English Oak: Quality From Vine to Sparkling Wines
Visiting English vineyards has a habit of making me giddy with excitement; to share in the success of our country’s staggering growth in quality over the last ten years is a pleasure. Sparkling wine in particular is at a quality in the UK now when you must seriously consider buying it over some of the best Champagne houses.
However, Dorset hasn’t been on my conscience as one of the UK’s prominent wine producing regions for very long. In fact I only tasted my first glass of English bubbly from the southern county a little over a month ago at an SWVA event at the Bordeaux Quay hotel in Bristol. I tried the delicious and award-winning blends from Furleigh Estate vineyard.
So on news that my dad had arranged for me to take my mum to 23 acre Dorset sparkling wine vineyard English Oak last week for her birthday, I was very excited. Reading about the vineyard online alluded to some of its past successes, such as visits from TV personalities like Oz and James at their winemaker’s winery and Ben Fogle who covered their torrential rain issues in the wet summer of 2012.
Named after the crowning English Oak to the side of their vineyard, the wine’s name – which I’m told was decided on after much fuss between the owners – embodies the spirit of traditional, high quality wine: the vine and the oak, where quality of the drink is decided at source.
We arrived late at the vineyard but thankfully didn’t miss too much of the introductory talk. There we met owners Sarah and Andrew Pharoah who shined with the passion of their history and the fight to reach the success they now seem to be enjoying. It’s a common sight I’ve seen in my visits to other vineyards like Oatley and Camel Valley, a feeling of hard graft but sheer contentedness. What was perhaps even more pleasing was the number of people who had come along to learn and try English wines.
Owners Andrew and Sarah both studied viticulture at Brighton’s Plumpton college and put a great deal of effort into the preparation before planting their vineyard. While Andrew appeared very much the businessman and Sarah the producer, their chemistry suggested that the roles were more mixed behind closed doors and that, all in all, this was very much a team effort.
Their vineyard English Oak plants only the famous Champagne grape varieties: Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and of course Chardonnay. In the sunshine you can tell the stark difference in the leaf canopy of the green leaf Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier’s grey, thick and soft leaf.
We were visiting at the beginning of fruiting season and you can see the small buds of richly acidic and thick skinned fruit just before it goes through veraison, the process when the grapes change colour.
Much of the way the viticulture is handled on the estate is in a biodynamic way, using a seaweed based spray to fight mildew. There’s no irrigation on the site but it remains well-drained, besides nightmare stories of 2012’s rain carving new river beds down the vineyard. The vines also take advantage of being south-facing, soaking up all the sun England has to offer, although flagging a bit at some parts under the treelines.
Everything on the vineyard is very carefully managed, Sarah explained to us, emphasising the importance of pruning and controlling the vine’s future growth. From laser-guided planting back in 2007, to careful investment in machinery to help manage the vines. Sugar and acid tests are regularly done through fruiting, alongside trimming and thinning works. When mid-October comes around, all 23,000 vines are harvested by hand – as traditionally done in Champagne.
These vines, still young but from Champagne rootstocks, can produce anything up to the Pharoah’s record harvest of over 80 tons of fruit. To put that into perspective, one ton of grapes makes about 720 bottles of wine – that means English Oak produced nearly 60,000 bottles of wine from just 23 acres. Staggering!
Making – and drinking – the Wine
Perhaps to some the most interesting part of wine is the drinking. At the end of the day it’s that shared experience we’re all aiming towards. That’s where Sarah and Andrew recruited the help of star winemaker Dermot Surgue, who owns his own Coquard press, a large traditional basket press commonly used in Champagne to optimise quality. English Oak say Dermot’s methods are part of their mission to make their wine the best it can be.
Dermot is based in Sussex, which means there is some unavoidable distance the grapes must go before they can begin the winemaking process. However, Sarah insists the travel has not put her or Andrew off joining in the excitement of making the wine alongside Dermot in person.
It’s no wonder then that the wine is pretty damn good.
We only tried the rosé sparkling, named Chinkapin after a species of oak, and the Blancs de Blanc 100% Chardonnay named San Gabriel. It was a little bit of a shame to not be able to try the Engelmann Cuvee while we were there, but Andrew explained the 2010 was still in bottle shock, having recently been bottled at the winery and needing a lie down for 6-8 weeks.
This didn’t matter so much when we tried the wines.
The Chinkapin 2010 was that gorgeous salmon colour now so synonymous with English delicacy and raspberry mousse that it was difficult to be patient and go through my usual systematic approach to tasting. Unsurprisingly the Chardonnay notes bring fruit and body to the wine, filling 51% of the blend. Pinot Noir, at just 16%, gives it a vastly wild element, with berries and pepper. Pinot Meunier gives the wine that glorious fresh acidity. To finish it off, its long-cellared time on lees (up to 5 years) gives the wine a buttery, creamy texture. A very, very tasty sparkling rosé! Perhaps a touch more Pinot Noir would have made it even better, bringing out more of that spice against the creamy texture.
As the San Gabriel 2009 Blancs de Blanc was served I was even more excited, being a fan of the style. This was beautiful. Crystal, lemony clarity in the glass with that dry lemon peel and potent grapefruit on the nose. On the palette were those “only-English” flavours of crunchy green orchid apple skins and lightly baked pear. Lovely length, fresh and delicate – a top choice for summer.
With only 1,000 bottles of the San Gabriel produced, it is one to buy for sure. Click here to do so.
Having tried such excellent wines, we purchased the Engelmann Cuvee to try a couple of months from now. I’ll let you know when I’ve written up the tasting notes and share it with you all!
For now, you should certainly take the time to visit this vineyard, just 6 miles from Poole and meet lovely owners Sarah and Andrew.
Tasting notes, in full, for Chinkapin 2010 and San Gabriel 2009 will be available on benfrankswine.com shortly.