particular.

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They began by prospecting for suitable land, eventually plumping for Kent. Stephen Skelton M.W., one of the country’s leading experts on viniculture and viticulture, was called in by the vendor of the land to assess the plots in question. ”Luckily, Kent is the warmest of the southern wine-producing counties, and this eastern side of the county is the most favoured part. We simply get more sun, and for longer. Here, the risk of lack of sun is reduced by one week compared with neighbouring counties. That’s why,“ he added with emphasis, “Taittinger opted for Kent when they selected viticultural land here in the UK.” The Champagne house – the first to invest in the UK – was, it seems, very struck by the uncanny resemblance between Kentish land and their own terroir.

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The first Simpsons Estate plot was planted in 2014 and its first vintage – 2016 – will be released in 2018 (see below for tasting notes). With evident satisfaction, Charles tells me they’ve already sold half of the 2016 production before it’s even in bottle. The second plot is already covered with infant vines while the third is still fallow, with planting scheduled for the current year.

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Charles and Ruth Simpson, with two of their vineyard plots in the background.

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The plots have some 30 cm of clay on top, suffused with flint. This top layer rests on white-cliffs chalk – precisely the same kind of terroir found in Champagne and, of course, ideally suited for the production of fine sparkling wine. “Our plots have very high levels of calcium carbonate, which is important for vine growth“, Ruth Simpson points out. “We have to keep in mind, however, that too high levels of calcium carbonate can limit the plants’ uptake of magnesium, which could cause chlorosis. This led us to select root stocks ‘Fercal’ and ’41B’, both of which tolerate such high calcium levels and ensure survival and normal vine growth in this soil type”. Like Nyetimber, they concentrate on the classic Champagne varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.

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The first plot comprises 50% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir, and 20% Pinot Meunier. “But the Chardonnay gives more juice, so it accounts in fact for some 60% of the volume,” stresses Charles Simpson. The Pinot share will be increased as times goes by, as it gives more body. “We brought our French team over to do the planting – they’re not only more experienced, but cheaper too! And they were delighted with the local beer! They ate pretty well too!”

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(It appears, however, that they reverted to type at breakfast, when their favoured beverage was red wine. “Imagine,” said Charles with a look of comic surprise, “vin rouge at breakfast!”.)

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We now make a quick tour of the estate in a four-by-four. As the heavy vehicle bumps and sways around the perimeter of the sloping Plot No 1 we pass a weather station, (it looks a bit like an upright cluster of fishing rods to my untrained eye) which monitors key growing factors. It’s primed to register such data as air and soil temperatures, barometric pressure, rainfall, solar megajoules, humidity, wind speed and direction, and various other variables. It can, it seems, even predict the imminent outbreak of maladies. The Simpsons tell me they can read off all incoming data from this device, at any time and wherever in the world they may be. They’re thus able to trigger remedial measures immediately.

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A short drive away, we come upon the other two plots in a nearby valley – likewise with ideal south-facing slopes. They lie side by side. The one planted in 2016 is already covered with fledgling vines while, as we’ve seen, the third will be planted later this year. In Its present bald state you can see that its surface is covered with nuggets of flint that jut out like dragon’s teeth.

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The first vintage, 2016, turned out to be a great one for English wines, says Charles Simpson. “We produced the equivalent of 22,000 bottles, half of which are already sold in advance. At full production, we’ll be making some 250,000 bottles a year. Then we’ll need space for the maturation of four vintages. By then, we’ll be making five different wines: A blanc de noirs, a rosé, a blanc de blancs, a blend, and a still wine.”

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Inside the winery, I’m shown a state-of-the art Vaslin Bucher inert press which works in symbiosis with an inflatable bag of the same volume. Nitrogen is fed from the bag into the press to create anaerobic conditions therein. This allows them to eliminate all risk of oxidation, Charles tells me. He believes that it’s one of only two of its kind in the UK.

