Wines from the UK – and particularly our sparkling wines – are garnering critical acclaim worldwide, and for good reason: they are world-class. The best are earning the UK a deserved place on the international podium alongside Champagne and other top-notch sparkling wine regions. And as vines mature and expertise grows in vineyard management and winemaking techniques, the quality of our home-grown sparklers is set to rise even further.
Given such potential, it is hardly surprising that the UK wine industry is attracting so much interest and investment, not only nationally but also from abroad. This has seen the industry grow exponentially in the past few years. For those of you with a penchant for statistics, the latest figures available at the time of writing (June 2020) attest to 763 vineyards and 164 wineries in the UK. (source: Wine GB, based on data supplied by the Food Standards Agency). Vineyards now cover 8600 acres (3500 hectares), a fourfold increase since the turn of the millennium, and up almost 80% in the past five years alone.
Let’s put that into perspective though: the entire UK vineyard area would fit into the Champagne region ten times over. While Champagne produces an impressive 300 million bottles a year for its thirsty worldwide audience, the UK yields just 10-13 million (of which 70% are sparkling). But these bottles still need a deserving home! The challenge for the UK wine industry lies not in quality – this is now uncontested – but in customer acquisition. UK sparkling is a fledgling sparkling wine category, particularly by comparison with Champagne, arguably the most successful wine ‘brand’ of all time. The UK industry must address this issue, both at home and on the world stage. This is also why we decided it was time to ‘do our bit’ and to partner with one or two producers.
At Corney & Barrow we are always on the lookout for star quality, producers whose wines not only set the benchmark for their country or region, but also have that special something that marks them out. We were so pleased to find this in Breaky Bottom and Ambriel, two outstanding and multi award-winning estates with whom we started working two years ago. Their wines are exceptional and distinctive in their own ways. You can read more about them, their unique stories and wines below.
While Great British bubbles would be a temptingly effervescent strapline for this piece, let’s not forget the UK’s still wines, whose reputation may be less lively but continues to build quietly. These wines are gaining a following year on year, as consumers take more interest in the local and home-grown, and enjoy the gentle, fragrant styles and typically lighter alcohols produced in this country. For over a decade we have been enjoying the wines from Kent’s oldest vineyard, Biddenden Vineyard, specialists of the little-known but delicious Ortega variety.
Breaky Bottom is a tiny wine estate nestled in a hidden valley in the South Downs, producing small quantities of high quality sparkling wines from just 6 acres (2.3 hectares) of vines. It is one of the UK’s oldest vineyards, planted in 1974 by owner Peter Hall, who saw in its protected site, unique micro-climate and chalk-rich soils, the potential to produce elegant, cool-climate wines of high quality. The name itself is a curio: both local (the word Bottom denotes a dry chalk valley) and historical (Breaky Bottom was mentioned in the Domesday book).
Peter’s arrival at Breaky Bottom in the early 1970s coincided with an increasing consumer trend for clean, fresh, cool-climate wines. Plant nurseries were developing early-ripening grape varieties to produce these styles, and Peter planted the now increasingly rare Seyval Blanc variety as well as small amounts of other hybrid grapes. While he originally produced still wines, over time he turned increasingly to sparkling wines. At the turn of the century, he also took the decision to plant the trio of champagne varieties, particularly Chardonnay, well-suited to Breaky Bottom’s chalky soils, with smaller amounts of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Peter’s focus is the vineyard, where he believes quality is made. So it is here that he spends the majority of his time, rising at 5am to tend his vines and his sheep, rarely leaving Breaky Bottom at all. He pushes harvest date to the absolute limit, in pursuit of ripeness and vintage expression, knowing that here, at the limits of northern hemisphere viticulture, acidity is assured. All Breaky Bottom’s sparkling wines are produced according to the traditional method. The grapes are pressed carefully and gently, yielding very fine juice. Fermentation takes place at cool temperatures.
A key point: Peter does not carry out malolactic fermentation. He looks to time to work its magic in bringing the wines round: each wine is allowed to age on its lees for an absolute minimum of 4 years – and sometimes up to seven years – prior to disgorgement.
The vineyard yields a grape harvest approximating to 10,000 bottles a year, depending on weather conditions and the appetite of local pheasants! From his yearly crop, Peter makes a small number of cuvées of a few hundred cases each, the style and blend reflecting the unique character of the specific vintage. As a result, they are never replicated exactly, though over time a small range of key styles has evolved, some comprising original plantings of seyval blanc, others based on the champagne varieties and predominantly Chardonnay, in its element on Breaky Bottom’s chalky soils.
