A piece I wrote for 'In Vino Veritas'

Last year, I was asked by the publishers of the ‘Academie du Vin Library’ to write a piece on English Sparkling Wine for their compendium of writing about wine – ‘In Vino Veritas’. Reproduced here with their kind permission. Buy a copy here

The English Wine Bubble

JUSTIN HOWARD-SNEYD MW (2019)

Justin Howard-Sneyd is a UK-based winemaker and merchant and Master of Wine. He asks if English Sparkling wine’s place as the underdog to Champagne might one day undergo a significant a shift in perspective.

In the decades to come, we’ll look back at 2018 as the year when English sparkling wine hit adolescence. You know the kind of thing: sudden growth spurts, rebellious behaviour, starting to explore relationships (sometimes with the wrong people), unrealistic expectations, experimentation, arguments… But, how long will it be before it reaches maturity?

The early years were promising. The roots of the modern English industry go back as far as 1951 when Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones re-planted the vineyards at his home in Hambledon, creating the first commercial vineyard in Hampshire (and the UK) for 100 years. But the vines he planted were the modest Seyval Blanc variety. Today’s boom in plantings has focussed on the much more marketable champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, to produce our own English sparkling wine. The change really began in the mid-1990s when the pioneers of méthode champenoise wines – Stuart and Sandy Moss at Nyetimber in West Sussex, and Mike Roberts at Ridgeview (East Sussex) – began to achieve repeated critical success with their wines.

Since then, the demand for English sparkling wine has grown steadily, and until very recently, the supply has struggled to keep up with demand. This has given rise to a very rare phenomenon in the world of wine: a situation where producers can sell everything they make on to allocated customers, and many buyers are left without the wine they need. (The same thing happened with New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc between 1990 and 2005: demand significantly exceeded supply.)

When there is not enough wine to go round, no producer ever needs to price-promote, and no retailer wants to create a price war for fear of running out of stock. This rather artificial environment trains the customer to pay the full price, and to buy the wine they want immediately, when they see that it is available. But this state of the market can very quickly unravel as soon as supply exceeds demand, even by a small amount. And sadly, it looks as if this is where English Sparkling wine may be headed next.

In any market, when there is a large structural oversupply, things can get messy. When this happens, buyers realize that everyone has wine to sell, and they start to play one producer off against another. Producers who want to make sure that THEY are the ones who hit the volumes in their business plan offer tempting deals to the retailers in return for guaranteed quantity sales. The price spirals downwards.

All of which means we may still have some bumpy adolescent years ahead. So how long before we reach the sunlit uplands of maturity? As Baroness Philippine de Rothschild liked to say: ‘Winemaking is easy – only the first 200 years are difficult.’

The great Grandes Marques Champagne houses were mostly founded between 1740 and 1850 (Veuve Clicquot in 1772, Pol Roger in 1849, Bollinger in 1829, Moët & Chandon in 1743), and while many of the names we know now have survived for two centuries, there were also a number of early names that fell by the wayside. Now, I have no doubt at all that in 200 years time, we’ll have our own English Grandes Marques, and a number of the names established already will be among them. But, will the current owners’ descendants still control their families’ businesses, or will the cold winds of commercial reality cause fortunes to be lost, as well as made?

You need deep pockets to set up a winery from scratch, and to keep financing it until any future investment can be funded out of cash flow. And to get a return on that original investment takes many more years of generating sufficient profit to pay back the capital. In practice, most successful traditional European wineries have written off the original investment many years ago. But this is not the case with our own wine estates.

Until recently, perhaps the deepest pockets in the English wine business belonged to Eric Heerema, owner of Nyetimber since 2006. It is estimated that that the purchase and operation of Nyetimber since he bought this prestigious property have soaked up over £65 million. It has never made a profit, and, in 2018, Nyetimber made a significant loss – admittedly during a phase of considerable investment in further expansion, and while securing further retail and restaurant listings.

Two new players on the scene may have even deeper pockets.

Mark and Sarah Driver founded the Rathfinny Wine Estate near Alfriston in Sussex in 2010, with the stated aim of making a million bottles of wine from 400 acres of land. And just this year, another Mark, Monaco-based businessman Mark Dixon, owner of Provence’s second largest producer Château de Berne, is said to be planting 1.25 million vines at several locations, including Kingscote Vineyard in East Grinstead (West Sussex), having purchased the property in 2016. In a good year, Kingscote should start yielding nearly two million bottles.

