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Thomas Cromwell’s house
I had long been looking forward to visiting Nyetimber, Britain’s most prestigious vineyard, not least because it is more difficult to get into than Fort Knox. It only opens to the public twice a year and tickets are snapped up at the speed of a snifter. Instead I booked on to a special day trip from London to Nyetimber – the first time they have done this sort of thing apparently – organised by D and D the restaurant chain which owns the Bluebird café in Chelsea where we started off with a pleasant Continental breakfast.
Getting out of London is always a drag but a coach trip is a good way to visit a vineyard where it is not impossible that you will be drinking to much wine to drive back. Vineyards, unforgiveably, are rarely located near railway stations.
Nyetimber’s reception area, if that is not too mundane a word, is beautifully situated at the end of a long very narrow country lane where time has stood still. On one side is a lovingly restored pre-Domesday barn used for festive gatherings. Ahead in
a closely manicured garden by a picturesque lake is a monastic house which Henry V111 snatched at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. He gave it first to Thomas Cromwell, who actually visited it and then as part of an extensive marital settlement to Anne of Cleves who never visited. A bit small for her, I suppose.
The winery is elswhere leaving much of their 220 hectares of south-facing Champagne grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – in undisturbed tranquility. You can detect their dedication to quality in the sculptural neatness of a single cane creeping along the vine in what us known as the single guyot system (allowing the grapes to receive maximum sunlight). Unlike so many others they neither buy nor sell grapes to other vineyards and in 2012 they famously destroyed the entire crop as it did not meet their meticulous standards.
Experts with better palates than mine have extolled the quality of their fizz that has won a slew of top international medals. For me the psychology of place and person is crucial. To savour their flagship Classic Cuvée in the vineyard with goodly company amid the vines from which it was made on breezeless sunny day was indeed bliss.
A glass in the sun
Later we had tastings of their excellent rosé and demi-sec both made with the new policy of taking grapes from multiple vintages so as not to be tied to the vagaries of a single year. Think 2012. After an excellent fizz-driven lunch and yet more in the terrace afterwards I soon realised that what at first I thought was an expensive day out turned out to be excellent value for money.
But my main interest in Nyetimber as a journalist is its place in the history of the amazing revival of English and Welsh sparkling wine. No less a person that Tom Stevenson, the global authority on all things fizz, has made this astonishing claim: “If not for Nyetimber, there would be no English sparkling wine industry today – only a few crude fizzy wines made from hybrid grapes and German crosses.” Even after multiple glasses of fizz this must be challenged. If Nyetimber hadn’t existed two of the necessary conditions for a revival – global warming and the vastly improved technical expertise in the UK fanned by graduates of Plumpton wine college -would still be there. It was just a question of time.
The first vineyards to make sparkling on a commercial scale (as opposed to numerous non commercial attempts) were the Carr-Taylors in Hastings and New Hall in Essex both in 1983, five years before Nyetimber started planting. The Carr Taylors wine might qualify as “hybrid grapes and German crosses” but New Hall made it with the two main Champagne grapes Chardononay and Pinot Noir. For years aferwards they were the only one that could supply southern vineyards with these varieties in bulk.
Nearer home Ridgeview – not far from Nyetimber and not much less prestigious – planted its first vines in 1995 only seven years after Nyetimber so they were already growing when Nyetimber hit the big time in 1997 when its 1992 Blanc de Blanc won a serious international gold medal.
Nyetimber was undoubtedly seminal in proving to the world that Britain could make top fizz and has been a huge inspiration to others. But if it hadn’t existed the UK revival would have happened only more slowly and later led by Ridgeview or one of the other emerging role models. No one has switched global warming off.