Amidst the green and rolling hills of Dorset, you will find a very special vineyard- Bride Valley. Special in its own right with south facing sun-drenched slopes and quality chalky soil, but also special because it belongs to Steven Spurrier and his lovely wife Bella.
It feels slightly surreal to find oneself sitting in the home of one of our great wine icons, drinking his fine English sparkling wine, and talking about the future of the English wine industry, especially after wandering with him through his vines. On this beautiful sunny morning the vines were just about to flower- the improvement in the weather could not have come at a better time. Steven tells us where each of the varietals are planted- Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay- and the contrast in colouring of the vine foliage can be clearly seen in the morning light. He shows us where they have planted trees as windbreaks and wild flowers to enhance the ecosystem. We encounter a few bunny rabbits scampering amongst the vines and are serenaded by the birdsong all around us. Bliss.
After many years in Paris, Steven and Bella searched for some time for the perfect family home in England, and discovered this beautiful property in Dorset after a recommendation from a friend some 30 years ago. Although Bella managed a sheep farm here for many years initially, Steven was always curious about the soil, and often wondered about planting a vineyard. He took some of the soil with him back to France for analysis by viticulture experts, who initially assumed the soil was from Champagne! From then he always knew a vineyard on the sunny slopes of Bride Valley would do well, but it was not until 2008 that he and Bella decided to take the plunge. With English Sparkling Wine becoming more firmly established, and knowing that Ian Edwards at the nearby Furleigh Estate would take care of their wine-making, they set off for the esteemed Pépinières Guillaume vine nursery in Burgundy, where they bought their first vines for planting.
The first Bride Valley harvest was in 2011, released in 2014 to much acclaim, and sold out very rapidly. There are now over 10 hectares under vine in Bride Valley, 55% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier. In 2016, with the vines maturing, in addition to the increase in planting over time, they hoped for their best harvest to date.
Spending time with Steven is strangely relaxing. No doubt the surroundings help, not just in the vineyard, but also his 17th century home and colourful English country garden. However, it is so easy just to listen- he is softly spoken and enjoys telling stories of his 50-odd years in the wine industry. The conversation naturally flows, and I find myself hanging on his every word. The maestro. How much I could learn from this gentle and modest man.
Our discourse, of course, turns to the Judgement of Paris, which Steven organised in his wine school in Paris in 1976. French wine experts carried out a blind tasting of French and Californian wines, and were astonished when they realised the top spot in both categories, Chardonnay and Bordeaux/Cabernet, went to Napa! This changed the history of wine for ever, finally giving Napa Valley the credentials it so greatly deserved. The United States government decided in 2016 to fly the US flag over the United States Capitol on May 16th in recognition of Steven, celebrating the 40th anniversary of this momentous occasion in the history of Californian wine, an industry that now contributes more than $162billion to the US economy. He proudly yet humbly shows us the framed Resolution from the House of Representatives, and the flag itself which they subsequently sent to him, beautifully folded in a presentation case.
But I digress- we are treated to a tasting of the 2013 Blanc de Blancs and 2013 Rosé Bella in the garden room, surrounded by flowers and foliage, with a view to the garden, where a treehouse and swings indicate how much of a family home this is, how Steven and Bella clearly value family time with their grandchildren. First, the Blanc de Blancs- 95% Chardonnay, 5% Pinot Meunier; disgorged after 15-18 months on the lees and released for the summer three years after the vintage. With a dosage of only 8g/L, this is dry, fresh & clean with crisp acidity, lively citrus and brioche notes, a fine persistent mousse and a chalky mineral finish- a truly elegant Blanc de Blancs.
Steven’s sparkling Rosé is named as a tribute to his right-hand woman, his lovely wife Bella. The Rosé Bella 2013 is 85% Pinot Noir, 10% Chardonnay, 5% Pinot Meunier. The deep pink rose colour results from 24 hours on the Pinot Noir skins before fermentation, and the dominance of the black grape is evident on the nose and the palate with strong raspberry and strawberry notes, with a hint of citrus from the Chardonnay; fresh, dry, and beautifully balanced with a low dosage of 7 g/L- Steven favours this drier style. The luscious long finish perfects this “English Summer” in a glass. Only 750 bottles were made of this rare English beauty in 2013; we can only hope for more in the future! The Rosé is disgorged after 15 months on the lees, and released in the autumn 2 years after the vintage, and I believe the 2014 is now available.
While we savour these excellent wines, I ask Steven what he thinks the future holds for the English Sparkling Wine industry. He feels that the future is strong, yet while all the producers are currently like colleagues working together towards the same goal, he fears that larger commercial producers may upset the balance. He states that if the owners “continue to sing from the same hymn sheet, [they] should represent the best that England can produce- then we are all friends”.
Before leaving, I ask Steven what was his most memorable sparkling moment. He pauses to think for a minute, then smiles at me enigmatically and says with a chuckle that there are “too many bubbles to remember”.
Sorcha & Steven are currently working together on a weekend Wine Tour to Provence for Spring 2018. If you would like to register your interest now, email Sorcha at firstname.lastname@example.org or sign up for our mailing list to be one of the first to know
I’m always amazed by the reaction when I talk to people about the abundance of vineyards we have in the beautiful South West of England. People, in general, seem unaware of this bounty on our doorstep, and nothing gives me more pleasure than introducing my bespoke groups to our fine wineries on my day tours and short breaks in the region. It was therefore a great opportunity for me to meet some more of our local producers at the Southwest Vineyard’s annual tasting event held at the Phoenix in Exeter at the end of June.
As a guest of indefatigable Hilary of Eastcott Vineyard in Okehampton, I was pleasantly surprised by the number and quality of local producers exhibiting. In addition to the fine offerings from Hilary & Richard at Eastcott and a number of other Devon wineries, Dorset, Cornwall and Herefordshire were all well represented, giving me lots of ideas for future wine tours in the South West. It was nice to meet Emma Coulson from Polgoon, a great ambassador for their family-run estate near Penzance. I enjoyed a long conversation with Geoff Bowen from Pebblebed near Exeter and Frank Myers from Wythall Estate in Herefordshire on the EU Referendum- as well as the wine, of course!
Dorset was well-represented too with Rebecca Edwards from award-winning Furleigh Estate. I adore Furleigh’s sparkling Rosé! My recent visit to beautiful Furleigh will be the subject of another post soon.
It’s always lovely to catch up with Duncan Schwab from Sharpham and his sidekick Tommy, who is always smiling and obviously adores his work. We fixed a date for me to drop by, and this visit will be covered in a future post. At this event I tasted their award-winning red wine, a tribute to their winemaking skills in this cool English climate.
It was also fantastic for me to finally meet Wine Educator Rebecca Mitchell in person after knowing each other for quite some time via Twitter.
It was so much fun to explore our beautiful region’s wines at this excellent event, but it’s even more fun to explore them at the vineyards. If you’d like to explore the wineries of the South West get in touch with me by Email or call me on 01752 662801 or 07866 472724. I can organise both daytours and shortbreaks here in this beautiful part of the world for private or corporate groups.
For more information on the South West Vineyards association check out their website here.