Peter credits much of his sensibility to his French/Italian maman and French grandfather Alex Mercier, a restaurateur in Soho, le Petit Savoyard before the First World War. So it was perhaps inevitable, that Peter should develop a keen interest in good wines and food. He and his wife Christine also have a deep appreciation for the arts and scientific progress, and Breaky Bottom’s wines are in many ways a celebration of such human endeavour. Each new Breaky Bottom cuvée is dedicated to someone of particular significance to Peter or his family, and those commemorated in this way number artists and performers, scientists and inventors.
This is a magical estate, like nowhere else other than perhaps Narnia. Time seems to suspend here in this tiny, luminous valley, dragonflies whizzing through the still air as the lambs gambol and Toto the cat luxuriates. The Breaky Bottom wines are similarly magical, possessing that special quality of presence and lightness, density and weightlessness. They are expressive, pure and fine as a laser beam. We are proud to offer the following four wines, all produced in limited quantities.
Cuvée Reynolds Stone 2010 – £32.95 (Bottle), £197.70 (Case of 6). Special offer £177.94
Named after the famous wood engraver and creator of the original Breaky Bottom label with its distinctive, delicate lettering.
Cuvée Reynolds Stone a classic champagne blend of Chardonnay (70%), Pinot Noir (15%) and Pinot Meunier (15%). As always from this exceptional estate, the mousse is so fine as to be creamy, carrying the delicate scent of mayblossom and flavours of tarte au citron and brioche weightlessly across the palate. Elegant and fine, this is a classic Breaky Bottom. Just a few hundred cases made.
Cuvée Gerard Hoffnung 2009 – £34.95 (Bottle), £209.70 (Case of 6). Special offer £188.74
This cuvée remembers the celebrated 20th century cartoonist, illustrator, musician, and broadcaster – a great family friend.
This is an expressive sparkling wine from a ripe vintage. Again based on the trio of champagne varieties, Chardonnay (60%), Pinot Noir (22%), and Pinot Meunier (18%), though with a little more of the pinots than Reynolds Stone, giving a touch more weight and richness on the palate. The mousse is exquisitely fine and creamy, carrying forward the wine’s ripe berry fruit and subtle toasty autolytic flavours, balanced by succulent acidities. Available in small quantities.
Cuvée Koizumi Yakumo 2010 – £36.95 (Bottle), £221.70 (Case of 6). Special offer £199.54
Honours Peter’s Greek/Anglo-Irish great-great-uncle Lafcadio Hearn whose brilliant 19th century travel writings brought Japanese culture to western readers.
Japan conferred on him the name of Koizumi Yakumo, includes him in the national curriculum and considers him a National Treasure. This wine is made from Peter’s original 1974 plantings of Seyval Blanc, now in their 47th year and gnarly but still upright in the small sloping vineyard behind their cottage.
Koizumi Yakumo is beautifully wrought, linear and pure. Its fine creamy mousse, one of Breaky Bottom’s hallmarks, conveys refreshing lemon sorbet and whitecurrant notes across the palate, laced with brioche and almond. Elegant finish. Small quantities available only.
Cuvée Oliver Minkley 2011– £36.95 (Bottle), £221.70 (Case of 6). Special offer £199.54
Named after a great friend of Peter, a talented comedian who also worked at Breaky Bottom in the vineyards, and used to tell jokes to the sheep.
This a tiny cuvée, made from Chardonnay (60%), Seyval Blanc (30%) and 5% each of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Just 200 cases were made in total, and disgorged in February 2019 after 7 years’ lees ageing. It carries the stylistic hallmark of Breaky Bottom with its delicate but expressive aromatics, implausibly fine mousse and linear palate. The wine offers notes of fresh lemon, orchard fruit and almond frangipane, carried across the palate by those tiny creamy bubbles and underpinned by cleansing acidities. Dynamic and refined.
Ambriel was founded in 2006 by English couple Wendy and Charles Outhwaite, wine lovers with a long-held dream of producing their own sparkling wine. In the early 2000s, alongside busy professional careers in London, they embarked on a dedicated mission to find their perfect vineyard site, scouring the south of England for 5 years before finally, one day, a tip off led them up a winding lane to a hidden property in the village of Nutbourne in West Sussex.
