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November 26, 2015updated 25 Apr 2024 9:29pm

Chalk Talk: The Geology of English Sparkling Wine

By Margaret Rand

All I can say is, if you laid all the opinions in England end to end, they still wouldn’t reach a conclusion. Which is probably appropriate for an industry a mere 25 years old. This lack of consensus could be on many subjects, but here it’s about soil-and sparkling wine. Should English sparkling wine take advantage of the fact that it shares the same chalk as Champagne? Or is that a red herring? Is geology at all important to the flavor of fizz? For some years now, consumers have had it dinned into them that one reason English sparkling wine is worthy of their notice is that the billowing chalk hills of Champagne duck briefly under the Channel and reappear in southern England. It’s been a useful association with greatness for a fledgling industry trying to convince a skeptical public. But of course, when you look, you find that actually much English sparkling wine isn’t grown on chalk at all. Yes, the chalk downland is there, alive with butterflies and harebells and sheep, but most sparkling vineyards aren’t on it.

Should chalk matter to English fizz? On one side of the debate we have Ian Kellett of Hambledon, who says, “This is the only region in the world to have the same chalk as Champagne, and we’ve planted on green sandstone. Why?” On the other, we have Mike Roberts of Ridgeview, who says, “Of all the things that matter in sparkling wine, it isn’t soil.”

If chalk matters, it must be because it affects aroma and flavor. Those who favor it believe it can deliver finesse-a fine, precise acidity on which to base a blend-in a way that no other southern English soil can. English sparkling wine needs more finesse-or at least it does if it wants to imitate Champagne in more than just grape varieties and price.

To get a perspective on the matter, it helps to look at how sparkling wine came to be made in England. English wine, in its modern incarnation, started out still. Farmers turned into wine growers by planting wherever they happened to be, providing they had a warm slope. (When Major-General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones looked out of his window in 1951 and decided to plant vines for what became England’s first commercial vineyard, he chose the slope below his house. When Bob Lindo of Camel Valley in Cornwall first planted, it was because people kept saying that the steep, south-facing slope of his sheep farm was warmer than where they’d come from. Both planted for still wine.) When they reoriented themselves to sparkling, it was initially in a similarly ad hoc fashion. Now, however, big money is coming in, and it’s going into sparkling. It’s flowing smoothly from hedge funds to hillside, from City to village. Retail prices are (so far) about 20 percent below those of big-brand Champagnes, and in five years’ time, there’ll be around 5 million bottles of English fizz, nearly all made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. English sparkling is positioning itself to compete with the grown-ups.

Chalking it up

Of course, the soil in Champagne is varied, as are drainage, exposure, and a host of other factors. You could pick a surprisingly wide range of sites in southern England and find some equivalence in Champagne. What always matters, though, is the water-holding capacity of the soil and its drainage. Southern England’s sparkling-wine soils, apart from the chalk of the Downs, include limestone, green sandstone, or greensand (which is the layer under the chalk, revealed when the chalk has eroded), and clay. Each can be handled in ways that bring out their good points and mitigate their bad. Green sandstone is well drained. Stony soils act as light reflectors but are tough on machinery. Clay retains nutrients, but you need a good slope to improve drainage, and it takes longer to warm up. Chalk may need the addition of iron to prevent chlorosis, but its molecular structure gives it powerful capillary action.

Sparkling wine is, of course, highly technical. The density of planting, the height of the canopy, the length of time from flowering to picking, the yield, pressing fractions, pressing temperatures, how you handle the malo, and 100 other decisions all affect the final flavor in the glass. Pressing fractions affect pH, for example; pressing temperatures affect extraction from the grapes. Soil can get left a long way behind. Tasmania is making terrific sparkling wines, with not a grain of chalk on the whole island.

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Yet if you do have chalk, says Ian Kellett, who bought Hambledon Vineyard in 1999 and launched its and his first sparkling wine in 2014, why wouldn’t you plant on it? You could say he’s biased; not only is Hambledon on chalk, but it’s particularly pure chalk, called Newhaven Chalk formation.

Newhaven Chalk was formed at the intersection of the Santonian and Campanian ages of the Upper Cretaceous. (The French Senonian, the age of the chalk in Champagne, includes both the Santonian and the Campanian.) It is, says Kellett, the same chalk that is found in Avize and Cramant, and what counts, what makes it so good, is the way it handles water.