With all of the other investments in new vineyards, large and small, from new and existing players, we now have enough vines in the ground in the UK to make over 10 million bottles of fizz every year – and over 20 million bottles in a generous year. And planting is still on the increase.

But UK sparkling wine sales have yet to exceed an annual four million bottles and only increased by 6% in 2018. So it is hard to see how we are going to drink all we now make.

Both Marks are intelligent businessmen who have taken good advice, and both are prepared to take a long-term view of their investments. And given their net worth, they can both stand several years of losses before their bank managers start to look concerned. But 200 years? Hopefully it won’t take that long.

How many more wealthy individuals will be gripped by the fizz-lust? And is English wine beginning to look like a mere bubble?

Here’s what I predict for the future of this awkward teenager:

Firstly, there is going to be a short term glut. It may well manifest itself this harvest (2019), if the predicted yields are anything approaching last year’s record crop. The price of grapes will collapse, and people will start to question their contracts. New contracts will be signed at lower prices. Second, the large volume 2018 vintage will start to hit the market in 2020 and 2021. English sparkling wine will push deeper into supermarkets, and the wines will become available at under £20. Many more brands – those who have avoided the supermarkets so far – will realize that they won’t get close to their volume targets unless they deal with the ‘Big Four’ (Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons).

Thirdly, promotional activity will become commonplace, and brands that have established themselves at close to £30 a bottle, will be seen price-cutting to around £20 a bottle. For wineries who participate, the resulting sales spikes will become addictive, and their sales above £30 will slow to a trickle.

Then producers who sell through the supermarkets, but who don’t participate in promotions will be starved of sales, and their volumes will decrease. They then may lose their listings. There will continue to be success for well-established producers with deep pockets who make the right decisions, keep investing and hold their nerve. They will be investing real marketing money in competing with the Champagne houses to buy listings and strike deals with high-profile events partners like Royal Ascot, Wimbledon, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden etc. But that success will be hard won and expensive.

These brave wine companies will not see a profit for a while.

Newcomers will stop establishing huge vineyards, and the rate of planting will slow to a trickle as the market slowly catches up with what has already been planted. There will still be a structural oversupply of grapes that will feed a market of supermarket own-labels, and tactical brands that will mostly trade in the £12 to £18 sector of the market, undermining the premium price positioning of English sparkling wine, and possibly eroding the quality perception too.

On the plus side, the quality of the wine from the best producers, and the international reputation of English sparkling wine, will improve dramatically. Export sales will grow slowly (it is expensive stuff, and this market segment, already dominated by champagne, is not large), and the best brands will become desirable in smart restaurants and wine shops in the likes of Tokyo, New York and Rio de Janeiro.

Those that don’t make the grade, or run out of money, will be swallowed up by larger players. Champagne houses who can’t plant any more vines in the their own region, will seek out ways to expand; many may invest in vineyards in the UK.

Eventually, in 20 to 30 years time, the Grandes Marques of England will emerge from the pack as stable, long-term businesses, no longer requiring further injections of cash. Some will do so under their current ownership.

I predict that we will drink as many bottles of English sparkling wine in the UK as we drink bottles of champagne, and our fizz will be talked about in the same breath in opinion-leading markets around the world, not just by journalists and buyers, but by drinkers too.

English sparkling wine will have finally come of age – and paid off the mortgage!

We host 14 MWs

MWs gathered on the boundary between Corbieres and Roussillon

Ever since I first drove up the road from Cucugnan, past the castle of Queribus, and then down to the village of Maury, I have been smitten.

And ever since then, I have brought countless hapless visitors to the same spot, and watched them fall in love too.

The village of Cucugnan

For some rather foolish reason, about a year ago, I stuck my hand up and volunteered to organise an ‘MW trip’ to my favourite region.

Now, the MW trip is one of the best perks of being a Master of Wine. Essentially, for a modest contribution towards costs, MWs can enter the ballot to gain a place on one of 6-8 trips that are run every year to different wine regions.

