Long the young pretender, English Sparkling Wine has battled through the turbulent years of adolescence and is now beginning its journey into adulthood, slowly garnering some tentative respect amongst the establishment of Champagne. For Dermot Sugrue, a key protagonist in this movement, childhood dreams have been realised, now the winemaker at Wiston Estate, his wines are critically acclaimed, including his own project ‘The Trouble With Dreams’.
Dermot Sugrue made his first forays into alcoholic fermentation were at the tender age of only fifteen, brewing first beer before soon progressing onto wine. Brought up to appreciate wine from an early age, he cites tasting Torres Gran Coronas 1982 aged sixteen as a particular revelation. When his local archdeacon Brian Snow gave him a copy of respected wine writer Hugh Johnson’s 1989 book ‘Vintage: The Story of Wine’, Dermot knew he was fated to pursue his passion for wine, devouring Johnson’s writing ravenously.
Born in 1974 in County Limerick of Ireland, Dermot studied Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia then later completed a degree in Viticulture and Oenology at East Sussex’s reputed Plumpton College. Following this Dermot went on to build upon on his experience by working two vintages at the prestigious Château L’Eglise-Clinet in Pomerol and Château Leoville-Barton in St Julien, then later at Jacquinot & Fils in Champagne.
Dermot has been a key protagonist in placing English Sparkling wines as serious peers alongside those of Champagne. Beginning with work setting up a contract winery in Suffolk, he became winemaker at Nyetimber in 2004, helping establish their reputation before leaving soon after the purchase by Eric Heerema. Working the 2006 season at Moet & Chandon was followed by a spell of consultancy work with wineries in India. Finally, having first met husband and wife Harry and Pip Goring in 2006, in 2008 he joined their team at Wiston Estate in a new venture to offer contract winemaking services, as well as making their own wines. Dermot is now behind at least fifteen English Sparkling wines including those from East Meon, English Oak Vineyard and Jenkyn Place.
Next to the thundering traffic of the A24, the former Turkey farm and processing plant of Goring Park seems an unlikely location for the Wiston Estate winery. Nevertheless, Dermot has made innovative use of the perfectly insulated old blast freezers, where thousands of Turkeys previously hung, as excellent storage for the wines.
The Trouble With Dreams
Sugrue Pierre ‘The Trouble With Dreams’ is Dermot’s own wine, named after Dermot’s wife Sacha Pierre, a radiologist from Guyana with whom he lives only a few minutes away from the vineyard and winery, along with their greyhounds, Noodles and Tara. The blend, which varies between vintages, is typically 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir, sometimes with a small proportion of Pinot Meunier. Fruit for the first vintages came mostly from the small 1 hectare Storrington Priory vineyard, planted in 2006 on chalk and sandy greensand. The first major harvest of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay was in 2009, from which Dermot’s first vintage of ‘The Trouble With Dreams’ was released in 2013, and he’s since released three further vintages.
After 2012, a year when the meteorological gods delivered the coldest, wettest and darkest summer since 1912, and a consequently meagre yield, 2013 was a fantastic year for English wine, both in quality and quantity. Despite that, fuelled by a smaller yield from the Storrington Priory vineyard, 90 percent of the fruit for the latest 2013 vintage is sourced from the exceptional Mount Harry vineyard. Owned by Tim (properly, Baron Renton of Mount Harry – former Arts Minister and Conservative Chief Whip) and Alice Renton, the Mount Harry vineyard is in the grounds of their Georgian styled country house near Lewes in East Sussex.
Only around 6000 bottles are produced per vintage, packaged in a solid feeling bottle with elegant textured black label. Half the wines are fermented in old Burgundian oak barrels with no malolactic, half fermented in stainless steel with malolactic. Over half the cuvée has spent time maturing in old oak Burgundy barrels and 500 litre puncheons, giving the creaminess typical of the Sugrue Pierre style.
My bottles came without a foil covering the cork and wire cage, which although rather en trend, is actually not intended, but an error in packaging. Only mentioned on the original cardboard container, not the bottles themselves, there are at least two different disgorgement’s of this wine. Mine were disgorged on the 20th September 2016 and 1st December 2016.
Talking the Chalk
It is in little more than 25 years that English Sparkling wine has reached its prominence of today. Only late in the 1980s were the first Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier vines planted in West Sussex by a Chicago couple convinced that English Sparkling wine could rival that of Champagne, later to become Nyetimber. Today, there is widespread acceptance that English Sparkling wine is a high quality product, with wines that can often be considered equal to those of Champagne.
Considerable financial investment, warming of the climate, advanced winemaking facilities and talented winemakers have all played their part English Sparkling wine’s rise. Parts of England also have similarities with Champagne in their geology and topography. The South Downs is part of the geological region known as the Parisian basin, which also incorporates Champagne, along with Chablis and Sancerre.
The Parisian basin is a geological basin of sedimentary rocks, formed by the many marine organisms that developed in an inland sea that covered the area until it retreated 70 million years ago. About 20 million years ago an earthquake occurred, raising it by 60 metres, at the same time breaking up the chalk sea bed and mixing in marine fossils and minerals. A second earthquake of greater intensity, about 10 million years ago, formed the undulating terrain of the region.
