Luscious Sauternes, historic Tokaji, intense Canadian ice-wine – there’s a world of rich, indulgent pudding wines out there to enjoy. But – thus far at least – the blueprint for an English style of sweet wine has yet to be defined. For our Chief Winemaker Charlie Holland, it was a tantalising prospect.
“We’ve done sparkling, we’ve created a prestige sparkling we’ve used the single-vineyard Burgundy style approach,” says Charlie. “We’ve made still red, white and delicious rosé. And, of course, we’re continuously refining all those. But I couldn’t help thinking, what else could we do? How else can we push the boundaries?
“As a winemaker, you want to make all different styles. It’s rare that you get the opportunity.”
It’s not just the quest to fill a gap in the Gusbourne portfolio that had Charlie hankering to produce a sweet wine. In our Kent vineyards, there’s a particular block of an unusual Chardonnay clone, 809, which has distinctive aromatic characteristics. Charlie’s been experimenting with this fruit over several vintages, working out how to find its perfect expression.
“The grapes have a Muscat quality,” says Charlie. “The first year we made a wine from this block, we fermented it in barrel – it had this almost Viognier, stone-fruit character. It’s aromatic and grapey on the nose, but then on the palate it performs just like a Chardonnay with that linear acidity. For a few years now, I’ve been thinking that it would make a great sweet wine.”
Sweet, but not noble
So, with the fruit identified, the next question for Charlie to answer was how to set about making a sweet style. Although the relatively warm and dry conditions in our Kent vineyards mean that our grapes here are amongst the earliest to ripen in England, a late-harvest style isn’t feasible. “Here, we have four seasons in a day,” says Charlie. “We just don’t get the hang time that Europe does.”
The solution, found Charlie, was to create an ice wine using a winemaking technique (rather than risking the British weather). “We ran the wine through a heat exchange; one side becomes hot, and the other freezes. You scrape the ice off and, where it freezes, the wine becomes really concentrated.” Using this process, around 2,000 litres of juice became 700 precious litres.
To ferment this beautifully concentrated liquid, Charlie adopted classic aromatic winemaking techniques. He kept the wine in tank, and at low temperatures to gently coax out a particular style. “It’s so interesting when you look at the world of sweet wine,” says Charlie. “When you’re trying to work out the parameters in terms of alcohol, sugar and acid there’s just no consistency.
“I worked a lot in Germany where we made a Trockenbeerenauslese [sweet pudding wine]. It took about 20 people seven days to pick the fruit, and it took months to ferment. You’d get this tiny amount of liquid, generally at about 180g residual sugar and around 10% alcohol, so those were the benchmarks I was aiming for.”
A Goldilocks moment
The tricky part of the process, Charlie explains, is stopping this kind of cool, gentle fermentation. “I dropped the temperature on the tanks somewhere between eight and 10% alcohol to put the brakes on and arrest the fermentation.
“The skill here is trying to get the balance in the wine: too sweet and it’s cloying, but if you overshoot you end up with something that’s not particularly luscious. Hopefully we’ve found the tension between sweetness and acidity.” Charlie managed to pull off this balancing act with characteristic dexterity – the wine takes its name from its residual sugar content, hence RS180.
Into the unknown
When Charlie tasted the wine before bottling, it was already showing notes of sumptuously ripe stone fruit and a delicate marmalade character. A hint at what’s to come as it matures in bottle.
“It’s exciting not knowing precisely what lies ahead for it,” says Charlie. “It should age and develop beautifully over the next few months.” As its flavours integrate and its character becomes more complex, Chardonnay RS180 will, he hopes, become a beautifully flexible addition to the range, working with floral citrus flavours, pastry and sweet creams and custards as well as fulfilling the role of a Sauternes with rich pâté or cheese.
“It’s the final piece of the puzzle,” Charlie says.
RS180 is now available at select tasting events at The Nest. Members can purchase a bottle here