The idea of the trip is to condense the best wines and best producers in a region into a very focussed and intense visit. The outcome should be that every MW feels fully up-to-date with what is going on in the corner of the wine world that they are visiting.

But my secret plan for this Roussillon trip was to make sure that they too fell in love with this stunning part of the world.

Our first visit was to the hugely inspiring pioneer of the Roussillon – Gerard Gauby, who has torn up the rulebook of biodynamics and written his own. He told us that “If Steiner [founder of biodynamics] was a Catalan, he’d be doing what I am doing”

Gerard and Ghislaine Gauby

Everything Gerard does has ‘love’ written all over it – love for nature, love for biodiversity, love for the people who work with him, and love for simple wines, naturally made. He has pioneered something he called ‘agro-forestry – inter-planting rows of vines with rows of olive trees and fruit trees, and this helps to encourage the wild birds that eat the destructive insects that give rise to grape diseases.

An inspiring and fascinating visit.

The next component of my secret plan was to coax the unsuspecting MWs away from wine for a brief hour, and plunge them into the cauldron of Cathar history that is the castle of Queribus. Never taken in battle, this stronghold could be held against all comers with fewer than 20 men.

The Cathar fortress of Queribus

With incredible views of the whole region, and buffeted by gusts of wind that could lift a child off her feet, we were lucky to climb to the top on a day of stunning visibilty.

No-one escapes Queribus unmoved.

Later in the week, we added into the mix a masterclass on ‘Vins doux naturel’, the famous fortified wines from the Roussillon, a walking tour of historic Perpignan, a ‘sea and mountains’ safari in Banyuls, a dip in the sea at Collioure, a night in the world’s only hotel built in a revamped co-operative winery, and countless excellent tastings, lunches and dinners.

And, of course, the chance to taste some Domaine of the Bee.

With all this planned, I hoped we had the recipe for a visit that the MWs would remember for many years to come

I think it worked!

We had some very effusive thank you notes from almost everyone on the trip, and the feedback forms are coming in think and fast studded with enthusiastic exclamations.

No other MW has, to my knowledge, yet bought themselves a vineyard in the area, but it is only a matter of time…..

Wine and cheese – goes together like a horse and marriage?

Why is everybody obsessed with ‘red wine and cheese’?

It is one of the most irritating memes. In the vast majority of cases, it is actually WHITE wine (or sweet or fortified wine) that goes better with cheese than any red wine.

And if a red DOES go with cheese, it is much more likely to be a youthful, soft, fruity red than a mature, tannic Bordeaux.

But such is the demand for ‘wine and cheese’ matching sessions!

In planning the 40th ‘Sunday Times Vintage Festival’, we decided to get together with leading cheesemonger Paxton and Whitfield to create the ‘Cheese and Wine Academy’.

Today, we had our first full tasting session. Dan Bliss, and Alan Watson, two of Paxton and Whitfield’s leading cheese experts, Grant Hedley from Laithwaite’s shop at The Arch and I opened 12 bottles of wine, and tasted 20+ cheeses, with a view to creating four different sessions.

We are hoping to bust some myths, raise some eyebrows, flex some tastebuds and create some cheese and wine magic.

Spending some time with Dan and Alan, what struck me more than anything else was how similar the jobs of a cheesemonger and a wine merchant are.

Cheesemongers can tell you as much about rennet made from thistles, and how Napoleon ‘redesigned’ the shape of a Valencay, as a wine merchant can wax lyrical about malolactic fermentation, or explain how Dom Perignon ‘tasted the stars’

We both travel obsessively to the places where our producers work. We both seek out small quirky producers doing interesting things, and get excited by the geeky details.

But we both also respect the classic styles that keep most of our customers happy. For the cheesemonger’s cheddar, brie and stilton, we wine merchants have our Chardonnay, Merlot and Bordeaux.

Wine merchants have their cellars, corkscrews and spittoons.

Cheesemongers have very cold shops, and those proper cheese knives with holes in.

And we both get to drink wine and eat cheese on a sunny Friday morning in St James’ and call it ‘work’.

Come and taste our brilliant matches at The Sunday Times Vintage Festival on the 10th and 11th May 2019. The Saturday sessions are sold out, but there is still space on the Friday. We’d love to see you!

