Hoffmann and Rathbone 'Classic Cuvée', Sussex, England 2013

Hoffmann and Rathbone 'Classic Cuvée', Sussex, 2013.jpg
Hoffmann and Rathbone 'Classic Cuvée', Sussex, 2013.jpg

Hoffmann and Rathbone 'Classic Cuvée', Sussex, England 2013

from 39.95

The best sparkling wine in East Sussex!
(One day that sentence will sound a lot more impressive)

We think this is very exciting on many levels and we hope you will agree when you taste it. For years we have been tasting something tantalising when we have tasted English sparkling wines: potential. Admirable bottles of fizz made by plucky outsiders on England’s South Coast, occasionally making headlines when they outperform Champagnes in selected blind tastings or outdoing each other within the echo chamber of parochial award ceremonies (Joey Ramone was the best-looking member of the Ramones, but that doesn’t mean he was a looker!), but always viewed in relation to others.

A few weeks ago we tasted this wine, Hoffmann and Rathbone’s ‘Classic Cuvée’ 2013, a small-batch, traditional-method, vintage sparkling wine from East Sussex, and something new happened. We didn’t start thinking about whether it could fool a Master of Wine or scoop top honours at a village fête. Our thoughts stayed in the glass, completely taken in by the beauty of what we were tasting. It was all-consumingly delicious. Seductively toasty and luxurious in its biscuit and cracked nutshell aromas, towed along by silky quince and citrus flavours, and so elegantly proportioned and with such an ultra-fine bead of bubbles that it stood out unequivocally as a world class sparkling wine.  The only thing missing was a route to market and an appreciative audience.

So, last week we hot-footed it down to the small village of Mountfield in East Sussex to see what was going on (although not before our satellite navigation had led us up the wrong country lane and we had enthusiastically introduced ourselves to a baffled chicken farmer and his wife).

We met up with Ulrich Hoffmann, the owner and hands-on winemaker, who is involved in every little aspect of production from the hand-pruning of individual grapes within a bunch (that’s the sort of attention to detail that comes with small-scale production), to the remuage, the disgorgement and the hand-labelling of the bottles. Having worked all over the world from Napa to Navarra, including a 2 year stint at Bolney Estate in West Sussex, where one of the wines he made was served on the Royal Barge as part of The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, he says he finally feels at home on England’s South Coast with his wife, Brigit, the ‘Rathbone’ in Hoffmann and Rathbone, although he does still consult for a winery in Lebanon, which, he says, allows him to escape the British winters!

We mentioned that this was the first time we had tasted an English sparkling wine that had the depth of some of the richer Champagnes and he immediately cited Ruinart as his inspiration. Nothing wrong with a little hero worship, we thought, but he doesn’t go so far as to blend vintages to achieve consistency. All his wines are vintage and if the gods don’t play ball, he either makes a wine that reflects the character of the vintage or, as happened in 2012, he doesn’t make anything at all. It’s a risky business, especially when you throw the danger of frost into the mix too. This is only the third vintage he has released and he is rightly proud of 2013, a warm year that produced very healthy yields. So much so, that he was able to cut out any unripe berries from each bunch long before harvest, which has the ‘6-pointer’ effect of not only eliminating greenness, but, by reducing the amount of fruit in each bunch, it allows the vine to concentrate more flavour in the berries that remain. Think teacher/pupil ratios.

English sparkling wine is on a roll, achieving serious recognition at home and abroad, and some of the big Champagne houses have started snooping about (Taittinger have recently bought some land in Kent), but, for us, this is the biggest step forward on that journey and it’s very exciting to be able to offer a wine that could one day, possibly sooner rather than later, become synonymous with the very best this country has to offer… and you will be able to smugly say that you knew them before they were famous.

Tasting note: “Beautiful silver-gold colour, just the right depth to suggest healthy, concentrated grapes were involved, and a very fine bead of bubbles. Elegance and richness combine in its aromas of lemon shortbread, honeysuckle, hazelnut and quince. The palate is seductive and inviting, beautifully poised between the sweetness of yellow-fleshed stone fruits, the tang of grapefruit, the spice of stem ginger and the warmth of freshly-baked brioche (the wine is part-fermented in barrel and undergoes a full malolactic fermentation, which adds body and creaminess). The finish is long, fruit-coated, and the acidity stays completely woven into the fabric of the wine until the very end. 12% alc. Drink now-2023.”

Ulrich says that long aging is the key to managing the acidity in English wines, because time on the lees softens and changes the character of the acidity as it matures. This spent 3 full years on its lees before disgorgement and that time has worked its alchemy in conferring a complex autolytic character to the wine. It’s a blend of 60% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Meunier (hence the name ‘classic cuvée’). Whole-bunch pressed. Only 7 grams of residual sugar for the dosage (i.e. Brut). Very low sulphur indeed (10ppm free/60ppm total).

The grapes are sourced from two vineyards that lie 4 miles apart, but such is the nature of the microclimates within the rolling South Downs that they are harvested fully 2 weeks apart. The parcels are vinified separately before final blending.

Food pairing. There’s no point in stating the usual suspects, but I’ve done a little research of my own and tracked down a few leftfield suggestions from some of the more open-minded wine writers: Jaffa cakes, fish and chips, ready-salted crisps, hot dogs, chilli con carne and poppadoms.

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