Many people along the jurassic coast might well be asking themselves, “Is that Champagne they’re making over there?” The answer is no it is not, but it is high quality sparkling wine that is as much a product of ancient geology as it is of contemporary climate. Add to that the expertise of one of the world’s most well known wine experts and what ends up in your glass is bound to give you pause for pleasure.
In this interview (with cameos from Bella Spurrier and vineyard manager, Graham Fisher) we discuss the economic and ecological challenges of producing wine in England, as well as the intricacies of blending, and Spurrier’s own plans to spend more time among the vines of the spellbinding Bride Valley in Dorset.
Nick Breeze: As someone with a world of experience in wine and now with your own skin in the game with regard to English sparkling, how much notice do you take of sparkling from other regions and has your global view changed by being a producer?
Steven Spurrier: I’d say that before I went into the venture of planting my own vineyard which I’d been thinking about for a long time, the only sparkling wine in my cellar in Dorset, with the exception of a few presents that someone might send me, was always champagne. But of course, in my profession as a wine writer, I come across cava and franciacorta and sparkling wines from all over the world.
I have to say that since planting the vineyard, the first vines went in in 2009, I don’t think I have bought a single bottle of champagne. Although I still have champagne in my cellar, I am more interested in other sparkling wines from around the world, because I am part of the game.
Nick Breeze: What about English sparkling, do you taste a lot of what your peers produce?
Steven Spurrier: Yes. I was at a tasting event on Tuesday and there were six English sparkling rosés. Ten years ago if I had gone to a tasting and there was English sparkling wine, I don’t think I would have paid too much attention but now it is the first thing I go and taste.
Nick Breeze: Due to the impacts of climate change, Champagne producers I have spoken to say they have lost a degree of acidity and gained a degree of alcohol. Have you any thoughts on how this could play out in the UK if the temperatures continue a steepening rise trajectory in the next decade?
Steven Spurrier: Global warming hasn’t come to Dorset, I can tell you that. I had a champagne producer round about 6 months ago at Bride Valley and he tasted and said “you’ve got what we’ve lost!”
I said, “What do you mean?” and he said “acidity!” So your point is absolutely true, the alcoholic degrees in champagne are going up and the acids are coming down.
I don’t think that is a bad thing at all because in the old days, 20 or 30 years ago, partially because of the cooler climate but also because the vineyards were much less well managed, the grapes were picked at 7 or 8 degrees alcohol and then they were chapitalised and so on and so forth. So champagne is in a much better position now, in my view, than it was. But there is the risk of the acidity, of the style of champagne being a little bit lost.
The style of English sparkling wine is very much in the lively vivacious high acid style. That can be altered by a high dosage but that is not what I am after. From the start I have never gone above 8 [grammes per litre] in dosage for Bride Valley.
When I dosed my 2013 at 8g/ltr, I was the first person in the country to go that low and then I think Ridge View went out at 8. I cannot go below 8 because my acids are too high but I don’t want to spoil the precision of Bride Valley by giving a high dosage.
Nick Breeze: Do you think this characteristic of English sparkling wine, this acid, which is one of the defining characteristics, defines your intentions as a winemaker?
Steven Spurrier: Well you have wine producers like Nyetimber who are at the moment bringing out a blanc de blancs 2009, so that’s 8 years, so it has had time time to absorb its acidity and had time to gain maturity. But as far as Bride Valley is concerned, the style of wine I wanted to make is the style of wine we are making, which is very precise, vivacious, high acidity aperitif style.
I am not going to change that partially because we need to get the wine on the market quite quickly. I have no intention of keeping it 5 years on the lees. It is not a style of wine I want to make and it is economically not possible.
Nick Breeze: So the economics bare quite heavily on that decision? It is part of the business plan in some respects?
Steven Spurrier: I think it is style before business plan. I mean, it suits me financially to get the wine on the market while it is young. It also suits the wine.
Nick Breeze: You have suggested that as the vines age you maybe able to lower the dosage without compromising the taste. Could other factors, such as warming climate, also contribute to a lower dosage, as they seem to have in Champagne?
Steven Spurrier: I don’t see how I can go much lower than 8. The rosé is dosed at 7g/ltr because I wanted to keep the sense of fruit and if you taste the rosé you have this marvellous taste of wild strawberries. Because it is pinot noir, it has lower acidity than the chardonnay. The chardonnay has the highest acidity.
We have just released in September this year our blanc de blancs, a 100% chardonnay, which Jane MacQuitty, the wine writer from The Times, said “I’ll come back to this in a couple of months”. I am conscious that our blanc de blancs is very severe but that is the way it is and that is fine. I could not go below 8 grammes on that.
If the age of the vines and global warming combined mean I make a richer wine, which I don’t think is on the cards, then I might go down because I want to preserve the freshness.
If in x years time, my vines are giving me a richer wine than today then I might drop the dosage. But it is all a matter of balance.
