Wiston Estate & The Trouble With Dreams
BY NEAL MARTIN | APRIL 01, 2021
There’s nothing that I want to do
More than get alone and be with you
Trouble with dreams is they don't come true
And when they do they can't catch up to you.
“Trouble With Dreams” – The Eels
I miss traveling. It’s not just that the Martin household has made it clear that the sooner their restless husband/father exits the house, the better. Peripatetic in nature, months into lockdown, and my unrequited wanderlust is ready to burst. “Travel” has been reduced to a daily commute down to my garden office, a 10-meter round-trip journey depending on whether I take the scenic route via the fig tree. Denied jaunts to Bordeaux and Chablis last summer, I suffered “VCT” – vineyard cold turkey. Lennon wrote a song about it. My doctor prescribed an aspirin and a couple of estate visits, and so last August I rang the doorbell of two of England’s most prominent wine producers. Following last year’s overview report, I wanted to deep-dive further and find out what makes these producers tick.
The soil in the Broadwoods vineyard, full of chalky detritus.
The South Downs was bathed in sunshine when I visited Wiston Estate, momentarily banishing my COVID blues. My heart leapt upon spotting vines, and I resisted rolling around on the earth like a dog with an itchy back. Sure, this country has its fair share of arcane rituals, but it would not have made a good first impression, even if head winemaker Dermot Sugrue might have joined in. Sugrue greeted me in his trademark flat cap and a green Jameson Whiskey t-shirt, obligatory winery canines Noodles and Tara haring around their master without any observable social distancing.
A little background first. Since 1743, the Goring family have farmed just under 2,500 hectares historically dedicated to crops and grazing. Vines are a recent addition to the polyculture. Pip Goring came to England in 1972, inspired by the serried rows of vines outside Cape Town, where she had grown up. However, it took another 34 years of mulling it over before the first vines took root. Though I did not meet Harry or Pip Goring, their niece and Wiston’s brand ambassador Kirsty Goring was in the vines being interviewed by a TV crew, a sign of the burgeoning interest in Wiston and, indeed, in English sparkling wine as a whole.
Thirty-six-year-old Dermot Sugrue’s pale blue eyes and copper hair betray his Irish roots – in Country Limerick, to be exact. He is of mixed Catholic and Protestant parentage. “One side of my family was part of the establishment, and one of my uncles was the author of the English–Gaelic dictionary still widely used in schools today,” he explained. His budding interest in all things fermented began when he was a teenager, though he erred toward beer instead of wine. He maintained a keen interest during his university years, studying Environmental Sciences at East Anglia, before commencing his career as an independent financial adviser. After 9/11, his job felt less secure, and he seized the moment to pursue his vinous passion. After studying viticulture and oenology at Plumpton College, the Hogwarts for UK winemakers, he headed down to Bordeaux. His first job was working as a vineyard hand for the late Denis Durantou at Château l’Eglise-Clinet, where Sugrue tended Les Cruzelles for two seasons. He then moved over to the Left Bank and worked for Lilian Barton-Sartorius of Langoa and Léoville-Barton.
In 2003 Sugrue joined Nyetimber, where he was appointed head winemaker the following year. He then worked a vintage in Champagne at Jacquinot & Fils before joining Wiston.
James McClean, vineyard manager on the left, with Dermot Sugrue – plus hound.
Vines currently occupy 6.5 hectares planted with classic Champagne grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Before broaching the wines, I inspected the Findon Park vineyard, planted in 2006. “All Wiston vintage wines released to date have come from this single vineyard,” Sugrue explained. “It’s planted 35% Pinot Noir, 10% Pinot Meunier and 55% Chardonnay and pruned double-Guyot. The soil is clay loam and flint only 15-30 centimeters deep, over pure chalk [from the Upper Cretaceous period – similar to the Côte des Blancs in Champagne]. It is slightly east of south orientation on a good slope, the altitude at bottom of vineyard about 100 meters above sea level. The Broadwoods vineyard was planted in 2017 and the first harvest came off in 2020. It has a lower altitude than Findon Park, about 65 meters above sea level, and has less topsoil. So it is very chalky indeed: clay loam and flint over pure chalk, with, again, excellent protection from wind. For this reason we planted only Chardonnay - 2.5 hectares, single-Guyot trained. It always feels warmer compared to Findon Park.”
Vineyard manager James McClean pointed out that they do not use any chemicals or herbicides in order to maintain microbiological activity. I asked Sugrue how he decides when to pick and where his hands come from. “Our friends from Romania pick for us. They are brilliant – the backbone of the English wine industry. My attitude to picking is: as late as you can leave it. I like to make wines without malo, if possible. I believe they can age into something more special with time, so I’m never afraid of losing acidity by picking too late. It’s always a balance between leaving it out there and what you could lose to botrytis. Very often we pick our Chardonnay the day before winter starts.”
