The Club’s first outing was a great success. We were blessed with the perfect day – fine but not too hot, and we had a lovely run across to Hambledon in a nice coach with a driver who we learned had written a book on people he has met whilst driving! Just to fortify us for the visit, a bottle or two were shared en route.
Our guide was Holly, who was very knowledgeable. The visit began with a short history of the vineyard in the Tasting area. The vineyard is owned by Ian Kellet (1999) who researched the soil and what would work best there and in 2005 planted a test area of vines, with input from Pol Roger. The head winemaker is Herve Jestin, who is an advocate of minimal intervention winemaking. Currently it is 50 acres, but significant expansion plans are underway.
We then moved on to the vineyard in front of the house, where the view could easily have been the champagne region – a soft rolling country, on chalk. The geology is shared as the chalk deposits are the same as those that surface in champagne. Hambledon makes on sparkling wine, and so the vines grown are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. As we looked down the vineyard from the house, the Chardonnay were at the top, then Pinot Noir then Pinot Meunier in the bottom, as apparently this grape is more resistant to frost whereas chardonnay doesn’t cope as well. The vines are pruned to about 6′ so that the plant’s energy is not lost to too much top-growth. The vines flower as they begin to grow at the start of the season, so the grapes from in the lower third of this canopy.
We then moved on to the winery, which Holly explained was unique in the UK as it is entirely gravity-fed. The grapes are lifted to the top of the winery and the presses are on the top level. The grapes are gently pressed, separated into two parts – the ‘cuvee’ (the initial pressing), and the ‘taille’ the later pressing of lesser quality juice. The juice runs down to the next level, where, after the sediment has been taken off, the first fermentation happens, and later a malolactic fermentation to convert malic acid to lactic acid which softens the acidity and adds further flavours. The resulting still wine is left on the yeast residues (lees) for a minimum of 6 months, depending on the wine to be produced.
In the spring, the fun and presumably stressful blending happens. The winemaker and team taste the various still wines (and the base wines from previous years) and decide on the blends to be assembled for the year. These are non-vintage wines, so the blends are made up of a number of different years’ wines. After the blending, the wines are bottled with a crown cork, and yeast added to begin the secondary fermentation which converts the still wine to a sparkler. This process ends with the sediment being removed from each bottle and the bottle finally corked and labelled.
After our brains were addled with so much information, we returned to the tasting room to try the three wines together with scrumptious cheese and charcuterie. The three wines made are a Classic Cuvee, a Classic Cuvee Rose, and a Premier Cuvee. Judging by the amount sold to us afterwards, the vote seemed to be for the Classic Cuvee, followed by the Rose, with the Premier being clearly more of a mouthful, and a more serious less gluggable wine. All three were delicious, and the vineyard is rightly proud of the prizes it has won in prestigious international tastings, where it regularly beats champagnes, including Pol Roger!
Many thanks to Holly and the team at Hambledon for providing such an informative and welcoming day out!