Nick Breeze: In the last few years have you had difficulty ripening fruit and, if so, has this had an impact on the quantity harvested and the overall production?
Steven Spurrier: We had great difficulty ripening fruit in 2015. It was a very cold year. It was a very cold summer and we abandoned the grapes. The last grapes we picked were 7 degrees alcohol and you can’t go below that. So they were not ripe.
Curiously enough, the alcohol was very low. The sugar in the grapes was very low. It was in balance. Normally when a grape ripens, you gain sugar and the acid goes down. The acids curiously enough were not very high. It was just a light vintage.
So in 2015 we had a problem ripening and in 2017 we have had the problem of rot, downy mildew, which reduced the crop. So that is volume, but the crop we picked is very good.
Nick Breeze: So you’ve got the ripeness but not the quantity in the end?
Steven Spurrier: Yes. We harvest in the third week in October, a month behind Champagne. And so we have a long ripening season. We have the flowering in the first week of July and generally people reckon it is 100 days from flowering to picking but we go 100 or maybe 120.
Nick Breeze: It is quite common in champagne to hear people talk of a pure expression of terroir. Is this something you think about at Bride Valley?
Steven Spurrier: The style comes from the vineyard. I mean the winemaker, Ian Edwards, gets the grapes, he presses them. The juice ferments. It ferments dry. It goes into the tank and in April or May I come along and taste the various tanks and we make a blend.
So, the winemaking doesn’t effect the taste of the wine at all. It is the vineyard and the grape varieties. So the taste of the wine is effected by the blending. The blanc de blancs is different from the brut reserve. But they are intrinsically Bride Valley wines.
If you take the Bride Valley and Furleigh Estate, although Bride Valley wines are made at Furleigh Estate, they have nothing to do with Furleigh Estate. The style of wine between Furleigh Estate and Bride Valley is totally different.
Nick Breeze: So you have tasted them next to each other?
Steven Spurrier: Yes… totally different. He doesn’t have any chalk and we have lots of chalk.
Nick Breeze: There are some people who say that would have no impact whatsoever. For you it has a defining character?
Steven Spurrier: Yes. We bought the vines from France. We have seven clones of chardonnay on two rootstocks. We have five clones of pinot noir on two rootstocks and we have 2 clones of pinot meunier on two rootstocks.
The rootstocks are chosen because of the chalk. The various clones are chosen to get a balance. Some of the clones are productive and other clones are not so productive.
So your question or statement that the Champagnois think of an expression of terroir, that is not what Moet & Chandon thinks of. They want to make a champagne blend but your champagne grower would think of expression of terroir and this is what I have got.
I mean if Bride Valley didn’t taste of Bride Valley, it would be very strange.
Nick Breeze: When you are working on the assemblage, what are the specific characteristics that you are looking for that signal you have the blend right, and in the few vintages in which you have produced wine, do you feel that you have got it right when it comes to tasting the end product?
Steven Spurrier: The short answer to that is yes. There are three different wines. So the chardonnay blanc de blancs is not a blend so the only thing we do with the chardonnay is decide on the dosage and a release date.
The rosé: we send the pinot noir grapes to Ian Edwards and ask him to macerate them for 24hours and then press them very slowly. So the juice that runs off is darker in colour than the colour we need. Therefore I blend in a proportion of chardonnay, maybe 30%, maybe 40%, to bring the colour down and also to add vivacity.
So that is in the blending but it is done both for colour and taste and actually, if you compare both the Bride Valley rosé with four other English sparkling rosés, our is faintly darker. It is faintly more full, and I did that on purpose because the less colour you have, the less fruit you have. I want our rosé to taste of fruit.
Then you have the Brut Reserve which would ideally be a blend of one third, one third, one third of the grape varieties but it cannot be because life is not like that. The Brut Reserve 2014 is a blend of 70% pinot noir and pinot meunier and 30% chardonnay.
So I deal with what I have in the tanks. I can only create the blend from what is in the tanks. So I can’t tell you what the Brut Reserve 2017 will be because I don’t know what is going to be in the tank.
Nick Breeze: Does the style that you are trying to achieve relate to the occasion when you prefer to drink (for example: aperitif) and how much is this cross referenced from memories of tasting great sparkling wine in the past?
Steven Spurrier: I always think of sparkling wine as an aperitif. Of course if you are in Champagne then you tend to drink champagne with the meal but not throughout the meal. They maybe drink it with the first course and then go on to a red wine with the main course.
Once again, the style of Bride Valley is influenced entirely by Bride Valley, by the climate and the soil. Therefor it absolutely imposes on me to make an aperitif style wine. The profile is very light and very precise. Therefor I don’t think I would gain much by ageing it for five years before releasing it because I don’t think the style would change, it would get more mature but I think the freshness is what people pick up on.
