A Whole New Ball Game

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“Come, taste what you’ve bought here!”

Acclaimed South African wine maker Johann Fourie is confident he will repeat these words in 2023 when the first sparkling wine - made from vines planted at the Mannings Heath Golf and Wine Estate in West Sussex, England – is released. 

It will be the same words he uttered in 2017 when he poured entrepreneur Penny Streeter OBE the first glass of sauvignon blanc from the Benguela Cove Wine Estate she bought in the Walker Bay wine region, South Africa.

Mannings Heath represents significant firsts: it is the first golf and wine estate in the United Kingdom, as well as the first South African venture into English wine territory. 

Inspired by Penny’s leap of faith for investing in the unique terroir on the ocean shores, he joined Benguela Cove Wine Estate as fulltime cellar master in 2016.

Penny soon reaped the rewards of her wise investment, scooping the trophy for the best sauvignon blanc in the SA Young Wine Show 2017.  Driven to expand the wine offering of the Benguela Cove Collection, Penny was encouraged by Johann to look beyond California or Australia for a new wine home.  

The decision to take the road less travelled took them to England, which up to now has been knocking at the backdoor to enter the international wine stage. 

They were encouraged by the fact that the UK market is not saturated yet, compared to other popular wine regions of the world. 

“Ever since my first taste of sparkling wine from England, I’ve been enchanted by it stylistic qualities,” says Johann. “My travels and judging at the International Wine Challenge (IWC) further confirmed this.” 

English sparkling wine’s stellar performance in a taste off with champagne - which made the headlines for weeks at the time - further convinced him of the huge potential. “Big  French Champagne houses like Pommery, Taittinger and Mumm now buy vineyards in England.  What better endorsement do you need?”

With a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve and the tenacity to see it through, Penny and Johann went on their quest to find the perfect site in the UK to plant their vines. 

It turned into a journey of discovery for Johann, who found everything he knew about the ideal viticultural conditions in South Africa turned on its head.

“England is different from South Africa in the sense that you don’t go searching for the best soil or cool slopes to plant appropriate cultivars. Soil plays a secondary role. In England you need to find the most favourable site.”

He applied three rules in scouting for sites to plant a vineyard in the UK. “It needs to be less than 100m above sea level to eliminate the threat of frost. The site also needs to be sloped and pitched in a southern direction to assist in draining out cool air. “

 

While cooler slopes are preferred terrain in South Africa, and wind is needed to cool down the temperatures, the opposite applies in England. Here you need warmer southern slopes and a sheltered site to retain the heat.

Finding a site that ticks all these boxes is easier said than done.  Looking at golf courses was not on the cards when the pair stumbled upon Mannings Health golf estate, once rated as one of the top 100 courses in the country. With a big enough part of the land suitable for planting vines and building  a wine cellar, they seized the opportunity.

The prestigious 18 hole course remained untouched while the sister course was reduced from a 18 hole to a 9 hole to prepare the rest of the land for planting. 

“Selecting sites for their diverse soil composition as in South Africa, is a luxury in England. The south of England holds a blessing in disguise.  It shares one of the Champagne region’s most important characteristics – soil rich in chalk.  The chalk ridge that stretches all the way from Champagne beneath the French channel continues to West Sussex. It’s that same chalk content that defines finesse and elegance in Champagne. 

Furthermore, global warming makes England more accessible and sustainable for planting Champagne cultivars.

England now boasts more than a hundred cellars and 2 500 hectares under vine.  Over a million vines were planted last year and a further 1.5 million vines will be planted this year.

The south of England is becoming a playground for winemakers. Hampshire has rocky, chalky soil, producing tight and mineral wines with high acidity. West Sussex’s so- called green sands produces wines with more volume and a softer, creamier texture. 

“It boasts phenomenal natural acidity, purity of fruit, linearity and structure; not those big, sunshiny and peachy bubblies. Age will broaden out the palate”.

All three classic Champagne grape cultivars were planted. To reduce the risk of vintage vagaries, planting included dual clones (suitable for producing both sparkling and still wine), in addition to clones specifically suited to sparkling and still wines.   

Johann points at that frost can affect sparkling wine clones severely. “By planting a variety of clones we protect our annual predicted crop and have more to play with.”

The first vines were established last year with a predicted maiden vintage of 75 tons in 2020. More chardonnay plantings will follow in May and the construction of the cellar will also commence later this year. 

For the British who lead the global trend in embracing locally made products, there’s much to celebrate. “Sparkling wine is what England does best, concludes Johann. “It has become their calling card and will only grow in quality.” 

Written by Samarie Smith on behalf of Benguela Cove Investments (Pty) Ltd. 

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