I recently read that these are unprecedented times for use of the word ‘unprecedented’. Apparently the term appears in nearly three quarters of all business press releases right now.
It’s certainly a remarkable period we’re living through. And yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. For me, at least. I’ve been fortunate in that my life has been upended less than most. My job as winemaker at Nyetimber is not one that can be done from home – at least not the most important parts. Luckily, though, winery and vineyard work is very compatible with social distancing. That, coupled with the fact that Nyetimber’s head winemaker, Cherie Spriggs, is also my wife, means that, for the most part, daily life has carried on pretty much as normal.
In fact, rather than being curtailed, on some days, life has been even busier than normal. During lockdown we’ve all jumped online to stay connected, so my daytime hours are filled with winery work (bottling, just now) while evenings are often spent hosting or engaging in the new (to me, at least) world of Zoomstagram Live. I love it – to be able to drop in on presentations or discussions with leading figures in the industry from across the world has been inspiring and exciting. The fantastic series of masterclasses offered by the tireless team at 67 Pall Mall, in particular, has been absolutely amazing – long may it continue, lockdown or no lockdown.
I think because my daily life has elements that are still recognisable as ‘normal’, I haven’t felt the same pull as the likes of Olly Smith and Steven Spurrier to reach for bottles with sentimental value right now. But how my wife and I have been consuming wine has certainly changed. Because we’re spending all of our evenings at home, there’s more time to spend with a wine. Knowing that we’ll be home again tomorrow and the next night means we often open several bottles at once, drinking them slowly over a couple of days and seeing how they change. It gives a chance to really get to know a wine and is a satisfying way for us to enjoy bottles.
As winemakers, we both really value how a wine ‘drinks’ rather than just how it ‘tastes’. In a tasting scenario (sip, take notes, move on) it’s possible to get very accurate impressions of a wine, but spending time with a bottle lends a different view. There’s more emphasis on balance and length when assessing a bottle over the full 750ml and, as producers, it’s really important to understand that distinction because it’s how our wines will ultimately be experienced by consumers.
Appropriately enough, given today is World Chardonnay Day, there has been an inadvertent Chardonnay theme to our lockdown wines. We’re particularly curious to see how the wines we bought on a trip to Chablis and the Côte des Blancs in 2013 are evolving. Vintages on sale back then were mainly in the mid-noughties so we’re enjoying them entering their teenage years – for Premier and Grand Cru Chablis of 2006-2008 this seems to be a good window. A ‘day- two’ Vaudesir 2007 from Pascal Bouchard was particularly fine with pork belly.
Lockdown reds have been furnished by another holiday to Bordeaux, where Cherie and I spent time in St-Emilion. Château Jean-Faure 2010 is still beautifully fresh and has another phase of positive ageing ahead. On the other hand, and from the other side of the river, Chateau d’Issan 2012 looks like cresting soon, so we’re taking the chance to move through several bottles while it shows well.
Ultimately though, as one would expect, a lot of sparkling wine gets consumed in our household. The aforementioned trip to the Côte des Blancs supplied us with several ‘grower’ blancs de blancs. An ’03 bought as a curiosity disappointed (perhaps it was the atypically hot vintage; I’ll spare the producer’s blushes); but a special mention for the Larmandier Bernier ‘Latitude’ Vertus NV (based on ’09, I believe) which was a textural delight. We’re also finally dipping into a mixed case of House of Arras fizz from Tasmania, obtained in a swap deal with its winemaker, Ed Carr. I really admire the generosity of his wines.
The three most-consumed sparklings in our house though, you won’t be surprised to hear, are from Nyetimber. We’ve been greatly enjoying pairing meals with Cuvee Chérie, our Demi-Sec fizz. I find its versatility really exciting and I’d encourage anyone who loves Thai food to try this wine with a fragrant curry. And although I said that I haven’t been reaching for sentimental bottles, I do have certain ‘Carpe Diem’ wines (a subtle difference). I’m often turning to our prestige cuvées, 1086 and 1086 rosé. I’m so pleased that the 2010 is finally starting to unfurl and reveal the promise of that vintage, and the 1086 rosé of the same year is soaking up post-disgorgement ageing beautifully and seems more decadent each time I go back to it.
To taste our own wines adds a few layers to the experience because we can see the threads and not just the tapestry. Sometimes it brings back memories from the journey to get there – like tasting juice straight from the press in 2009 and knowing that it was going to be a special vintage. Or conversely the 2013s, which were so subtle as juice and young wine that we didn’t quite know what we had, and our approach to vinification was guided principally by experience – like driving along a familiar country road on a dark night. But at other times it’s nice (and important) to switch off and just enjoy the wine: pull the cork, pour a glass and relax…
Postscript: It seems likely that Brad will be fairly busy for the foreseeable future; earlier this week, Nyetimber announced the planting of over 200,000 new vines, chiefly in Kent, taking its annual production to well over a million bottles.