If we present our wines at a wine tasting like Winchester Wine Fair, to the public, the people who know about wine, the people who like champagne, who like sparkling wine, like it. The people who don’t know about wine, with the theory that they think dry but drink sweet, don’t like it because it is too acidic.
I cannot deny the fact that it is high in acidity. Jancis Robinson has just reviewed it positively but finished her review “A tad tart!” So that is completely acceptable to me because that is the style of the wine.
Nick Breeze: But if you keep the wine then it will evolve…
Steven Spurrier: Yes, overtime but if I keep the Brut Reserve for another five years it might have matured but it wont have lost its profile.
I mean, you keep a chablis for five years, it is still a chablis!
Nick Breeze: I was just thinking of that tartness rounding off over time.
Steven Spurrier: It probably would. In fact we are disgorging the Brut Reserve on a 3 month role out so the final disgorgement we are going to do will be at least a year after the first disgorgement so that will be slightly rounder.
Nick Breeze: Is the crémant which you are planning to produce an anomalous Bride Valley wine?
Steven Spurrier: I was faced with the 2015 vintage which is very very light and we made a rosé. To me it wasn’t good enough to put into bottle on its own. Ian Edwards agreed with that and he said, “We’ll keep the 2015 in tank.” There’s about 6000 bottles of it I guess. Then the 2016 vintage comes along. It is of a higher quality and therefor quite suitable to blend with the 2015 but of my three Bride Valley wines, the Blanc de Blancs, Brut Reserve and Rosé Bella, I don’t intend to bring out a non-vintage on those labels.
So I had the idea, which Ian Edwards was very positive about, of making a crémant. And that, instead of having 6 bars of pressure, has 4.5.
So the word crémant comes from the French word crémant which means creamy. So it flows across the palate rather than dances across the palate. I think I am going to be the first crémant in England, which is no bad thing to be first. And it is a Bride Valley crémant non-vintage. So I am not changing my view that Bride Valley Brut Reserve will always be a vintage because it always will be a vintage.
Nick Breeze: Will that have the same dosage as the others?
Steven Spurrier: Probably 8g/ltr, maybe 7. I don’t know. It’s in bottle, I’ll taste it next May I think.
Nick Breeze: Crémant has grown in popularity. We are seeing more coming into the shops here.
Steven Spurrier: Well you have crémant d’Alsace, crément de Bourgogne, crémant de Bordeaux; it is what the French sparkling wine producers call their wines when they don’t have another name for it. They’re not allowed anymore to use the term “méthode champenoise”. So, crémant is recognised as sparkling wine.
Nick Breeze: There seems to be a rush of people wanting to start a vineyard in Britain. What would you say to those wanting to start a vineyard in Britain?
Steven Spurrier: I would say that the saying “to make a small fortune in the wine business, start with a large fortune” is totally applicable to planting a vineyard. It is very longterm. It is not just the way I feel about my vineyard, which is planning to be more of a challenge than I had expected, than I had been told it would. It is a huge investment.
It is a huge investment across the board. You’ve got to plant the vineyard, you’ve got to buy the vines, if you want to have a winery you have to buy the winery… the reason that so many people are in the business is that they think it is going to work.
I would imagine that English sparkling wine producers who are making a profit are below 50%. But hope springs eternal!
In very simple terms, I have got 10 hectares of vines, 42,000 vines. If I was in France I would be producing 50,000 bottles. I never thought I would be producing more than 40,000. I am producing 10,000. I am averaging a quarter of a bottle per vine and no wine producer, not even Romanée-Conti can survive on that.
I expected more from this year but we had a bad attack of downy mildew. I am expecting much more from the years to come but you are in the hands of the climate.
Nick Breeze: After such an extensive career behind you, how does it feel to be down in Dorset?
Steven Spurrier: Well, Dorset is attracting me more and more as a place to be based. At the moment I am based London during the week, so I am four days in London and three days in Dorset when I am not travelling.
I am still very much involved in Decanter. I have lots of other consulting jobs. I can’t imagine that I am going to give those up and I hope they wont give up me but I am anticipating spending more time in Dorset. I expect it will move quickly to four days in Dorset and three days in London.
It would not surprise me in 3-4 years time if I made the decision not to have a base in London. This flat is too big for me on my own, so when I come to that decision, I don’t think I will take a base in London. I think I will stay in hotels. Therefore it will be nice to have something to do in Dorset.
Nick Breeze: I suppose a lot hinges on getting up from a quarter of a bottle?
Steven Spurrier: Oh, yes, I mean, if we have another deficient crop in 2018 then I think we really have to think about whether we want to carry on or not.
On the law of averages we have had 3 poor years, we should have 3 good years but, you know, one can’t tell. I can sell everything we make. We didn’t have to buy the land; it was my wife’s farm. We didn’t build a winery. My daughter runs sales and marketing. It is a tiny family business. We are not spending a cent more than we have to and yet we are producing a very good product. We just need to produce more of it!
Interview conducted on 18th October 2017, London