Nyetimber was first recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086. Now one of the world’s most highly regarded English sparkling wine makers, over a millennium has passed since the name “Nitimbreha” was coined, likely referring to a newly timbered house on the Nyetimber estate. In the fortunate position of owning one hundred percent of its own vineyards and all of the wines produced there, Nyetimber’s first vintage was in 1992 and since then it has been devoted to producing the highest quality sparkling wine from the hallowed trio of Champagne grapes: chardonnay, pinot meunier and pinot noir. Sharing Alice Made This’ dedication to process and history, we get technical with Nyetimber’s Julian Kirk to learn more about the business and its heritage…just in time for a glass fizz this festive season.
Walking around Nyetimber’s London office and tasting rooms in Mayfair, Julian Kirk tells me how, in 1988, two Americans came over from Chicago and recognised that the geology in Sussex was identical to that in Champagne. Chalk on top and green sand underneath.
The eight sites, equalling 170 hectares, which Nyetimber has planted, lie on the best land in West Sussex and Hampshire. In a single decade, the winemaking team has become among the most proficient in the industry. The geology of Southern England means that the chalky soil and the green sand, full of iron and copper, allows the grapes to flourish and slowly ripen, while sheltered from coastal winds to achieve the optimum level of acidity for the complex flavours of the wine.
Like Alice Made This, Nyetimber is not willing to compromise when it comes to precision. We work with the best British industrial factories to ensure that our accessories are always refined and exact. In the same way, Nyetimber will not use its grapes if they aren’t up to standard. Julian recalls how, in 2012, they controversially did not produce a vintage for this exact reason.
“We’re very fortunate that Eric Heerema is our owner as he has generational vision,” Julian tells me. While of course sales and commercial goals are important, this long term thinking means that the team can make decisions based on their reputation and what is right for the brand. If releasing a 2012 vintage would have damaged their credibility, then there was no question about what was the right choice.
Cherie Spriggs, Nyetimber’s wine maker, is personally dedicated to every decision that is made. She oversees every handpicked vineyard, chooses the right time to harvest the grapes, supervises the pressing and makes all the blending decisions.
“We may be 200 years behind Champagne on marketing,” Julian tells me, “but not 200 years behind on flavour. Once they’ve tasted it, it’s not an issue. The quality shows itself.”
By using traditional methods, ageing the wines for extensive periods of time before release, the team and Cherie are able to have complete control over the flavours, ensuring that the quality and taste lives up to other competitors on the world stage.
Julian goes into more technical detail, telling me how Nyetimber only use its own grapes, handpicked exclusively from its own vineyards. This means they can adjust the methods at every stage from harvest to bottle, collecting grapes in crates half the size of those used in Champagne to avoid bruising of the fruit.
After harvest, all of Nyetimber’s grapes are pressed within a few hours, ensuring that the freshest juice reaches the winery and is diverted into different batches according to taste as it flows from the press. Nyetimber use a Coquard Press, a gentle and precise press that retains the unique character of each individual grape.
These individual batches, or parcels, are then kept in individual tanks on their lees to allow Cherie and the team to blend from as full a selection as possible.
The bubbles come much later. Once a bottle has had sufficient time on the lees, you add some yeast and sugar, put a crown cap on and then you start to get secondary fermentation. The yeast and sugar ferment in the bottle and the carbon dioxide can’t escape. That’s then absorbed into the wine and that’s where you get your bubbles from.
With such a comprehensive and exact process, as well as a team of expert wine enthusiasts and crafts people, I ask Julian whether there is space for another English sparkling wine producer to emerge as competition.
“Say you wanted to start as an English sparkling wine producer today,” he says, “it would be 9 years before you sold a bottle. If you’re lucky you’d plant next year and then you’d need your vines to be in for at least 4 years. They would produce fruit after year two, but it wouldn’t be particularly good quality and you’d need all the vigour to go into the roots. You’d have to cut every small piece of fruit off so that the vigour could go into the roots. Then you press the grapes, make the wine and then you leave it in the bottle on the lees for over three and a half years. You top up the bottle with a little reserve wine and sugar and then you cork it and leave it for a further 3 or 4 months to settle down.”
It seems then, for the next decade at least, Nyetimber can remain firmly at the top of our Christmas wish list. Raise a glass with your loved ones this weekend and enjoy the products of one of Britain’s most rigorous and refined processes. I can assure you it's delicious!
Learn more about Nyetimber here.