The future for NZ Sauvignon Blanc in the UK

Here’s a link to a speech I was asked to give at the NZ Sauvignon Blanc Celebration in Marlborough in January.

My messages?:

  • Don’t chase volume at the expense of quality
  • Work out where ‘Marlborough-ness’ comes from, and preserve it
  • Take out poor wine from the market…. and destroy it.
  • Only export bulk to people you trust to bottle it in top condition
  • By all means explore regionality and aged styles at £12-£25 a bottle, but stick with ‘classic’ styles at £7 – £12
  • Invest in premium labels and packaging to trade people up to higher prices

An afternoon at Felton Road

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We are not allowed to visit wineries when we are on holiday. That’s the rule. It’s not my rule, it’s Amanda’s, but I am happy to go along with it. I see enough wineries in my day job. And Amanda’s interest in wineries only stretches so far.

But all good rules should have exceptions. Like the time we took a 36 hour side-trip to visit Bodegas Colomé in Argentina – until just recently the owner of the highest altitude vines in the world. And even better than the winery was the mind-expanding James Turrell Gallery next door. In the middle of nowhere. At 2,300 metres above sea-level.

Or when we visited Capri’s only wine producer who grows a hectare of vines on arial trellises 20 feet above the vegetables and olive trees because of the sheer lack of space on the tiny Italian island.

But those belong to another story.

Amanda and I have just returned from a wonderful holiday having spent 2 weeks touring around New Zealand.

I’m here on a wine trip, both before and after our holiday, so I have other opportunities to be fully immersed in the finest wines from New Zealand. Figuratively at least.

So, who to visit in New Zealand, who will be able to hold Amanda’s interest for a couple of hours, and enhance our understanding of the region we are travelling in?

It has been a long-held dream of mine to visit Felton Road in Central Otago.

I’ve heard Nigel Greening speak a couple of times – in fact he spoke on a panel that I compered at the Cool Climate Wine Symposium.

It adds a little to the mystique that he looks a bit like a nutty professor, with wild, fly-away grey hair – think Doc from Back to the Future.

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He speaks with both passion and self-deprecation – an endearing combination that, for all its modesty, belies a seriousness and clarity of purpose.

Felton Road was originally planted back in 1992 by a man called Stuart Elms, and Nigel got to know them in 1998 when he moved to Central Otago, and began to explore the idea of making his own wines. He bought and planted a vineyard at Cornish Point, and was looking around at where he might make the wine, when he had a call to tip him off that Felton Road might be up for sale. He couldn’t believe his luck, and immediately made an offer. Without much warning he moved his family out to New Zealand to become winemakers.

His background as the organiser of large staged events, both in the music industry, and later for large corporates (he worked for many years for the likes of BMW) brought Nigel both sufficient funds to take a punt on an unproven winery in an unproven region, and also a savvy marketing head.

Felton’s quietly spoken winemaker Blair Walters radiates calm bonhomie, and is the anchor to Greening’s sail, while long-standing vineyard manager Gareth King is the one who works the biodynamic magic.

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‘I don’t really believe in the Harry Potter stuff’ says Nigel, grinning engagingly – ‘but it seems to work – and besides, all of our interns just love it. On the days where we are preparing a treatment, everyone gets up early and sets up the dynamising barrels before dawn. A couple of people cook breakfast for everyone, and they all walk around with huge smiles on their faces’.

One thing leads to another at Felton Road.

The ten interns that they attract every year to study biodynamics (drawn from a pool over over 100 applicants) are frequently the children of small Pinot producers from around the world. The interns love being at Felton, and many apply to stay on for a second year. And when they head back to their countries of origin, they become brand ambassador for Felton, helping to ensure that it is always seen as the international reference for Otago Pinot in some very exalted circles.

Serendipity.

Nigel is not really a rule-follower, or really even a rule-maker. But he is an innovator, and is forever spotting connections, and finding ways to make a virtue out of what life brings.

Here’s a couple of examples:

The bushes of wild roses brought to Otago by the Chinese gold miners in the Gold Rush of the 1870s now cover all of the hillsides above the vineyards (and indeed almost all the hillsides in Otago). So Nigel bought a herd of African Boer goats to keep the rosebushes at bay. This means more pasture for the highland cows (which provide horns and manure for the biodynamics) and the young male goats need to be culled, providing a very welcome source of delicious locally sourced meat to keep everyone fed.