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I find myself wondering if this could this be the solution to the problem of premature oxidation that had afflicted so many white wine producers – and their baffled clients – in recent years?

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Some Champagne producers wholly block the malolactic fermentation – the process that converts powerful malic acid into mild lactic acid. Others block it only partly, conserving some malic acidity so as to provide structure and energy.

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The Simpsons belong to a third school, which carries the process through to completion. “One ever-present problem in England is having too much acidity,” Charles emphasizes. (In the Languedoc it’s the other way round). A wine relieved of its malic acidity not only has lower total acidity, he explains, but also becomes rounder and more viscous. In chilly England, where wines can be a bit on the scrawny side and with a sharp edge, this simply results in a better-balanced wine.

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In the longer term this could give England an advantage over Champagne, where climate change seem to be edging the region towards a situation where the wines are sometimes deficient in acidity.

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We now repair to the winery for a tasting from various vats of Simpson Estate wines (all of them of temperature-controlled stainless steel) from the 2016 vintage. Remembering that all come from vines that are only two years old I’m curious to know how they will show at this very early stage. I tell Charles about earlier encounters with wines from such young vines. In Germany, I say, grapes of the very first vintage are called, “virgin wines”. In that country, such wines are highly prized, as they usually show an extraordinary degree of concentration. That seems to be a one-off phenomenon, however, with the vines giving less complex, less dense juice over the next few years. I also told of how, tasting with a leading Pic Saint Loup vigneron (not so far from the Languedoc), I’d praised a particular cuvée for its great concentration. “The vines must be pretty old, “ I said. The producer laughed. “They were only three years old!” he told me. Virgin harvest wines can indeed show a surprising fecundity!

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One thing is sure: several of the samples I now tasted showed real density of fruit as well as pronounced varietal character. Tasting blind, I would certainly put the age of the vines as much higher.

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The digits given for respective samples indicate the clone used in that particular vat.

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2016 Simpson’s Wine Estate


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Pinot Noir

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Pinot Noir 115 had an ABV (alcohol by volume) of 10.8 and smelled like strawberry and rowanberry.

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Pinot Noir 292, a salmon pink colour, had richer aroma of rowan and arctic cloudberry and was fuller on the palate and more persistent (10.6 ABV).

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Chardonnay

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The first Chardonnay sample was a blend of clones 121 and 124 and dosed 10.4 ABV. A bright yellow-gold, it had a full Chardonnay scent of apricot and yellow plum (other UK producers got only 9.5 ABV, Charles told me, with evident satisfaction). Most impressive.

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Chardonnay 96 was cloudy (not unusual in vat samples) and seemed lighter, but smelled intensely of rose hip.

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Chardonnay 548 – from a Burgundy clone – was the best so far, with an excellent, distinctly Chardonnay scent of grapefruit, honey, and vanillin. Dosing an impressive 12 ABV, it was decidedly the most structured sample to date. “That might be used in our still Chardonnay,” Charles said thoughtfully, adding: “I’m struck by how strongly varietal the wines are in this English climate.”

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The next Chardonnay – 548 – was even more impressive. An intense yellow-gold, it smelled like yellow fruits, honey, and flint, with a distinct touch of lemon curd. I could easily have taken it for a cask sample of a good Chablis – quite a compliment. It was long on the palate and had appreciable body.

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Finally, a rosé made entirely from Pinot Noir. It smelled like a meld of raspberry and rowan and had a slightly bitter finish.

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My overall impression: these samples suggest that the launch of Simpson Wine Estate’s first vintage will be a very successful one!

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Incidentally, the Simpsons are still fully engaged with their Languedoc estate, where they produce a big range of wines including a decent, modestly priced sparkler, a fine 100% Roussanne, a Bandol-like blend of Mourvèdre and Petit Verdot, and a deep-flavoured mix of Syrah (95%) and Viognier. They export to a number of countries, notably Britain and the USA.

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© Frank Ward 2017

Related article : A Taster’s Tour of Three Kent Vineyards

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