English sparkling wine’s international reputation is now so firmly established that even comparisons with Champagne are becoming slightly passé. Oz Clarke, whose new book English Wine: From Still to Sparkling is published in September, reckons there will be a time when English still wines will rival Burgundy.
Tamara Roberts, however, is having none of it. The CEO of Sussex producer Ridgeview is an unshowy, cautious figure, a safe pair of hands at a time when the excitement of success might turn a less sober head. She has no time for predictions of Burgundian glory, for example – and no intention of making still wine.
“Why would we? We are nowhere near the end of the journey with sparkling. We’re established in that arena. You don’t see Bordeaux and Champagne curving away from what they do best.”
Ridgeview, which was founded in 1995 when Mike and Chris Roberts planted their first Chardonnay vineyards in Sussex (see main pic), is considered one of the first growths of English sparkling wine. Roberts died in 2014 and the winery is now run by his daughter Tamara, and his son Simon and wife Mardi as winemaker and head of marketing respectively. Vineyard manager Matt Strugnell is a veteran of the company, while Mike’s widow Chris manages the estate as a director. Consistently award-winning, their wines are served by royalty to heads of state (when in 2011 the news came through that the Queen had served the 2004 Fitzrovia Rosé to Barack Obama at Buckingham Palace, “It was the only time ever we cracked open a bottle at tea break,” says Roberts).
Sitting down for a Zoom chat with Tamara and Mardi Roberts, and Strugnell, it’s striking how confident they are in the direction they are taking, while acknowledging the industry is still at the very beginning of its journey.
Roberts is also emphatic, for example, that it’s far too soon to discuss regionality in England. For a start, they source much of their fruit from outside Sussex, and in any case, “Sussex sparkling wines are not significantly differentiated from Kent or Hampshire sparkling wines right now. We feel we still have a lot of work to do at the top level before we get into regions.”
Why would we make still wine? We are nowhere near the end of the journey with sparkling
Similarly, knowledge of the qualities of the soils of the south of England is in its infancy. “The idea of teams of vineyard owners driving around the country looking for a patch of chalk somewhere – it might happen,” Strugnell says, as if such a thing would be rather quixotic.
Roberts agrees there’s a lot to think about before delving too deep into the soil. “I think these are layers that come later as you get more established. At the moment the industry is so small, and we’re all doing the same thing. We will look to differentiate when we have the data and can make the comparisons. It’s a bit previous to do that now, as we don’t have the information.”
For now, the focus is clear: “To stick to our principles of making traditional method sparkling wine from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier,” Mardi Roberts says – but it’s also clear that the job of the new generation is to move things on. The idea of generational change is mentioned several times over the course of our conversation. Tamara for example mentions how she was struck by the serendipity of being named 2018 IWSC Winemaker of the Year on the anniversary of her father’s death in 2014. “It was a coming of age for us. The vintage was done by us – that was wine my brother made after my Dad died so it was kind of cementing the second generation.”
The family is conscious not only that they’re carrying the torch for the popular and highly respected founder but that evolution is necessary. They have a deft grasp of innovation: in 2018 the team launched their strikingly modern new label, ditching the “Knightsbridge” and “Grosvenor” cuvées and instantly making the original design look very dusty indeed. A new wine is due for release later this year. “It’s again showing our generational stamp, in quite a modern way,” Mardi says. “It’s an innovative design and cool package. I think it has a younger vibe and is going to have Simon’s stamp on it.”
English wine stands with one foot in the past and one in the future. Champagne is referenced a hundred times a day, on labels and in the winery where French terms from taille to remuage are standard. But as the domestic industry grows in stature and confidence, the ties are fraying. Talking to Roberts now one notices a subtle shift in attitude from the days when Champagne Taittinger buying land in Kent was seen as a massive fillip. The French, with 300 years of marketing wine, will transform the English industry. It will be a “drastic change”, she says.
“It’s a long way from being a problem. But it’s an interesting question. Bringing the Champagne houses into the English market will really commercialise the whole business.
“They know their industry. They have distribution channels set up to slip into – they understand marketing and price points and they can leverage existing relationships. I think you’d see quite a drastic change.”
In August last year the US network CBS ran a glowing five-minute segment on Ridgeview, explaining how English wine was rivalling Champagne in excellence: “This is England, whose rainy southern counties are making some of the best sparkling wine in the world.” Or, as anchor Michelle Miller put it, “England – who knew?”
From one point of view you could say the job’s done. English wine has arrived. Looked at from another angle, the journey’s just beginning.
Tamara Roberts is IWSC President 2020
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