The viticultural potential of this beautiful site was immediately obvious in terms of aspect and soils. Its sunny, south-facing slopes, overlook the sweeping South Downs, while the soils are greensand, rare but highly prized by English viticulturalists for its heat-retaining, light-reflective and free-draining qualities – particularly useful in a country of marginal temperatures, sporadic sunshine, and more than the occasional rain shower! So this was where Ambriel was born.
In Ambriel, the Outhwaites have created a small-scale, hands-on operation, rooted in family values, sustainable in approach and geared for quality. In the vineyards and the winery alike, every single imaginable detail has been thought through and acted upon. The vineyards were designed thoughtfully, identifying natural separations in the vines to create various discrete plots (or ‘parcels’ as they are called in the wine world), respecting the natural rise and fall of the land. The slopes are planted to the classic champagne varieties chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, using high quality Burgundian clones matched to suitable rootstocks depending on the plot and its soil structure.
The vineyards are managed carefully, in deference to nature, with the aim of creating a healthy and self-balancing ecosystem – what the French call ‘lutte raisonnée’ and Wendy calls ‘good old fashioned common sense’. This includes a space planted to wildflowers in the middle of the vines, to encourage beneficial insects such as ladybirds and lacewings, while a flock of ouessants (the world’s tiniest sheep) graze in the vineyards over winter, when the vines are dormant. Most operations including pruning and harvesting are carried out by hand, by a small, dedicated team who have been working here for years.
In the winery, attention to detail is similarly impressive. Grapes are vinified in batches according to parcel and clone; fermentation takes place at precise temperatures and in different vessels – stainless steel tanks or aged Burgundian barrels – with clear quality and style objectives, aiming for purity and precision. Blending of the ‘vins clairs’ is carried out blind based on the palette of wines available, including reserve wines, the ambition being to produce wines of the highest possible quality, rather than blending to volume requirements or a financial imperative.
My first experience of Ambriel’s sparkling wines was in Spring 2018, at the annual trade tasting of English wines in London. There were several Ambriel wines in the long line-up, and I kept going back to them. At the risk of stating the obvious, what struck me most about these wines, was how emphatically English they seemed, which I later concluded was a particular combination of delicacy, brightness and succulence. The wines tasted somehow like a May morning feels, the air fragrant with fresh cut grass and honeysuckle. The Ambriel style has an exuberant quality, something a French vigneron might call ‘solaire’ (literally: ‘sunny’), and celebrates England’s naturally high acidities, a factor of our high latitude and marginal grape-growing climate.
While many English sparkling wine producers (as in champagne for example) look to soften acidity levels via specific winemaking techniques (for the anoraks among you, this includes malolactic fermentation), the Outhwaites positively embrace it as part of their wine style. So they simply allow the wines to spend as many years as they need to soften and meld, ageing quietly in the cellar on their lees and on cork, time for the texture of the wines to refine, the flavours to become more complex, through the slow alchemy of yeast. To paraphrase Wendy Outhwaite, Ambriel deals in the currency of GBP: Grapes-Blending-Patience.
Ambriel’s range spans four quite different styles, and we are pleased to be able to offer all of these, albeit some in limited quantities. Available now for drinking all summer long.
Ambriel Classic Cuvée, Brut NV – £28.95 (Bottle), £173.70 (Case of 6). Special offer £156.34
This is the anchor wine of Ambriel’s range, a classic blend of the champagne varieties, championing Chardonnay (73%), completing the blend with 25% Pinot Noir and a dash of Pinot Meunier (2%).
Elegant and expressive, the wine offers ripe bramley apple and pear flavours, creamy summer berries and notes of brioche. The palate is crisp and succulent with tiny, rolling bubbles and a long, toasty finish paying testament to long lees ageing.
For those of you who like the technical detail, this particular blend is based on the 2011 vintage. A small amount of the wine was fermented in old Burgundian oak barrels, with the aim of achieving more textural complexity. No malolactic fermentation took place, Wendy’s view being that this process ‘sandpapers’ the natural fruit characters. Once blended and bottled, the wines spent 59 months on the lees prior to riddling and disgorgement. (It is worth noting by comparison that the Champagne region requires just 15 months of lees ageing prior to release). To preserve the wine’s elegant mid-palate fruit and balance, a dosage of 8.5g/litre was made.
Ambriel Rosé, Traditional Method 2014 – £28.95 (Bottle), £173.70 (Case of 6). Special offer £156.34
Made in the style of pink champagne maybe, but Ambriel is the perfect English rosé with its classic bone structure and cut glass accent.
