The importance of single vintage wines, and our enthusiasm to draw attention to and celebrate the difference between them each year, is central to everything we do at Coolhurst. This is an approach we share with Corinne O’Connor, a young American winemaker, now based in Dorset.
Here, after her thoughtful introduction, Corinne kindly plays interviewer on the subject, firing her questions at our founder Charlie Scrase Dickins. We thought it would be more fun than a monologue.
CORINNE: “It’s not new news that over the last decade the UK has seen a huge increase in the production of sparkling wine and in the quality of the wine in bottle. It’s why I, an American transplant, moved here: to make English Sparkling Wine (ESW). It’s so exciting and the quality is through the charts for a ‘new’ wine region, the wines are winning competitions abroad, and more UK consumers are choosing ESW over things like Champagne and Prosecco. Recent market surveys show that sales are up 77% over 2020, and I’d imagine the 2020 figures looked about the same compared to 2019 sales. So, what can tasting vintages back to back teach us? And is it important to preserve the quality level we’ve been able to achieve in such a short period of time?
England is not an easy place to grow grapes, and there have been some real highs and lows over the last 10-15 years in the viticulture world, often that rollercoaster can take place within a single growing season. But the life of a great grape farmer in England involves an incredible amount of work in a very variable climate. The weather is unpredictable and a couple of days of rain at the wrong time of year can send months and months of planning into a spiral.
This is why it’s so special that we can look at the true leaders in wine production in the UK, and in real-time taste through the years and the challenges and the growing and the learning that we’re doing collectively as producers of wine. I think it’s very easy to romanticise winemaking and having a vineyard. That’s why it’s so refreshing to chat with people like Charlie and to get a full picture of the challenges that always accompany the successes.
Coolhurst is – in my humble opinion – currently the best sparkling rosé producer in the whole of England. The Scrase Dickins family doesn’t originally come from an agricultural background, but they are certainly grafters, and they are working incredibly hard and have learned a hell of a lot since they planted those first vines. When I sat down with Charlie, I had an idea he was of a similar mindset to me about how special it is that we have consecutive vintages of sparkling wine in the UK, but he’s got more vintages of hard work and learning under his belt than I do, he calls a spade a spade, and as a benchmark of the some of the absolutely best wine being grown and bottled in this country, his opinions and experience hold a lot of weight with me. I hope you enjoy my interview with him as much as I did.
Q1: England seems to be the only place in the world right now focusing on consecutive single vintage bottlings of sparkling wine. It’s mostly because it’s such a new wine-producing country, and a lot of people don’t have reserves of wine to blend into future vintages, but why do you think it’s important to showcase single vintage wines?
CHARLIE: “From the outset, we knew we were only going to produce a limited number of bottles with the highest quality fruit each year. What we’ve learned since 2014 is that what sets our wines apart isn’t necessarily ‘have we been able to get the grapes to ripeness?’, it’s about the taste; the grapes have to taste good and this will have an impact on exactly what wines we make. Not every varietal is really great every vintage but if you can produce great-tasting grapes, even in difficult years, then we will always be able to create wines we stand behind – they will always be interesting, delicious wines that people want to drink. We like that our wines tell the story of a time and place.
We’ve also been constrained by our economics and plans for the business. Many larger producers are moving away from single vintage wines because they’ve committed so much to their investors, and they’ve got so much land under vine, that it makes sense to have a lower-priced, consistent tasting product in their range. We don’t want to do that. Our vineyard is the size that it is, we get the yields that we get, and we make a limited number of bottles. So we have to dedicate our efforts to making every vintage count and individually showcase that hard work, year by year.“
Q2: I see you have on the website a banner that clearly states: single vineyard, single vintage, single varietal. As we see more brands (who have incorporated growth and expansion into their business plans) move towards NV or Multi Vintage bottlings, what was the thinking and decision-making behind declaring such a strong vision of what the brand is? Are there any plans for a Coolhurst ‘expansion’ in the future?
CHARLIE: “My first introduction to quality wine was claret. Bordeaux (along with much of the wine-producing world) is not ashamed to produce single vintage wines. That’s what they do and what people expect. 1990 was a great year, 1995 was not so good etc etc, but it’s understood that it was also different. I think that’s one of the delights of wine, experiencing and understanding a certain time and place.