Being very rich in lime and calcite, the fossil material eventually turned into chalk. Vine roots can easily penetrate deep into chalk soils, which also hold moisture well, while still allowing excess to drain away, helping migate both summer droughts and high rainfall. Chalk soils are also good at maintaining a constant soil temperature throughout the year. Champagne has two types of chalk, Micraster and Belemnite, with the best vineyards mostly situated on the latter, considered superior as it releases more limestone, producing grapes with higher acidity, and aiding in photosynthesis. A downside of the alkaline lime soils is that they limit uptake of the iron, copper and magnesium, needed by the vine to prevent chlorosis.
England’s vineyards are mostly in the South East, where there is a warmer and drier climate compared to the rest of the country. The long and cool growing season, and longer ripening time is an important difference from Champagne. Bud break in England usually occurs a week earlier than in Champagne, and the harvest often begins a month later, in early October. This much longer, cooler growing cycle produces much riper grapes, giving richer more defined flavours in the wines, with slightly less acidity, capable of producing world class wines.
As in Champagne, the soils of Southern England are varied, including, as well as Chalk, Greensand, Limestone and Clay, which all have their advantages and pitfalls. The Wiston Estate itself straddles the chalky slopes of the South Downs and flat clay of the Weald, resembling in many ways the Côte de Blancs of Champagne. Dermot suggests that although the qualities of the Wiston Estate wines are partly attributable to chalk, in England tend these to be riskier sites, usually being at higher altitude, so more exposed to the wind and rain. In addition, there are innumerable other variables to producing sparkling wines, so although soil type is not insignificant, it is England’s long and cool growing season that matters most. Old hop gardens and apple orchards, which usually have sand or clay soils, commonly occupy sites better protected from the elements, so are better suited to vineyards.
The traditional method (also known, amongst other terms, as Méthode Champenoise, or Methode Cap Classique) used for making Champagne is universally considered to produce the best quality sparkling wine. We’ll skip the intricacies here, suffice to say that its key facet is that a secondary fermentation, transforming still into sparkling wine, occurs entirely in bottle.
Once the secondary fermentation is complete, the yeasts die and slowly break down in a process called yeast autolysis, with the autolytic yeast particles (the lees) remaining in the bottle. In this first period of bottle ageing, lasting from 20 months up to 10 or more years, the wine develops further texture and flavour, notably Champagne’s characteristic bread, biscuit and toasty complexity. The remaining yeast hulls also absorb any oxygen, helping retain the vibrancy and finesse.
But leave the yeast sediment in the bottle and the wine will be cloudy when poured, not very celebratory, and so after the period of ageing comes disgorgement. First, in a process called remuage or riddling, the bottle is gradually shaken and tilted so that the dead yeast cells are worked down to settle in the bottle neck. The bottles are dipped upside down into freezing brine solution so that the yeast lees freeze together to form a plug in the bottle neck. The temporary crown cap is removed, allowing the pressure within the bottle to force out the yeast plug. The bottles are topped up with a dosage of wine and sugar (the liqueur d’expédition), corked, caged and labelled, then aged for a further period before release, to allow the liqueur d’expédition to integrate.
With disgorgement done, there’s no more yeast autolysis, but triggered by the the small inlet of oxygen during disgorgement, and for wines with dosage, the sugar that reacts with proteins released during autoylsis, a second period of bottle ageing begins. Without the protective yeast sediment, and with the natural oxidative effect of the cork, ageing is generally faster during this second period, the duration of which is often in the hands of the consumer, as Champagne is usually sold soon after disgorgement. If allowed to last for two years or more, further complex nutty, smoke and biscuity characteristics can develop.
Thus, there are endless permutations for Champagne’s ageing, determined by how long and the balance between ageing before and after disgorgement. But for the majority of Champagne, the bottle gives no clue as to the time spent on lees and the date of disgorgement. For most commercial styles of Champagne produced by the larger houses in a consistent style this is unimportant, most will spend 24 to 36 months on lees and be consumed by the masses soon after disgorgement.
But for ‘wine geeks’, especially for grower and high end champagnes, where vintage and batch variation is much more significant, knowing such information is important. In addition vintage Champagnes are usually disgorged par tranche, in batches, meaning that two bottles from the same producer may be from the same vintage, but have been disgorged on different dates, up to several years apart. Most producers have historically been reluctant to provide this information, perhaps nervous of confusing consumers who don’t understand what it means. But particularly amongst the grower champagne and prestige houses, it is becoming easier to ascertain how long ones wine has spent on lees and when it was disgorged, either through esoteric codes or the date printed on the bottle.
Long may it stay this way, giving us geeks a sense of excitement and superiority, in the knowledge that armed with this information we’ve purchased more wisely, allowing us to enjoy the bottle to its full potential.
Sugrue Pierre ‘The Trouble With Dreams’ 2013
Pale lemon colour, with quite a stony, bread dough, sour dough starter look. Quite ‘active’ with a very fine mousse.
Pronounced nose. Initial hints of struck matchstick and gun flint, with nice stony, pebbly, chalky delicacy. Very delicate lemon citrus, sharper yellow and green apple, followed by pithy lemon and lime.
Pronounced and complex on the palate. Plenty of fruitiness, with red apple skin and pithy citrus, and hints of preserved lemons and lemon cream, reminiscent of lemon meringue pie. Creamy, soft textured mouth feel, with characteristic bread dough notes, and a chalky, bashed together pebble, gun flint minerality. High acidity, dry, but with the fruit giving an almost off dry sensation, good body and a lasting, pithy fruit finish.
Outstanding. Very elegant and delicate, with superb definition. This feels pretty young now, but has plenty of potential for development.