Of course, all chalk handles water rather well. One cubic meter of chalk can hold 660 liters of water. “It drains very well,” says Kellett. “It’s very rarely saturated, so the roots don’t get cold and wet, and it has amazing capillary action. The chalk tries to hang on to the water, and the vine has to fight for it, so the vine has to create its own strong capillary action. The combination of the plant’s capillary action and the chalk’s capillary action means there’s a pump effectively going down 500m [1,640ft] into the chalk. And because the plant has to fight for the water, you get fitter vines. That’s difficult to prove, but it makes sense.”

That applies to all chalk. What makes the difference between one chalk and another, he says, is the precise structure of the chalk, which in turn is determined by the species of sea creatures that died to make it, and how their skeletal structures bonded together. Chalk formed either side of that perfect point-the slightly younger Tarrant Chalk Member and Spetisbury Chalk Member, and the slightly older Seaford Chalk Formation-is pretty similar, he says. But less pure chalk doesn’t have the same structure. “If I try to write on a blackboard with gray, less pure chalk, it’s more sludgy and malleable […]. And there’s rain here,” he goes on, “so soils that manage water less well are less good.”

Chucking it down

Ah, yes-climate. No matter that this piece is supposed to focus on soil, you can’t, in England, get away from rain. In fact, you can’t get away from climate in general. Kellett’s bit of southern England is 2.7°F (1.5°C) cooler than Champagne in July and August, but 1.8°F (1°C) warmer in September. Champagne has colder winters and more days of frost: from 30 to 50 days in Sussex, from 60 to 80 in Champagne. And Sussex has a bit more rain, but not much more. England, says Mike Roberts, has one week earlier budding, one week later flowering, and a longer growing season, with picking two to three weeks later than Champagne. Between the equinoxes there’s greater daylight and, in a good year, greater phenolic ripeness, but also greater unevenness of flowering and ripeness from one year to another. Usually, though, English producers can pick at 9-11% potential alcohol quite easily.

Microclimates come into play, as well. “Hush Heath is 400 acres [160ha] surrounded by ancient woodlands,” says owner Richard Balfour. “I can stand in my house and watch clouds come over, and they go round the woods. I have appreciably less rain than my neighbors. I can stand in Hush Heath and watch it rain all around and not on us.” In the summer of 2013, he says, he had no rain at all for ten weeks solid. “If we were all chalk, it would have been more worrying.” His soil is Wealden clay over Tunbridge Wells sand. “It’s not essential to have chalk. There’s a lot of clay in Champagne […]. We’ve put in underground drainage every 10m [33ft] under the vines, and the topsoil is not too deep, not more than 15cm [6in]. We get cracking in summer because the clay is close to the surface and it dries out quickly, but there’s water retention farther down.” He adds, “I took the geology into account when I planted. Because the farm grew hops and apples, I have records for 50 years of how the soil behaves with apples and with rootstocks for apples. There are frost areas, and I see certain patches of soil where things haven’t grown well. There are pockets were apples inexplicably don’t grow well-maybe there’s an old underground pond there, or some other reason.”

Consultant Stephen Skelton MW is a great believer in apples-and indeed consults to Hush Heath. “Apples and hops have been grown in southern England for hundreds of years; if they give good crops, it’ll be a good site for vines. They didn’t plant apples in windy sites. A lot of chalk downland is 150m [500ft] up and very exposed.” But look at Chapel Down, he says. (In 1995, Chapel Down moved to the site of Tenterden Vineyard, which had been founded by Skelton in 1979; he managed Chapel Down until 2000.) “They’ve got great sites in the Weald, in apple and hop country. Tenterden [near Chapel Down] is the old Roman foreshore before Romney Marsh was dammed and silted up. It is light sandy soil, 2-3 meters [6.5-10ft] of tight sand, basically sand and loam. If you dig down around one meter [3-4ft] it’s almost white; you can carve it, and it breaks into talcum powder. It’s got great drainage, and vines love it. I’d rather have that than chalk downland 150m up in the sky. Exposure is one of our greatest problems in England. You need good flowering.”

The chalk downland up in the sky could be an oblique reference to Rathfinny, where Mark Driver has planted on pure chalk; the first wines from this new estate have yet to be released. Yes, he says, wind is a problem. “We planted out trees as windbreaks, because we knew we had to slow down the wind, and now we’re using artificial windbreaks to help the windbreak trees grow.” He is 3-4 miles (5-6.5km) from the Channel, and there’s not much in between to stop the wind. By contrast, Kellett says that Hambledon has two hills between it and the sea, which is 6 miles (10km) away. “We get onshore and offshore winds when the tide changes. That’s when the wind blows.”

Acid test?