Coolhurst has always set out to be boutique; to focus on one vineyard, single varietal wines, and making those the best wines we can. Our position is that you can be boutique and focus on the right things, do things exactly the way you want to, and provided the corresponding wines are good, then over time demand will go up, because consumers love what you’re making – partly for those points of difference. They develop trust the quality of the wines. I also think this shows different reasons people are in this business. Some are in it because they have winemaking skills; I don’t have winemaking skills, but I’m in it because I’m passionate about wine and love our vineyard. Quite a lot of people in English wine are there because they are extremely wealthy and it’s a very romantic idea to have a vineyard, but once you need to see a return on the wine and have to scale up and up and up, you can soon lose what’s special about it.”
Q3: In such a variable climate, yields can vary greatly from year to year, as we’ve seen in the last few years specifically. Does the possibility of fewer bottles during a tricky year seem like a negative or a positive? So, fewer bottles to sell vs. more exclusivity?
CHARLIE: “I can’t say it’s never a negative because I wear two hats here. From the economic side of things, it is disastrous when we have a less than optimal vintage because it costs so much to run the vineyard and if we don’t have the yields it’s financially unsustainable.
We currently sell some grapes each year to help pay for vineyard operations. When we don’t think it’s a high yield year, we are very specific about the parcels we harvest for the Coolhurst wines. We take the fruit we want from the vineyard, in the quantities we want, based on how the year is and how the grapes taste, which sometimes means we will end up with fewer grapes that we take for ourselves. But I’m happy with that outcome because that’s in our business model, we can make fewer bottles here and there with quality remaining the utmost goal.
Even as recently as the 2021 vintage, we’ve had to make tough decisions on what we are and are not going to produce. We don’t make every ‘planned’ wine every year, but try to make informed decisions to produce wines based on the quality and ripeness of the fruit for each varietal. If the decision is made that no Lady Elizabeth is produced one vintage, this makes the other vintages of that wine even more special. In that same year, one of the other varietals, like Pinot Meunier, might be spectacular, so more bottles of our Miller’s Tale will be made. We’ve set a standard on the quality and flavour of the fruit, and we abide by that.”
Q4: Do you think the move towards NV (non-vintage) or MV (multi-vintage) wines will take away from the distinct English-style wines we’ve seen produced over the last decade? Will the single vintage producers continue to be benchmarks of a specific time and place?
CHARLIE: “I recently attended a large English wine trade tasting last month and had an opportunity to basically taste just about every producer I’ve heard a lot about but hadn’t had the chance to sample before. This included producers who are raved about and receive lots of awards and buzz, and I have to tell you I found that many of the wines were a challenge… and I struggled specifically with the non-vintage cuvées. I guess it was mostly non-vintage bottles on the tables because this was a tasting of peers by peers and it wasn’t a tasting to generate sales. What I realised is that all those producers of whom I’ve heard such wonderful things; it’s all for their vintage wines. Those are the wines that are more complex and required more time and skill, and those are where English sparkling wine truly shines.
At the risk of sounding like an idealist, economic considerations are behind a producer wanting to make a wine to taste the same every year to a solid ‘recipe’, but it represents a shift whereby consistency for money is more important than the wine itself. You’re therefore then reliant on rather a large amount of reserve wine, because you’ve got to be able to save any terrible year. The goal becomes making a repeatable cuvée, however generic it is, and because of this, the price point is hugely impacted – the producer then pricing the wine as cheaply as possible to shift volume. My view of what happens is, as soon as you take that vintage date off the label, the market determines (and this is worldwide) that it is thereby a cheaper wine, even if it requires the same – if not more – amount of work.
I think the conclusion of this vintage conversation is that yes, there is a large volume of wine being produced in the UK (there is so much land under vine now we’re going to see a tidal wave of juice come in in the next couple of years) and people will have to shift it. But, if the boutique producers focus on quality over quantity, and are successful in getting that message across, they will be better for it.”
Q5: Finally, you’ve just launched a vertical flight of Lady Elizabeth, 2014, 2015 and 2016. Could you give one adjective to describe each of the three vintages – and then expand that a little?
It’s a very grown-up wine, and is the one where we decided on our Coolhurst style. We’re so proud of it, and there’s practically none of it left.
There is some serious fruit in that wine. It has the absolute best mouthfeel and it’s exactly what my palate loves.
Such a precise wine, my first words when we tasted it with our winemaker were that it is so refined and precise. Olly Smith tasted it recently and said, “2017 is so chiselled! Built to age with inspiring finesse and deliciously defined fruit. England at the apex.”
We are very proud to hear that!