And the rabbit population needs to be kept under control, which means shooting them periodically. But leaving out rabbit carcasses every few days at the edge of the vineyards attracts the Harriers which circle the vines looking for the next feed. Which helps deter the birds which can besiege a ripening vineyard….

All of this makes a great story, and Nigel is a great story-teller.

It is hard to be sure whether the creativity is all Nigel’s or Blair’s, or Gareth’s but it is a hallmark of the Felton Road way, and marks them out as true leaders, and chief ringleader of the collaborative ethic in this region of otherwise self-reliant pioneers. Blair modestly claims that ‘in this region, we all help each other out with whatever problem we may have’, when what he really means is that when the other winemakers have a problem, they bring it to him.

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Two hours, and a short tasting later, we climb back into the camper van full of enthusiasm, and make plans, on Nigel’s advice to explore the local trout river the following day.

At this rate, on our next holiday, I may even be allowed to visit two wineries.

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Campaigning for Grenache!

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NEWS FLASH – NOW STOCKED AT ODDBINS IN THE UK – at £16.50 a bottle

Why is Grenache not a better known grape?

Lots of people love the taste of Grenache, (the main variety in Cotes du Rhone, and many popular southern French and Northern Spanish wines) and yet it rarely appears on the label.

Time for supporters of this marvellous grape to rise up and demand the world’s attention!

Grenaschista is a celebration of the joys of Grenache grown on the schist soils of the Roussillon, in French Calatlonia.

We’ve taken rich, full-bodied Grenache, predominantly from the schist-rich soils around Maury and the Agly Valley, and created a blend to challenge the Mindless Merlots and Boring Bordeaux Blends that seem to fill our shelves.

Pioneering UK retailer Oddbins is the first to stock Grenaschista, and it will be arriving on their shelves in early June.

Spread the word – the Grenache revolution starts here!

“We praise the soft, lush, gentle wild strawberry
and kirsch flavours of the mighty Grenache.

Solidarity with the brave vines of the Roussillon, who
struggle in the hot sun to produce the rarest fruits.

Power to the schist soils of Maury which
nurture our brave vines.”

#forthemanynotthefew #redordead #grenacherevolution #grenache

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The Bag-in-box is back!

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Commentators and critics in the world of wine, and wine business, have been predicting the demise (or decline) of the 75cl glass bottle for some time now.

Let’s face it, it is strange that we still drink wine from a vessel that represents the approximate lung capacity of the mediaeval glass blower’s lungs.

75cl may be about right for two people having dinner together on a weekend, but what when you only want a glass, or you want a red and your partner wants a white? What if you only take a glass or two out of a bottle, and travel / dinner / theatre / diet plans mean that the next occasion when you will need another glassful at home is a whole week later?

Many solutions have been presented, and all have found a small place in the market – the airline bottle, the half bottle, the single plastic glass with a peel-back lid – but nothing has taken off yet.

One of the obvious answers has been with us for 30 years – the Bag-in-Box.

So why hasn’t this format made inroads into the UK wine market? (in fact its share started to decline when the ‘half price promotion’ became a thing)

The answer is that our prior associations with Bag-in-box in the UK have been with lowest common denominator generic wines of only average quality.

But two things have changed.

One is that in Scandinavia, in a market that doesn’t allow price promotions, a 4 bottle wine box is typically sold at a decent discount to the regular price per bottle. So they are enormously popular. Around 60% of all volume sold in Sweden is in BIB.

And this means that much more premium producers have been encouraged to look at the BIB sector, and they have shown that good wine tastes great in a BIB.

Secondly, technology has made it easier and easier to physically handle the shipping and filling of BIBs on a small scale.

No longer does a winemaker have to fill a 24,000 litre steel tanker with their precious wine, and wave goodbye while it makes its way to some wine factory in Germany or Newcastle, where hundreds of wines a week are pushed through the system and given the same identikit, safety first treatment.

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Now, small, often organic, producers who have loving laboured over small batches of delicious wine can fill much smaller vessels that sit nicely on a pallet, and can be shipped on the normal wine transport network. They can be sent to a fellow winemaker in a small winery in the UK, who understands each individual wine, and tailors the filtration regime to the absolute minimum necessary, and uses as little sulphur as strictly necessary, to respect the lower sulphur levels used by organic producers.

