ENGLISH SPARKLING WINE COMES OF AGE
In the time of the Angevin and Plantagenet kings of medieval England (12th to 15th centuries) vineyards flourished as far north as Yorkshire under the keen stewardship of Benedictine and Cistercian monks, whose orders had first established the great wines of Burgundy. The English winter was certainly colder then than it is now, but it was also drier and less affected by the heavy rainfall that causes so much disease in the growing cycle of the vine. English viticulture died a slow lingering death as riper, more agreeable wines from France, Italy and Spain came to dominate the English market well into Restoration and Georgian England. It was not until the 1970s that English wine was restored in the Hambleton vineyard of Hampshire, pioneered and developed by Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones, a retired diplomat and wine lover. But the best sites on the cool chalk downland of Southern England - so ideal for sparkling wine production - were not exploited until the 1980s. Thirty years on, the best English growers make sparklers that, if not completely like the real thing, do taste quite close to it.
Although warmer autumns and improved winemaking practice by English producers have resulted in some highs among our sparkling wines, one producer stands out for the consistency of his range of fizz, largely because he has always acted on good advice from his contacts in Champagne. Mike Roberts, a computer software expert, left the high tech world in 1992 to start the Ridgeview vineyard on the South Downs of Ditchling, near Brighton. He was astute enough to grasp that he had to plant all three classic sparkling grapes - palate-filling Meunier as well as noble Pinot and Chardonnay - if he was to achieve a harmony of fruit and mineral flavours to match the flavours of the better Champagnes. He has also been the first English sparkling producer to use the state-of-the-art Coquard automated press which treats mature Pinot grapes particularly well, coaxing all the right flavours without bruising and oxidising the grape clusters.
Last Sunday at the Decanter Wine Experience, I tasted through the immaculate Ridgeview range with Mike Roberts' son, Simon. Two very different recommendations: the utterly reliable Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2008 with its creamy round purity of fruit that comes from expert blending of incisive Chardonnay in the driving seat supported by firm rich Pinot and biscuity Meunier. And best of all, the South Ridge 2007 - its slightly raised proportion of black grapes, and an extra six months on lees, giving some of the richness and restraint I associate more with top Champagne producers like Pol Roger, Billecart-Salmon and Jacquesson than with any English sparkling wine. Bravo!
The Benedictine monks of Ampleforth Abbey have been growing apples in North Yorkshire's Howardian Hills for more than two hundred years - but their cider production is a quite recent innovation. The Abbey now has the most commercially important orchard in the North of England, a model of viable, modern fruit farming that belies its compact size: extending to just over six acres (2.5 hectares), the orchard actually has more than 2,000 trees, densely planted for optimal intensity of flavours in the harvested fruit. This contemporary enterprise has debunked an old myth that you can't grow good cider apples this far north, at the extreme limit of their cold tolerance. One man, an outsider and late entrant to the enclosed world of high English monasticism, has been the motor of change.
Father Rainer was born in another cold place, the village of Zaller in the Munster province of north west Germany. So, from an early age he knew all about producing exceptional fruit in a hostile climate -like the Mosel and Saar wines of his homeland, or, one could add, French Champagne and Scottish raspberries - products that have a purity and dynamism of flavour largely because of the brisk weather in their own locales.
Rainer has an unusual background for a Benedictine. As an orthopaedic surgeon, he came to Britain in the late 1980s because he admired our National Health Service and wanted to work here. He later came to teach biology and health education at Ampleforth College, one of England's top public schools, the 'Catholic Eton', so to speak. Juggling his teaching responsibilties with added work managing the orchards, Rainer, after a great deal of soul searching, began to consider the monastic life. He went to see the Abbot, who asked him, “do you want to come into the monastery?". "No, I'm not at all sure" said Rainer. “Well, it may be true then!" was the Abbot's riposte. Rainer has been a monk since 1998 and he quickly took the decision that it would not be fair to his pupils if he continued to split his time between the schoolroom and the orchards. He chose the trees.
Rainer has been pressing apples in the Ampleforth Cider Mill since 2002. He took this initiative because the sale of the Abbey's apples had fallen off due to the insidious influence on consumer preferences exercised by powerful supermarket buyers: they insisted of course on bright, rosy and uniformly shaped apples. So very different from the 46 different varieties grown at Ampleforth, coming in all colours, shapes and sizes – to say nothing of the complexity of tastes that such a repertoire can bring. The juice of these myriad fruits are stored in massive vats. Then following a two-month fermentation process, the cider - dry, pure, frothy and clean – is siphoned off and allowed to mature for a further four months before being bottled and sold from April onwards. The next step, a cider brandy, was more ambitious. The whole process is much longer than for making cider. The juice ferments for more than eight months, then is taken to a cider distillery in Somerset. After distillation, the infant spirit is aged in oak barrels (mainly French) for 4-5 years. Recently, I had the chance to taste the five-year-old before the press lunch for Ampleforth Apples at London's Cafe Anglais, hosted by Father Rainer and the Cafe's admired chef-patron and columnist, Rowley Leigh. Still pale, with green lights, this cider brandy looked like one of those Alsacien eaux de vie: but its taste was indubitably English. The first airing effects of oak ageing were starting to soften and mellow the alcohol burn, giving tones of vanilla and a flick of caramel (entirely natural, there's no added colouring). All the while, it had a wonderful apple-fruity flavour that was also precise and elegant. As production increases, it'll be good to taste the brandy again when it's a 10-year-old: at that age, it should really show its paces and be serious competion for a Calvados Hors d'Age.
Ampleforth Amber... is Father Rainer's latest product and my personal favourite. Of shimmering amber hue, it's like a French pommeau, made from a mix of fresh apple juice and cider brandy. Weighing in at 21 per cent alcohol, it's half the strength of calvados or cognac, yet it's punchy enough to give you renewed energy. Amber is the most versatile of drinks combining freshness, and mellow warmth. Its trump card is a perfect balance of ripe fruit and cleansing acidity that is shaped by Rainer's artful blend of delicious full eating apple varieties like Kidd's Orange Red with the bracing bite of say a cooking one such as Bramley.
Drink Amber slightly chilled as an aperitif, at cellar temperature as a digestif, or any way you like with Rainer's favourite dish - Himmel und Erde, which is an inspired marriage of mashed potarto and Ampleforth apples with maybe black pudding as a finishing touch. Heaven and Earth, indeed!
Ampleforth Abbey, York YO62 4EN