Several times while touring the vat room, Sugrue pointed out equipment purchased second-hand and re-modeled and reappropriated to fit into the winery. The center-piece is one of only four Coquard presses outside France and apparently the only one on this side of the English Channel. “I bought it second hand in 2008,” Sugrue recalled. “It was made in 1973 and spent most of its life in Oiry, in the Côtedes Blancs. In order to situate this on an upper floor of the winery, we had a special stainless steel base made.”
That the Goring family owns a sizable chunk of idyllic Sussex countryside might seem to imply that, as with many luxury champagne houses, money is no object for Wiston’s wealthy owners. That was not my impression when toured the winery, and when I inquired, Sugrue’s reply cast a different light on the estate. He told me that the Gorings are a typical asset-rich/cash-poor family. In fact, the vat room was a turkey abattoir until the business collapsed, leaving the Gorings facing bankruptcy and considering selling the entire estate. The building was then used for car restoration, specializing in Lamborghinis, and when that business eventually moved out, the disused building filled with junk. It was only when the Goring family were forced to sell a herd of dairy cows that they had disposable income, which they invested in planting the first vines. Sugrue proposed using the former abattoir as a winery because its high ceilings are perfect for accommodating vats. To this day, Wiston Estate is run within financial constraints, counting on Sugrue’s resourcefulness. Of course, that does not preclude Wiston from creating great wines, and I think that Sugrue likes having to use his ingenuity. It keeps you on your toes!
The press sits above the gravity-fed vat room located below on the ground floor. “We have lots of barrel sizes: 600, 500, 400, 350 and 228 liters, mostly old barrels between three and 15 years old. I search for a blend of reductive and oxidative styles for most wines, only using Premier Cuvée juice for vintage wines and using perpetual Solera in stainless steel for reserve wines, a blend of all the harvests to date since 2008. This is to create a 'memory of the vineyard' in each non-vintage wine. Our dosage is on the lower side. For example, the Non-Vintage Wiston Brut is 7g/L and vintage wines generally 8g/L. The Trouble With Dreams is 6g/L and South Downs ZODO is zero-dosage.” Among the ongoing renovations will be a new disgorging and storage facility.
The Wiston winery.
Sugrue: The Trouble With Dreams
As well making the wines at Wiston and several other well-known UK labels, Sugrue uses the facility for his own label, which he named The Trouble With Dreams. The name stuck in my mind, and I subsequently discovered that “Trouble With Dreams” is a song by The Eels. Why this particular tune? Apart from Sugrue being a fan of singer-songwriter Mark Everett, the lyrics chimed with the winemaker insofar as in chasing your dreams and ambitions, you could reach too far. He funds his own label entirely by himself, without outside investors. “There have been times where I felt like packing it in,” he confessed. “Then I’ll see the bud burst or I’ll read a complimentary review and think, how can I possibly give all this up?” One of those times was when he was anticipating his first harvest in 2008. On the eve of the harvest, birds devoured so much fruit that all he picked was 15kg. His designer emblazoned the label with a flock of silhouetted birds. Appreciating the dark humour, Sugrue kept the design.
“The goal of The Trouble With Dreams was always to make one wine, a Chardonnay-dominant cuvée that was as precise and pure as possible and given sufficient time in the cellar to reach maturity before release. This is hugely important, as a wine style like this, without any Pinot Meunier, can be quite austere in its youth and therefore ungenerous in the mouth. The wine must be complete, and lees aging is a key part of this because it builds texture, as does the barrel fermentation. My wines are often notable for their acidity and freshness, but when combined with this textural element, this balance is exactly what I am aiming for. The zero-dosage ZODO is an absolute extension of this. Extended lees aging gives a creamy, generous and broad-textured palate, the richness of which does not require dosage. The perception of acidity is enhanced, of course, but the flavors are very true to the vineyard – laid bare, if you wish – which can only work with a particular wine, otherwise it tastes skeletal and mean.”
The source for The Trouble With Dreams has changed in recent years.
“The original one-hectare, now 1.6-hectare, Storrington Priory vineyard was planted in 2006 at the foot of the South Downs when I was still at Nyetimber,” Sugrue recollected. “We were approached by the monastic order that owned the land, where green sand meets chalk. The 2009, 2010 and 2011 vintages of The Trouble With Dreams come from there, and they were made at Wiston. It is planted with 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir. Then 2012 was the coldest and wettest summer in 100 years and suddenly there was no money. I had a choice: either scrap the project, as it was far too small to be economic, or take on another, larger vineyard to supply the Sugrue South Downs brand. In early 2013, I heard of a vineyard that was available for lease. The 2.5-hectare Mount Harry vineyard is located near [the town of] Lewes and was planted in 2006 by Tim and Alice Renton [Lord Tim Renton was a former Arts Minister and Conservative Chief Whip who died just a few days after my visit]. It is planted with 40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier. It’s an exceptional site with clay loam over pure chalk, nestled on a southeast-facing slope, right on the South Downs. Since then, most of the blend, around 85%, comes from here. It usually comprises 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. I leave out the Pinot Meunier when I can.”
