Hambledon Vineyard is making some of the finest English sparkling wine and perhaps some of the best sparkling wine in the entire world. We had to taste it to believe it, so we visited the winery to check out the British bubbly in person.
We pinched ourselves as we approached Hambledon Vineyard in tiny Waterloo, just eight miles from Portsmouth, in Southern England. After jumping out of our rental car for a better view of the grape vines growing on a sloping hill, we looked at each other and asked one simple question:
“Are we in England or are we in France?”
The answer soon revealed itself. We were at a French winery hiding in England’s Hampshire County.
Hambledon Vineyard is firmly and proudly an English winery, but it has no shame in embracing a French connection that goes back to the 1950’s when winemakers from the Pol Roger Champagne House assisted with the vineyard’s original planting. Ian Kellet purchased England’s oldest commercial vineyard in 1999 and soon realized the similarity between his Hampshire vineyard’s chalky hills and the chalky terroir in Champagne. Kellet has since assembled a crack winemaking team helmed by a Frenchman, Hervé Jestin, and the results are nothing less than extraordinary.
After arriving for our private tour on a crisp summer morning, we quickly met our tour guide, Felix Gabillet, a young French winemaker from Tours. After completing his studies at a four-year winemaking program in France, he moved across the Channel to join the Hambledon Vineyard team.
Tour of Hambledon Vineyard
Gabillet introduced us to the grapes at Hambledon Vineyard. We ‘met’ Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes and learned how this part of England has a similar, if not better, climate to Champagne, France due to global climate change. Traditionally, the cool weather of the Champagne region has contributed toward the classic bubbly’s leanness. Hot weather can overripen classic champagne grapes by allowing them to over sweeten, muting some of the sparkling wine’s elegant, subtle aromas and flavors. While Hambledon Vineyard’s harvest is in October, three weeks later than in Champagne, the cool, occasionally sunny, English climate produces wonderful acidic fruit that lends itself to amazing subtleties on the nose – think mushrooms and fresh herbs.
Process for Making English Sparkling Wine
Hambledon’s magic also happens indoors. It’s only logical that the winemakers use the Champenoise method – a process requiring two separate fermentations. Unlike the process for making gin, as we learned during the Bombay Sapphire Distillery tour, making English sparkling wine is a fairly complicated process. We learned that Hambledon uses gravity during its wine making process, not a pump, and that the winemakers incorporate the malolactic process in fermentation to make the end product less acidic. The first fermentation of the wine happens in large steel tanks; the second occurs in the bottle.
In the Champenoise method, the second fermentation defines the winemaking process. Fermented wine is bottled with residual sugar, capped with metal bottle caps and allowed to ferment. Toward the end of the process, bottles are placed on a rack and riddled, or turned, forcing the wine’s sediment to rise toward the top of the bottle into the neck. Once the sediment has reached the top, the neck is flash frozen allowing that sediment to be removed. Finally, the bottles are cleared, more sugar is added and the bottles are corked.
During the October harvest, 50 to 100 pickers pick the grapes each day before the full grapes go into the pressing machine. Unfermented juice is then graded and separated by quality using the best the best tools known to the winemaker – their eyes.
Wine Tasting at Hambledon Vineyard
As fascinating as it was to learn about the process for making English sparkling wine, we enjoyed the last part of our private tour the best. Guided by Gabillet, we first tasted the vineyard’s Classic Cuvée made with 60% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier grapes. We also tasted the Première Cuvée with a combination of 60% Chardonnay, 24% Pinot Meunier and 16% Pinot Noir grapes. All the key elements were there – a mushroomy earthiness that meets stone fruits like apricot with just a touch of citrus acidity.
Sipping the English sparkling wine, we couldn’t help but imagine ourselves back in France. It was easy to do since this British bubbly was as good as any champagne we’ve tasted in the past, and maybe even better.
Feeling skeptical? In 2015, the Hambleton Classic Cuvée placed first in Noble Rot Magazine’s sparkling wine competition, beating French contenders including Pol Roger, Veuve Clicquot and Taittinger.
Hambledon Vineyard is located at East Street, Hambledon, Waterlooville PO7, United Kingdom.
Where to Stay and Eat after the visiting Hambledon Vineyard
After finishing your tour at Hambledon Vineyard, why not drive less than two hours to the seaside resort town of Brighton. We recommend you stay in the Perrier Jouet room at Blanch House where you can continue the sparkling wine theme both in your room and in the bar. Do consider Terre a Terre for dinner, a cheerful vegetarian restaurant with flavorful dishes and…more wine.
We thank Tourism Southeast, Visit Hampshire and Visit Brighton for their assistance with our visit to South England. We also thank the teams at Hambledon Vineyard, Blanch House and Terre a Terre for their generosity.