Nyetimber's Tillington Vineyard produces arguably the greatest wine in England; we have been supporters, and fans, of the wine since the first vintage was cautiously released nearly a decade ago. With the release of the 2014 vintage imminent, Brad Greatrix (who makes the wines alongside his wife Cherie Spriggs) came to Farr Vintners for the first vertical tasting outside the property of the first four vintages of this wine: 2009, 2010, 2013 and 2014.
English sparkling wine has a growing and now international reputation for high quality. The simplistic view is that climate change is making southern England akin to Champagne as it was 100 years ago, but it is much more complex than that. Though increasing temperatures have played a key part in the viability of great wine in the UK, it is the combination of soils, aspect and - importantly - the influx of expertise and ambition that has raised the quality ceiling for a country used to importing all of its vinous requirements. Climate change will actually make production more difficult in many ways - warmer, earlier springs risk late frosts that decimate production potential, with fewer but heavier downpours likewise making disease pressure and water table management an increasingly complex task.
Brad and Cherie are both Canadian, though have made West Sussex - and Nyetimber - their home for the last 15 years as they bring owner Eric Heerema's dream to fruition. 350 hectares have been scouted across three counties (West Sussex, Hampshire and Kent) and 11 different sites as appropriate for production of premium sparkling wine. The stringent requirements include: a southern aspect, critical for sunlight to ripen the grapes; low elevation, as unlike other regions that are climbing the hillsides for coolness the grapes here need all the heat they can get; and either greensand or chalk soils. Nyetimber were the first to plant solely Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier on these sites for the sole purpose of producing traditional method sparkling wine.
The vast majority of the planted vineyards are destined to make the Classic Cuvée, a wine that was single vintage up to and including 2010, with a switch to a more champenois multi-vintage blend thereafter. This allows for a more consistent style to smooth out England's variable weather which is critically important for a flagship wine in such a marginal climate. There are, however, exceptional plots within vineyards that have been found as the vines become established. The first such plot worthy of a separate bottling was Tillington.
Tillington's origin came from tasting grapes in the vineyard in 2009. On passing through to check the fruit ahead of harvest, Cherie and Brad stumbled on a few rows of Pinot Noir with a unique floral character and decided to pick and ferment it separately. This only represented a tiny 2 hectare portion of Tillington as a whole, which is a 37 hectare site. This unique character transferred into the wine, so the decision was made to blend in a little Chardonnay for structure and run a small bottling as an experiment for the secondary fermentation. The results were outstanding, with the unique character transferred through to the final product. This was a new step for English wine, a small bottling at a premium price, designed to compete with high-level Champagne.
The winemaking for Tillington does not differ from the Classic Cuvée other than the fact it remains from a single vintage. In this way, the unique character of the fruit from this plot can be expressed clearly. The wines are aged for 36-42 months on lees in bottle ahead of disgorgement - they believe this is the sweet spot in showcasing typicity of site while gaining the rich complexity that this lees contact provides. Dosage remains at the Brut level for Champagne, the sugars imperceptible in terms of sweetness but important for developing flavours with bottle age. Tillington is only made when the floral red fruit character is clear from fruit to finished wine - at the moment that gives about a 50% hit rate. Production will always be small, the maximum roughly 10,000 bottles a year. As with all Nyetimber wines, it is sealed with a DIAM closure - this provides consistency both in terms of removing cork taint risk, but also in terms of steady aging in the bottle.
Brad led the team through all four releases, for which you can see tasting notes below. The floral red tone was consistent in each vintage and you can certainly see the presence of site in the wines. If I had to pick one, the 2013 edges to victory and is without doubt the best English wine I have tasted. All four showed superbly - the imminent 2014 release is pure, crystaline and ideally wants cellaring before approaching. The retained freshness of both 2009 and 2010 clearly shows the aging potential here; these are serious wines that collectors can age in bottle with confidence.
Many Farr customers have already started to collect these wines, but I urge those who have eschewed English wine to take the leap and see what the fuss is about. These are wines worthy of any cellar, and compete on a level with Champagne. There is, after all, good reason why their most famous houses have started buying up land on favourable sites in the English countryside.
Nyetimber Tillington 2009
Still quite a pale straw colour, with generous red cherry blossom and riper strawberry tones together with all-butter pastries, smoke and fresh biscuit. The palate shows a real softness with a creamy, generous mousse matching succulent fruit from all the Pinot Noir. Wild strawberries, baking spices and more of those pastries intermingle. This is just starting to take on earthy tertiary tones but the fruit remains persistent in the middle. Long and finely etched on the finish, this is now in full flow but should continue to drink well for 10 years.
Nyetimber Tillington 2010
Straw in colour with an almost summer pudding note together with ripe citrus rind and honeyed brioche. The palate shows fantastic delineation of citrus and red fruit, turning to blossom against honeysuckle and wax. The mousse is softening, promoting a very vinous character to this Tillington. Lightly earthy and deeply savoury, the aging is showing a fully creamy, biscuity expression of fruit. Very fine with a clean and precise finish. Drink over the next decade.
Nyetimber Tillington 2013
Straw in colour with a fine mousse. Multi-faceted and complex on the nose with honey, biscuits, cherry blossom, lavender and cool stone fruit - this is magnificent and very enticing. There is an ease of savoury maturity but such vibrant fruit to match. The Pinot Noir can really be felt, wild strawberries and redcurrants bursting from the glass. This same complex array follows on the palate, which is both broad and expansive yet mineral and cut by lively acidity. Creamy mousse is lifted by this fresh acid tone, turning the riper fruit notes floral. Honey and toasted brioche notes persist, but remain in the background for now while the energy of fruit drives the palate. Very long on the finish, this can be approached now but will be better in five years; it should drink well for 12-15+ years.
Nyetimber Tillington 2014
Pale straw in colour. After the expansive 2013 this very young Tillington will need time. Apple blossom, heady white flowers and hints of redcurrant mix with fresh cream and freshly baked bread. The palate has an almost Riesling-like focus - lime, wet stones and red apples are propped up by a persistent yet delicate mousse that is shaped by steely acidity. There is a highly floral character to this wine, which subsumes the autolytic character at this young stage - with air these honeyed, biscuity notes start to show. Very focused, airy and yet intense with a very long finish this should be another excellent Tillington but it will need two years in bottle before revealing its full potential. It should drink well for over a decade from that point.