I was intrigued to know whether the winemaking differs between Wiston and Sugrue’s own label.
“There are a lot of similarities,” he answered. “The Wiston Cuvée, currently the 2015 vintage, is matured 100% in old barrels for eight months, then lees-aged for four-plus years. The Wiston Blanc de Blancs, also currently in the 2015 vintage, is matured 50% in old barrels for eight months, 50% in stainless steel, and then lees-aged for four-plus years. For Sugrue, they are mostly aged 50% in old barrels for eight months, 50% in stainless steel, and then aged on the lees for four-plus years.”
Dermot Sugrue, hard at work opening bottles for our tasting last summer.
English Sparkling Vs. Champagne
This is admittedly a clichéd question, but I could not publish this article without asking – especially of an experienced winemaker like Sugrue, and one unafraid to voice his opinion – where English sparkling wine stands against Champagne. What are the discernible stylistic differences?
“It is impossible to get away from comparing English sparkling wine to Champagne, and though sometimes it’s difficult to tell them apart blind, the stylistic differences are apparent with English sparkling wine’s lower pH. It has more prominent acidity and a generally fresh, vivid style. Of course, these are the attributes of good Champagne anyway, especially in the modern era with Champagne dosages reducing, malolactic fermentations being avoided, and earlier picking to promote freshness. What differs between them is the tiny proportion of non-vintage blends from England, where vintage single-vineyard wines predominate, and there are a lot of variations of technique and soils and microclimates here, so regionality in England is difficult to assess. Champagne’s history of non-vintage blends always containing reserve wines and largely made in stainless steel from diverse vineyards gives more typicity, I think, and a more defined style, which will emerge with time in England. The key requirement for English sparkling wine is to age it sufficiently before release, which is a challenge for many young producers. But this is where real quality is realized. I think the best English sparkling wines are very comparable in quality to good grower Champagne, and Grandes Marques vintage rather than non-vintage wines. This is a fantastic place to be in such a short period of production.”
“The English sparkling wines we are seeing on release at the moment have benefited from the last six years being the warmest on record globally. This is surely set to continue, so ripeness levels are rising, and this may offset the shortcomings of some of the earlier-released wines. It augurs well for the Wiston/Sugrue wines, as I seek to retain precision in the wines at all costs, embracing acidity while striving for grapes as physiologically ripe as possible. The production at Wiston will grow thanks to new vineyard plantations. We have many superb, unplanted chalk slopes available on the estate that will help us keep pace with demand, especially once the new visitor centre is opened. [By contrast,] the production at Sugrue will remain boutique. It is currently 5,000 bottles per year, growing to 12,000 bottles max. I will build upon its growing cult-like status. Increasing vine age should also reveal more terroir expression, which we are already starting to see now that Wiston’s vineyards are 15 years old and Sugrue’s two sites are also 15 years old.”
This comprehensive overview of Wiston and Sugrue’s The Trouble With Dreams proved how English sparkling wine is a category that deserves its place on the world stage. With regard to Wiston, I mopped up the outstanding cuvées that were not included in last year’s report. My pick would be the December 2020 disgorgement of the 2014 Blanc de Noirs, which displays a complex, malic nose and mouth-watering salinity on the palate. In addition, a limited late release of the 2013 Cuvée Brut disgorged into magnums in September 2019 is disarmingly complex and precise.
There are many treasures to be found among The Trouble With Dreams, not least a couple of outstanding limited bottlings. Try to grab one of 800 bottles of the non-vintage Dr Brendan O’Regan, named after a family ancestor, replete with a spine-tingling gunflint nose and a subtle spiciness that comes through on the palate. Likewise, the non-vintage Cuvée Boz, a pure Chardonnay from the Jenkyn Place vineyard, captivates the olfactory senses with its fruits de mer-inspired bouquet and steely, tensile palate. Both of these have around 9g/L dosage, though Sugrue showed that he does not require a bit of residual to make a great sparkling wine: the ZODO Zero Dosage is nervy and delineated on both nose and palate but avoids the shrillness that I occasionally find with other zero-dosage sparklers. Superb.
I hope this in-depth article demonstrates that the English wine landscape does not entirely consist of chest-beating landowners in Union Jack waistcoats goading Champagne houses that we can make just as good sparkling wine as they can. Sure, taunts grab headlines, but in reality there is, thankfully, a lot of exchange between the two regions, not just in terms of Champagne houses buying vineyard land in England, but in terms of sharing information and experience. English sparkling wine deserves to be taken seriously, and its success stems from the legion of passionate, hard-working, risk-taking young winemakers who are its lifeblood and future. Clearly, from reading this article you will have gleaned that it has not all been plain sailing. The marginal climate, despite the benefits of global warming, can destroy a vintage on a whim, just as birds can peck away your entire production. But as the years go by and investment pours in, experience and know-how accumulates. This means that the best years of English sparkling wine lie ahead.
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