The English wine industry is maturing all the time, from the small hobby winemakers where it all began, to some significant companies today, with extensive vineyards and production, selling their wines in both the domestic and international markets.
Defined Wines might be a natural progression: they are a contract winemaking facility, producing wines from grapes their clients supply, which will eventually be brands which their clients will sell. Defined Wines does not have its own vineyards, and does not produce its own labelled wines: their job is to turn the ambitions of grape farmers and brand owners into reality. It’s a model that is common in ‘New World’ wine regions across New Zealand, California and elsewhere. It allows entrepreneurs to establish wine brands without the huge investment needed to build a winery and employ all the technology and personnel needed to see the whole winemaking process through.
Head Winemaker for Wine Defined is Kiwi Nick Lane, who worked for Cloudy Bay for 14 years before spending six years in the cellars of Champagne, working for Moët-Chandon among others. He has been in the UK for 18 months or so, and making wines for Defined Wines since the 2021 harvest. It’s a sizeable operation, crushing 600 tons in 2021 and that will be close to 800 tons in 2022. They work with 26 clients, who deliver grapes to them, and eight different brands for whom they produce wines.
Clients might have a vision of what they want to produce, but part of Nick’s job is to decide on the quality and nature of the grapes coming in and advise on what is possible. As well as making the wines, the company provides a full support package like laboratory services, storage and bottling. Based in Kent, many clients are local, but fruit does arrive from Sussex, Essex, Dorset, Hampshire and further afield.
With his experience in Champagne, Nick pointed out several differences between making tradtional method sparkling wine there, and in England. One big difference was in autolysis, a process that happens as the wines rest on the lees, yeast breaking down and releasing amino acids, proteins, and volatile compounds into the wine which add complex aromas, flavours and textures. Possibly because of the higher acid of English base wines, Nick finds autolysis is much slower to develop, so really they need an absolute minimum of two years on the lees.
All of the samples we tasted are unfinished wines from the 2021 vintage. The first is a sparkling base wine, the rest will be still wines. Nick says 2021 was not the easiest year, with a grey, wet and cold August, so getting ripeness was a challenge, as was making the wines. Nick was surprised to find very little botrytis – grey rot – given the climate in 2021, but says September turned out to be warmer than August, and the warmer weather continued into October when the harvest completed, in practice saving the vintage.
As stated, each of these is a sample of a work in progress, just to provide a snapshot of what brand owners in England are asking Defined Wine to produce for them. As samples, I have not scored the wines and none of these 2021s is on the market at time of review.
1. Cary Wine Estates, Sparkling wine base.
Field Blend of Pinot Noir 78% and Chardonnay 22%, from very young vines in a new operation that sits on an old cherry orchard. This base wine, which has yet to have its secondary fermentation, was made in 100% Stainless Steel. Young pear-droppy aromas, but a lovely roundness of rosy apple fruit with a tang of orange and lime. Will be put into bottle in June for second fermentation and will not go to market for another three years after ageing.
2. Yotes Court, Pinot Blanc
Made in 80% stainless steel and 20% seasoned French oak barriques, again there’s the pear-drop of youth, but it has a little creaminess and mealiness too, and a little smokiness (which could be a touch of reduction) but it adds some savoury complexity, giving this a ripe mid-palate, but fresh and tangy finish.
3. Heppington Vineyard, Pinot Gris
From chalk soils, this was made in 85% stainless steel and 15% seasoned French oak barriques. Ferment aromas, but now showing a hint of richness. Nick thinks this suits a little bit of residual sugar, 4 grams or so. Lots of fat, lemony juiciness here, seems to be very good concentration for such a difficult year, but has lots of interest.
4. Saddle Goose, Bacchus
From a more natural wine-orientated brand, fermentation started with ambient yeasts and this has some skin contact. It was made in stainless steel then seasoned French oak barrels for ageing. It’s not quite an orange wine, but does have some colour. Quite pungent, a lot of interesting aromas flirting with florals but also yeasty, higher notes. Lovely texture here, a bit of spice and grippy skin character, good fruit and twists and turns to the flavours into the finish.
5. Folc, Rosé
Pinot Noir 48%, Meunier 35%, Chardonnay 7%, Pinot Gris 5%, Bacchus 5%, Rondo 1%, Kerner 1%. Pale in a Provence style, very attractive with soft and delicate summer berry fruits, little watercolour paintbox floral top notes. It has a touch of sweetness, but is a pleasingly fresh and vibrant wine, with juiciness and a bit of real verve into the finish. Made in 100% stainless steel.
6. Heppington Vineyard, Pinot Noir
From clone 777 harvested at very low yields, fermentation in open top tanks then ageing in French oak (20% new). A little reductive at this stage, a slightly meaty note of reduction but there is a glimpse of the wines floral and red fruit character beneath. Really promising palate: this won’t be a blockbuster by any means, and there is a nice stripe of ripe tannin and plenty of acidity too, but there’s a prettiness to the fruit on the mid-palate that should move through nicely as the wine matures before its release.