A Hampshire Fizz
In the depths of the Hampshire countryside, Hattingley Valley is producing some refined English sparkling wine
Article by Rupert Watkins
From small beginnings in 2008, Hattingley Valley has grown into an internationally regarded sparkling wine producer. Owner Simon Robinson has long had an interest in wine. A commercial cattle and sheep farmer, he had – like many in his industry – pondered diversification and as early as 2002 visited Nytimber to chat with them. Over the subsequent years, he kept a careful eye on the ever-increasing news stories about English sparkling wine and in 2008 conducted soil testing and planted the first vines. “Grape growing is of interest to farmers, it’s not too land intensive” he comments, “you can to start plant a 30-acre vineyard and experiment whilst not betting the farm.”
Located on the thick seam of chalk running through Hampshire, the initial vines thrived, the first harvest was in 2010 and the first Hattingley Valley wine came onto the market in 2013. “Hattingley’s on the right soil and has the right aspect for grape growing” explains Emma Rice, head winemaker who joined Simon in 2008. Their first release was a 2011 Classic Cuvée followed by a Rosé in 2014 and in 2016, Hattingley Valley released its award winning 2011 Blanc de Blanc.
Though in order to comply with industry quality standards English makers have to use traditional methods to produce sparkling wine; like many, Hattingley Valley is keen to experiment with blends and grapes, “we are not constrained in the very rigid manner producers in Champagne are” Emma points out, “from experimenting with how we trim the vines to time spend aging on the lees, we can innovate. English wine makers have hugely grown in confidence and want to create our own unique style and taste.”
The Hattingley Valley style according to Emma, “is expressive, rich and elegant, the wine is not aggressive, and the acidity is well balanced. There is a long mouth feel and a soft bubble.” Their wine has a very clean taste and their use of oak casks is clear, the firm also uses oxidative wine making techniques at the start of the process. The Rosé is very pale with a soft taste though with a pleasing slight mineral edge – again the oak is pronounced. Hattingley’s Rosé has actually become Simon’s favourite though the company sells more of their Classic blend.
Their 2011 Blanc de Blanc has been made in smaller qualities than their other offerings, “it is one of our finest wines” Simon enthuses, “it’s one for a sophisticated sparkling wine aficionado.” Hattingley Valley also offer a limited run 2013 Kings Cuvée, a premium blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and a sweet demi sec. “We don’t see a huge number of customers for the demi sec” remarked Emma, “though we do have a lot of sommelier interest for tasting menu pairings; its sweetness works even with quite heavy meats such as venison as it can pick up on the sweetness of the meat and accompanying English berry sauces.”
Emma explains that most of Hattingley Valley’s wines are vintage by default, the industry has not been going in this country for long enough for huge reserves to be built up though in the past couple of years small amounts have been put aside to ensure consistency. The company does keep a library stock for archive purposes, “any sparkling wine has a shelf-life” Simon points out, “but it will certainly be interesting to taste our first wines after they’ve been laid down for four to five years.”
From the beginning Simon invested in the operations side of the business. The winery was built very early in 2010, “English wine making has always had a winery capacity issue” he comments, “many people have come in and planted the vines but not invested in the next stage – it will be a problem in the future as the industry truly matures and yields grow.” He took the decision to invest early as from the start, unlike many English producers who thought in terms of local markets, Simon was focused on having an export market. This foresight has paid off as today, Hattingley Valley exports a third of its produce with the largest overseas market being the US, then Australia and Japan. “Australia is a sophisticated and open-minded wine market” Simon remarks, “Japan has always respected English made premium craft goods and at the moment English sparkling wine is new and unknown so people want to try it. The US is a critical market and has huge growth potential for English sparkling wine” Indeed, in Simon’s mind the step change in English sparkling wine over the past three years has been makers willingness to export and look for new markets, “provenance has become of huge importance to knowledgeable consumers everywhere and that’s something we have.”
Even as English sparkling wine has grown in desirability, the past couple of years have proven how tricky and uncertain each harvest can be. 2017 was dominated by thick frosts in April that ruined vast swaths of the crop, though southern England got hit a little earlier than Champagne which at least allowed the second growth to come through it was a dispiriting year, “we eventually got about 55 per cent of what we could have done” Simon recalls. In contrast the heatwave of summer 2018 has seen a truly bumper harvest, “it’s been an incredible year – we’ve almost had too much fruit to be able to cope, we’ve had to rush in extra tanks” Simon mentions, “to put it in context, in 2017 we pressed 280 tons – this year it’s been 675 tons!”
Hattingley Valley is situated over two main sites and 60 acres though Emma reveals the firm also uses parcels of grapes from up to 20 other English vineyards, “we want to target the blend for our wines exactly the way we want – we find the best parcels from each year to ensure consistency and top quality. Remember, bar a few of the top maisons, Champagne producers don’t own their vineyards and buy in parcels of grapes from different growers all over the region for exactly the same reason we do.”
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To handle this, Hattingley Valley employs a team of 18 full time staff – though at harvest time with seasonal winery staff and pickers this swells to over 60. The winery is an all year round operation, in Simon’s eyes very much the operational heart of the firm. Unlike many white spirit distillers who appear to plan income streams from day one around tours and tastings, it’s only been over the past year that the team here have begun to think about putting more time into that side of the business. “We run small tours anyway” remarks Emma, “we want people to actually see how we make our wine.” There is clearly interest, their tours are always fully booked and with a cluster of producers in this part of Hampshire, there is the idea to push it as a wine lover’s area. There are also plans to market Winchester as one of the two wine capitals of England, along with Canterbury as the nexus for the Kent vineyards.
With Simon keen to grow the export market, Hattingley Valley has some delicious sparkling wines to send out into the world – both the Classic Reserve and Rosé I tasted were poised, elegant wines – those seeking stylish English drinking should hunt out a bottle or two from this producer tucked away in the wilds of Hampshire.