‘Brimming with wild strawberries and warmed raspberries’ (Wendy Outhwaite’s words), this wine is the essence of Ambriel with its brightness-delicacy-succulence. Made from 100% Pinot Noir from a particular parcel in the vineyard (and for the geeks among you, from a single Burgundian clone 777), the wine derives its delicate ballet-slipper colour from the traditional production method – now all too rarely employed as it requires great care – whereby the grape juice is left in contact with the skins for a short period of time. Refined by 3.5 years on the lees, this is quite simply a lovely glass of wine, its pretty strawberry shortcake notes underpinned by fine acidity, with alcohol weighing in at just 11%. Stylish and supremely drinkable. Just a few hundred cases were made of this wine.
Biddenden Vineyards is Kent’s oldest commercial vineyard, marking its 50th anniversary only last year. The estate is located in a sheltered valley near the picturesque village of Biddenden, and has belonged to the Barnes family for many years, who ran it as a successful apple orchard spanning some forty acres. The 1960s saw a decline in apple prices, encouraging the family to diversify. By chance, Mrs Barnes (mother of Julian Barnes, who now runs the estate with his own children) found herself listening to a programme on BBC’s Woman’s Hour about the replanting of English vineyards. This inspired the family’s move into viticulture and in 1969, the first vines were planted.
At the time, there were only a handful of grape varieties recommended for viticulture in the UK. These were largely hybrid grapes, some developed in France (Seyval Blanc and Madeleine Angevine for example), others in Germany, eg Scheurebe, Reichensteiner, Huxelrebe and Ortega. These grapes had been selected by the viticultural experts of the time for their ability to cope with the vagaries of England’s maritime climate.
It is Ortega that has stood the test of time at Biddenden, appreciated for its style and quality, and as such has become something of a specialism here. A few other vineyards do cultivate it but far fewer these days. ‘No wonder!’ Julian Barnes exclaimed with typical candour ‘It’s a finicky little devil’. For a grape chosen supposedly to take cool, moist conditions in its stride, Ortega exhibits none of the British stoicism we might have hoped it to display in its adopted home. Heaven forbid there is rain at flowering or harvest – Ortega bursts into the grapevine equivalent of a toddler tantrum, demanding considerable attention to return to an even keel. But tended sensitively, supported along the way, this variety can yield quite delicious wines, fragranced and delicate with gently creamy fruit. Fifty years of hard work have paid off. Ortega vines are happy here under the Barnes family’s attentive stewardship.
While the family still grows apples for juice and cider, the prime south-facing vineyard now spans ten hectares of which half are dedicated to Ortega. There are a number of other grape varieties also planted here, including several reds such as the popular Pinot Noir and less well-known Dornfelder, a German hybrid. Unlike Ortega however, Dornfelder is a robust and resilient grape, able to withstand anything Mother Nature might choose to throw at it. Its generous, open bunches and large grapes yield juicy, ripe wines relatively low in tannin, ideal for lighter reds and rosés.
Biddenden Ortega 2017 – £14.50 (Bottle), £174.00 (Case of 12). Special offer £156.60
Biddenden planted its first Ortega vines in 1972. A pernickety variety, it is susceptible to millerandage – a phenomenon whereby the grapes develop at different rates and in different sizes. This is meaningful because some of the grapes ripen fully and even to excess, others remain tiny and highly acid, giving an overall balance of sugars and acids and greater complexity of flavour.
The Biddenden style is limpid and refreshing, with the fragrance of an English hedgerow and a gentle creamy-citrus palate. The wine is also relatively light in alcohol (11.5%) and just off-dry to balance those naturally high English acids.
Biddenden Gribble Bridge Rosé 2018 – £14.50 (Bottle), £174.00 (Case of 12). Special offer £156.60
Biddenden Vineyard is located on Gribble Bridge Lane, hence the name adopted by the Barnes family. The Rosé 2018 is a blend of Pinot Noir and Dornfelder, co-fermented. The Pinot Noir component was destined originally for Biddenden’s sparkling wine and as such was whole-bunch pressed, yielding only the finest juices. Pale salmon in colour, the wine is clean and fresh on the palate with an appealingly ‘English’ fruit profile – think raspberries and redcurrants with a kick of rhubarb. 2018 was a heatwave summer but even so, England’s wines are relatively light in alcohol. This weighs in at just 10.5%, with just a touch of natural sweetness to balance.
Explore our Great British Summer selection: