Ahead of the new vintage release, we sit down with Charlie Holland, to hear about the evolving style of Gusbourne’s prestige bottling.
There’s a spark of excitement in Charlie’s eye as he talks about the new vintage of Fifty One Degrees North. Gone is the nervous energy that surrounded the luxury wine’s launch in 2022. Clearly, this is no “difficult second album”.
A year ago, when Charlie and the team decided the time was right to introduce Fifty One Degrees 2014, it was a landmark moment for Gusbourne, and – in truth – for English wine.
This was a wine of a calibre that meant it could take its place amongst the big names in the vintage sparkling wine world. It was ageworthy, complex, intellectual and – above all – testament to the quality of the terroir and fruit which we now have at Gusbourne.
“You only get one shot at launching a wine like this,” says Charlie. “We had done everything we could to make it a success, but I still felt huge trepidation putting it out into the world…
“I could not have hoped for a better response.”
Customers and critics were unstinting in their praise of the 2014 vintage – with one notable wine writer describing Fifty One as a “mini Krug”. Both at home and in international markets, allocations of 2014 sold out far faster than we’d thought possible.
And so, we’ve been quietly waiting for the moment when the latest chapter in the Fifty One story is ready for release.
Crafting a successor
Winemaking is partly about working with the fruit in front of you to capture each new vintage. But it’s also about being a custodian for those wines already made, the bottles which gently slumber in the cellar. The winemakers have to stay in touch with them, understand them – and judge how best to use them.
So, when Charlie and the team came together to decide the successor to Fifty One’s debut vintage, it wasn’t simply a case of preparing the 2015 wine. In fact, our new release of Fifty One Degrees North is the 2016 vintage.
Stylistically, it was decided that 2015 wasn’t destined for our prestige bottling. To understand why, we need to dive back to the beginning of Fifty One’s story.
“Originally, I thought that the first vintage of Fifty One would be the 2013,” says Charlie. “It was a cool year, and I felt that this meant the wine would age well: you have the low pH and high acidity axis – the backbone of wines which go on and on forever.
“The wine was lovely. It was nuanced, subtle. But I wanted the Fifty One cuveé to accentuate our individuality. It needed to be a supercharged version of our house style: high-impact, full, round, muscular, vinous wines that are based on clay as well as chalk,” says Charlie. “The 2013s were almost too elegant and understated. Stylistically, the 2015 vintage was an almost identical to 2013,” he says. “It was really good, lovely, precise and driven. Very English. But it wasn’t right for Fifty One.”
The 2014 vintage was another story. It had all the intensity Charlie and the team was looking for. “When it came to the next release of Fifty One, we wanted that same level of intensity,” says Charlie. “Arguably, we got all that and even more.”
In Charlie’s view, 2016 stands alone.
“It’s not like any other vintage we’ve made. We tend to group vintages together: 2010, 2013, 2015 – are citrus-driven with high acidity; 2014, 2018 and 2022 are more orchard fruit – softer, it’s rounder, more generous. Then there’s 2016 – and it’s the best of both. It has the ripeness of a really good vintage with this great acid line and profile going through it.
“At the time, I said it was my favourite vintage of Blanc de Blancs. And it’s true. People don’t talk about 2016 as one of the great English vintages – most favour 14, 18 and 22. So, while some producers may have done well, for us at Gusbourne it was next level.
“And that’s one of my favourite things about 2016 – we have this unique expression.”
The evolution of Fifty One
With the debut vintage out in the wild, and the style – to a certain degree – established, how did Charlie approach the next bottling? Can Fifty One evolve? “It has to,” Charlie says. “We’re still learning. Always. And that’s true – even when it comes to a wine like Fifty One.
“We always want it to be the best expression of Gusbourne and English wine. We want it to be the best wine we can possibly make with those raw ingredients.”
But Charlie’s very clear that “the best” isn’t a line in the sand, or a defined recipe. Instead, it is a continuously evolving relationship with the wines. Each vintage must be tasted, assessed and nurtured so that by the time they are ready for release, they are the finest possible expression of that year’s fruit.
“Every January, we’ll open up everything in the cellar, from 2013 to the most recent vintage,” says Charlie. “We taste the Fifty Ones: we map the flavours, and assess the stylistic development. You have to try to differentiate which characteristics come from the vintage, and which from the winemaking. We’re looking at what we like - and what we don’t.
“Then we consider how to continue to accentuate those characteristics we love. We’re fine-tuning the style as we move forward.” The 2016 vintage, then, is the chapter that follows 2014: it’s not a carbon copy, or imitation, but an evolution.
Two vintages side by side
With all Gusbourne wines, two ideas sit in tension: each cuveé we make must be the best expression of its vintage, and it must also follow the style of those that have come before. While we’d never seek to make two identical wines, there needs to be a relationship between each vintage and the next.
How then, do these two different vintages of Fifty One relate to each other? “The 2016 is all the things we loved about 2014 but more so,” says Charlie. “Every time we’ve tasted 2016 through the years, the whole team has agreed it’s amazing. We knew we’d never have that difficult second album.”
In terms of structure and flavour, the two vintages share certain characteristics. “One thing that’s really interesting for me is the iodine note,” says Charlie. “I think it comes from a combination of minerality from the Chardonnay and Pinot maturity – which can sometimes show as a Marmite flavour.
“That note is there in 2014 when you open a bottle: an oystershell freshness and minerality. It dissipates after fifteen minutes or so, developing into this really soft, yellow fruit. Then, just as you’re about to finish a glass, the patisserie notes come through. And the longer it spends on cork the more that will come to the fore.
“The 2016, though, is already more about nougat and butter – it’s laden with all the characteristics you’d expect from lees ageing.”
Predicting the future
Winemaking is one of those art forms which requires both an encyclopaedic memory, and a crystal ball. Charlie and his team must look back to where the wine has come from, and forward to predict its future development.
At the moment of release, Fifty One Degrees North sits at a special point in its evolution. It’s reached a place where it is beautifully balanced, but it’s also tightly coiled. All the amplified components of the wine are there, knitted together – waiting to unfurl over time.
“We’re really happy with 2016’s profile right now – it’s the starting point,” says Charlie. “But the very nature of this wine, and the way it's built – toasty, oaky, slightly nutty – means it’s going to be super, super tasty given more time to develop in bottle. Personally, I think it’s only just about getting into its sweet spot. It’s still a baby.”
At its heart, Fifty One Degrees North is a wine that’s crafted to be exceptional today – but with the potential to become even more so tomorrow. “The flavour here isn’t really based on fresh fruit; it’s more about dried fruits and nuts and toast. Time will only emphasise these flavours,” says Charlie. “It should just get better and better.”