June 22nd, 2018/ BY Simon Rafuse

A Nova Scotia winemaker discovers England & Champagne

As a winemaker, sometimes you can get lost in your own world. When you taste the same wines from your own vineyards day after day, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. It’s one thing to taste and drink different wines at home, but it’s also important to get out there and see what else is going on in the world of wine. Exploring new places, meeting people and tasting their wines — and, as a winemaker, finding out what problems they’re having and how they’re dealing with them, opening your eyes to different approaches and techniques — is a sharing experience that can be very enlightening.

It was with this spirit of discovery in mind that I flew over to England and Champagne this past winter. Back home in Nova Scotia, there’s a lot of buzz building around our traditional method sparkling wines, and it’s a style of wine I love to make. I thought a visit to another emerging region like England might bring me some interesting ideas, and of course Champagne is, well … it’s Champagne. One great thing about being involved in this industry is that people tend to be very generous with their time. So I sent off some emails and followed up with a few calls and pretty quickly had an itinerary for the week.



On the first day, I picked up a car in South London and headed east into Kent. Nothing jogs the memory of driving on the left quite like the M25 during rush hour. My first stop was with Jon Pollard, COO at Gusbourne Estate. Gusbourne had recently undergone a major vineyard expansion, and I was keen to see how they had approached it. We hopped in Pollard’s truck with his dogs and went for a tour out to a small hill with a superb view over the surrounding vineyards. Like Nova Scotia, England has a marginal climate for viticulture, and so we talked a lot about disease pressure, humidity and the importance of site selection.

The vineyards at Gusbourne benefit from their proximity to the English Channel. Much like the Bay of Fundy back home, the water moderates temperatures, extends the growing season and prevents frosts. The estate is planted exclusively with Champagne varieties on a number of clone and rootstock combinations from Burgundy and Champagne. In a variable climate, having diversity in the vineyard can help smooth out seasonal fluctuations and gives the winemaker options during the harvest. We tasted through Gisbourne’s range of sparkling wines (and a couple of excellent still wines) and I was very impressed by the balance, especially in the wines based on lesser vintages.

I said goodbye to Pollard, and made the short drive to see an old friend and colleague from my intern days in Alsace, Josh Donaghy-Spire, who is now Head Winemaker at Chapel Down in Tenterden, Kent. Chapel Down makes a wide range of wines, including several sparkling cuvées. One topic we got chatting about was acids, and in particular, malolactic fermentation.

This process, whereby the bacteria Oenoccocus oeni converts sour malic acid into softer lactic acid, can be a challenge to do in sparkling base wines because the bacteria struggle to get established. English and Nova Scotian wines share similar acid profiles but we tend to leave the malic acid in the wines. The downside to this practice is that it can extend the period of maturation by several years. Donaghy-Spire, on the other hand, inoculates his wines with the bacteria during the alcoholic fermentation. This method, which is also common in Champagne, lets the bacteria develop under lower alcohol conditions and uses the heat of the primary fermentation to get them started. The result is a healthier fermentation and wines that can mature more quickly. It’s certainly something I will try at home during our next cool vintage.

On the way back to London, I had just enough time to make a quick and unplanned stop at Hush Heath Estate and picked up a bottle of the NV Leslie’s Reserve. This “extra dry” wine has a little extra residual sugar (19 g/l) to round off the finish. It’s a great style for cooler climates and it was a big crowd pleaser that night when paired with takeout Indian curry.

The following day, I headed south to Sussex where I met Robin Langton, COO at Ridgeview Wine Estate. Langton joined Ridgeview a couple of years ago, and it was interesting to chat with him about his views as a relative newcomer to the UK industry. Ridgeview only makes sparkling wines and helps craft blends for retailers such as Marks & Spencer. It certainly is a great indication that the industry is on the right track when retailers want their own branded bubbles.

Exploring new places, meeting people & tasting their wines … can be very enlightening.

Jon Pollard, Hamish and Angus
Jon Pollard shows me the Gusbourne vineyards with his trusted companions Hamish and Angus.


After lunch, I drove west to Nyetimber, where I met one of their two winemakers (and fellow Canuck), Brad Greatrix. Nyetimber is a stunning estate tucked away in the hills of West Sussex that is also dedicated exclusively to sparkling wines. After selecting a pair of Hunter boots from the entryway, we wandered through the vineyards chatting about rootstocks, clones, and vineyard yields. Back in the tasting room, I was interested to hear Greatrix’s thoughts on reserve wines. Nyetimber employs a reserve wine program to craft their blends, with the intent being that the older wines add richness and complexity. What I found particularly fun was that each bottle is given a code that can be inputted online to give you information on the base wines, dosage and disgorging dates. Very cool.

Another interesting thing at Nyetimber is their use of dark glass. Nyetimber has switched to dark bottles to protect their wines from lightstrike, where ultraviolet light creates cooked cabbage aromas in a wine. Sparkling wines are especially susceptible, and while clear glass is the worst culprit, even Champagne green bottles don’t offer full protection. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more wineries going in this direction in the near future (mine included).

Winemaker Brad Greatrix
Brad Greatrix, one of two winemakers at Nyetimber (and fellow Canuck).


With my English visits done, I took the Eurostar to Champagne, where I was meeting winemaking friends from university in Montpellier and former workmates from Alsace. Champagne is a fascinating wine region, in part, because of its contrasts. On one hand, you have the Grandes Marques houses producing millions of bottles annually, and on the other, small grower-producers with just three hectares. I wanted to see a bit of both so had visits organized at Louis Roederer, Bollinger and Jacquesson, as well as Agrapart, Larmandier-Bernier, Berêche et Fils and Benoit Lahaye.

After three days and tasting countless wines, there was almost too much information to take in. However, it was interesting to see that in a region with so much history, winemakers are still pushing the envelope. Just as a snapshot, we saw amphorae being used at Benoit Lahaye (although he said he was moving away from them) and tasted Le Jardin de la Grosse Pierre, a cuvée that incorporates the forgotten Champagne varieties, including Arbanne and Petit Meslier. At Bollinger, we marvelled at the 3,500 barrels used for fermentation and the chalk caves full of reserve wines stored in magnums (!) for future use. We tried single-vineyard bottlings and inspected the traditional presses at Jacquesson, and tasted blends carefully crafted from hundreds of parcels at Roederer.

At Larmandier-Bernier, there were bone-dry extra brut wines that showed exceptional richness and a hand-disgorged 2000 that belied its age. At Berêche et Fils, the wines showed incredible purity and freshness, having not been put through malolactic fermentation. And many of their wines in tirage are aged under cork, requiring an extra step at disgorging to sniff each bottle for faults. At Agrapart, we were stumped trying to guess the vintage of a 1986, while learning about different parcels and villages through extensive base wine tastings. Overall, the quality of the wines we tasted in Champagne was extraordinary — both classic and modern at the same time.

Heading home later in the week, I was sifting through the photos on my phone thinking about the trip.

The visits and conversations had on the road always give me fresh ideas. I think it speaks to the industry that people are so open and welcoming — all in the spirit of community. It’s an inspiring feeling and sends you home excited for the next harvest to start.



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