If you want chalk, your options are actually more limited than one might think, looking at the expanse of the South Downs. “The best slopes on the Downs are nearly all north facing,” says Kellett. If you want south or east facing, which of course you do, “only about 2-3 percent of the landmass in the South Downs National Park is appropriate.” What’s more, he reckons he’s identified every appropriate patch. “We knock on doors a bit if we want specific parcels. Or things come along, most of which are uninteresting. We’re not yet in competition with other people [for suitable vineyard land]. That will come in 20 years’ time.”

The South Downs may one day be a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). Mike Roberts is putting together a proposal. The South Downs is a geological area in a way that the other proposed PDO, Sussex, is not; Sussex is merely a political boundary, and it includes everything from Downs chalk to Wealden clay. But Driver points out that the South Downs themselves are not the same all the way along. East Sussex is open and undulating, but West Sussex is more wooded, and the South Downs are farther from the sea there. And if you go farther west again into Hampshire, you find rather more good south-facing chalky slopes there. “Chalk is proven to be a good growing medium for sparkling-wine grapes,” he says, “and it’s free-draining. But there are other soils that also give good quality wine. I don’t have a firm view that you have to plant on chalk.”

Christian Seely, of Hampshire’s Coates & Seely, is equally pragmatic and precise. “Before we planted, we had the soil analyzed in France, and they confirmed it was a type particularly suited to planting Champagne grapes. I agree that chalk can’t just be chalk-it must be exactly right. You can have soils that are too chalky and almost impossible for vines. Too much chalk gives chlorosis. But the right kind, with a bit of clay, is capable of giving world-class sparkling.”

At Coates & Seely’s Wooldings site, the soil has between 2.5 and 17 percent active chalk; and its Exton site, nearly 30 percent. The average in the Marne Valley is around 20 percent. “You can make perfectly good sparkling away from chalk,” says Seely, “but because Champagne is the inspiration, and given that we have certain types in England that are very close, if we want to go all the way and make world-class sparkling in England, we might as well try to get the soil profile as close as it can be, because it works.”

But why does it work? Is there a difference on the palate? Nyetimber plants only on greensand and chalk, says winemaker Cherie Spriggs: “about two thirds greensand and one third chalk. Both are well drained. That, for us, is the important factor.” At the moment, she finds it difficult to compare results because the vines on chalk are still relatively young; the first Nyetimber chalk harvest was 2013. But there is a difference, she says, and it’s “something we can’t quantify […]. My impression is that when vines are grown on chalk, the acid perception is different. Not that acid is lower on chalk, but it’s how it progresses on the palate. Instead of strong acidity on the finish, it’s more even from the beginning to the back of the palate-which feels like less acidity. I’m pretty certain that analyses are unlikely to show significant differences between greensand wines and chalk wines, but the perception of acidity is different. I find that greensand wines have a powerful fruit character, which is not to say that chalk is without fruit, but it’s more soft. It’s not about power; it’s softer, gentler. The technical measurement of acidity linked to colder soil types is different from what I believe is flavor perception from different soil types.”

The best experimental vineyard in the world

This is the nub of the matter. If chalk affects flavor, then it matters. If chalk sites tend to be more exposed, then Kellett reckons that growers can compensate for poorer flowering by simply buying more land; English Grade 3 arable land, he says, is £30,000 per hectare (2.47 acres), compared to €1.3 million per hectare of premier cru in Champagne, or €1.9 million/ha for grand cru. (Land is graded according to gradient, flood risk, soil depth, stoniness, wet, and drought; Grade 3 is “good to moderate quality.”) Hence the competition for sites that he anticipates.

If one can conclude anything at all from all this, it might be that newer entrants are sometimes (not always) more likely to focus on chalk than those who started off making still wine. Bob Lindo at Camel Valley in Cornwall, for example, has no chalk at all-and, he points out, no shortage of awards for his sparkling wines. “I have a theory, which I don’t tend to say out loud because it’s unpopular,” he says: “Chalk is very austere. It’s very appropriate in warmer places like Champagne; but in the climate we have…” His Annie’s Brut is grown over ancient slate. “The English wine fraternity is at such an early stage, it should embrace as much as possible. England is the best experimental vineyard in the world. And soil is trumped by climate every time.”

A quick survey of a handful of other significant sparkling vineyards reveals that Gusborne is on clay and sand, Wiston is on chalk, Bluebell is on clay loam and sandstone, and Hattingley is on clay loam over chalk. Cherie Spriggs says, “A lot of people can’t believe that soil makes a difference in sparkling wine, because in Champagne they haven’t allowed us to see it. But there’s a change coming from people like us, saying that terroir does matter-try this single-vineyard sparkling wine: It tastes of where it comes from.”

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