About six months ago, I was approached by four siblings from the Lea family of Suffolk, Oliver, Tom, Alex and Rebecca (who is now a ‘Roberts’). They had a dream that they could be the ones to open up the Premium BIB market in the UK, had founded The BIB Wine Company, and were looking for a founding partner to help find producers to work with, and select the wines.

Six months later, and after several trips to European wine fairs, organic wine events and visits to individual growers, we have pulled together a range of 12 wines to launch this month, including a wine of my own – Bee Pink – made with the help of Jean-Marc Lafage in the Roussillon – which I also sell in bottle on http://www.domaineofthebee.com (new vintage arriving in May).

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What have we learned?

  1. Winemakers are really interested to supply us – it is a new route to market, and a premium one (we pay WAY higher prices than the standard ‘vrac’ price.)
  2. Winemakers like having their label on the box, and being associated with the other growers in the range.
  3. Every wine gets a lot of input from the winemaker as to how they would like it to be handled.
  4. Now that we have packed them, we know that good wines DO taste great from a BIB!
  5. There is a big market out there of engaged wine drinkers easily persuadable about the convenience, and the environmental benefits of BIB.
  6. The commentators and critics are keen to write about this revolution in Bag-in-Box quality.

Our London launch is this week (26th April). We are nearly at capacity, but if anyone interested in coming along reads this, drop me a line at justin@thehivewine.com, and I will see if we can squeeze you in.

And sales on the website go live in a matter of days. For now, it is just informational, but to sign up to learn more, have a look here – https://www.bibwine.co.uk/

Join the revolution!

Justin is awarded major industry accolade

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At the International Wine and Spirits Competition Awards Dinner on Wednesday night, Justin was delighted to be jointly awarded the Julian Brind Memorial Award for outstanding achievement in the wine industry.

The judges described Justin as ‘one of the industry’s most creative thinkers and most active do-ers’ and singled out his role in the success of the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium.

Justin said ‘I was lucky enough to work with Julian for a short time at Waitrose, and he instilled in all of us his insistence of quality first. He was also a man with a keen eye for a bargain!. He was an inspiring man, and a pioneer.’

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Sharing the award with Ross Carter, the man who revived the London Wine Fair, Justin and Ross follow a worthy list of other wine trade luminaries including Sam Harrop MW, Xavier Rousset MS, Dawn Davies MW and Michael & Charlotte Sager.

The celebration began on stage, and lasted well into the night….

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At the French Embassy to see Jancis awarded her gong!

Chevalier Lunch photo 20.4.2016

We picked a fabulous day to gather on Kensington Palace Gardens at the French Ambassador’s Residence to see Jancis receive her medal for services to the French WIne Industry – she is now an ‘Officer of the Ordre du Merite Agricole’.

All of the other guests have previously been awarded (or were also awarded today) the lower level of award – the ‘Chevalier de l’Ordre du Merite Agricole, and we were all allowed to wear our medals for the day – very proud! Good to see Mr Tony Laithwaite, and Mr Allan Cheesman in good form – two important mentors in my wine life.

French wine has been good to us, and we have all done our bit to champion wines from this wonderful country. And days like this allow us to pause and give thanks for being in a position to help.

One small observation – we tasted some delicious wines at lunch, but each bottle went round a table of eight. Perhaps this is how the French stay so elegant and thin!

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Award for Hart of Gold

12 December 2015

In April this year Justin launched an English sparkling wine called Hart of Gold.

The wine is from the highly-rated 2010 vintage, and is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, which were grown in Herefordshire.

This week it was awarded Gold at the International Wine Challenge.  Justin’s really excited that Hart of Gold has been given such a significant medal in the first year of production. It was the only Gold Medal winner to be awarded to an English wine in this round of the IWC awards.

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The judges thought our fizz was, “Generous and fruity, yet elegant and fine.”

Having judged many times at The Wine Challenge, Justin knows how hard it is to impress the judges, and when a wine wins a Gold Medal, it has been tasted and loved by a lot of really good, and discriminating tasters.

For more information on Hart of Gold go to www.hart-of-gold.co.uk

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