Questioning their credibility should not even factor when discussing English sparkling wines any more. Dozens of vintages in, with hundreds of excellent wines tried and tested, arguments might still rage about their absolute place in world rankings, but not about their ability to deliver. Times, however, are still tough out there, with global competition. The wines are also relatively expensive, the product of the significant costs in producing wines in the South of England, from land-ownership, to labour.
Few have had the significant investment that Gusbourne Estate has enjoyed. Listed on the AIM stock exchange, funding for the estate in Appledore, Kent, has been raised from shareholders, with significant sums also ploughed into the business by its majority owner, former Tory party Chairman, Lord Ashcroft. Along with a winemaking team led by the highly respected Charlie Holland, that puts Gusbourne in a strong position to challenge at the very top of the English wine league. It’s staggering to think that exports to countries including the United States, Japan and Canada account for around 20% of sales: who would have predicted 20 or 30 years ago, that English wines would find markets around the globe?
Gusbourne estate was planted to vine only in 2004, though records for it date back to the 15th century. 2010 saw their first wines released, from their extensive 90 hectares, split between 60 hectares of estate vines in Kent, and 30 hectares they own in West Sussex, all planted on a south-facing coastal escarpment. An adjoining area of land in West Susex has been leased that, once planted, will take Gusbourne’s vineyard holdings to around 120 hectares, all planted with the classic Champagne grape varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks, but with a proportion in barrel, and all wines are aged for a minimum of 28 months on the lees, some considerably longer.
Gusbourne are primarily sparkling wine producers, but around 5% of production is of still wines, made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. With the effects of climate change seeming to produce a trend towards warmer conditions year on year, ripening has been good and, as well as being relatively light in alcohol, both of the wines tasted here are beautifully balanced and really very classy examples.
(2021) From the clay and sandy loam soils of Appledore in Kent, this all-Chardonnay cuvée comes from a very good year, the harvest completed by 7th October. A small percentage of the blend was fermented in older oak barrels, and it spent a full 42 months on the lees prior to disgorgement. The colour is an attractive pale gold, with a foamy mousse and plenty of very small bubbles rising steadily in the glass. There is a touch of buttery pastry, a fine biscuity and oatmeal sheen, and fruit that has a touch of rich figgy quality, but is mostly about fresh citrus and summer pears. In the mouth, despite a modest dosage of 7g/l, there is an abundant sense of sweetness from the ripe fruit. It's a lovely style this, not at all austere, yet precise and super-fresh.
(2019) The blend is 53% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay and 7% Pinot Meunier, with a small percentage fermented in oak barrels, and a dosage of 8g/l. Having spent 34 months on the lees there is a biscuity character aromatically, but really this is driven by the Pinot fruit, bold and lemony, though the bruised fruit complexity is there. On the palate the ripeness of the fruit from this vintage is evident, quite fat lemony fruit with a hint of peach, very good acids adding structure, and a nice earthy/yeasty savoury note too. A rounded, mouthfilling style and very good.
(2019) This wine was bottle in May 2011 and spent 90 months - seven and a half years - on the lees. It is composed of 68% Chardonnay, 22% Pinot Noir and 10% Pinot Meunier. It received a dosage of 9g/l. Savoury, reserved nose, nothing too toasty of developed aromatically, just a sheen of creaminess on the lightly nutty, firm stone fruit aromas. On the palate the dosage gives a hint of sweetness, but that's swept up in a rush of acidity, lemony and zippy, the extra time on the lees perhaps adding a rounded touch of light toast and cream again into an elegant finish with good length.
(2019) It's not just patriotism talking: this is fine Chardonnay, from selected fruit from the Boot Hill vineyard, whole bunch-pressed and fermented in French oak barrels (20% new), where it also aged for 10 months. Twenty percent of fruit was dropped mid-summer, to intensify flavour and concentration. Stylistically I guess it sits somewhere between Chablis with its 12% alcohol and cool-climate feel, and the Mâconnaise perhaps, that married to a creaminess and delicate but noticeable oak. There's flint and oatmeal on the nose, light almondy nuttiness and creamy orchard fruit. In the mouth that nutiness and delicate toast from the barrel matches up to firm, citrus and Cox's pippin fruit, the racy lemon and hint of salts in the finish adding to a sophisticated appeal.
(2019) From the Boot Hill vineyard, and selected Dijon and German clones of Pinot Noir, half of the fruit was dropped during the growing season to concentrate what remained. Matured for six months in French oak, 20% new, 80% older. There's a plump, ripe red fruit richness to this aromatically, a nice little floral, violetty touch too, and beneath an authentic hint of game or truffle just adding an extra dimension. In the mouth it is silky-textured and again there's a bit of slick, creamy richness to the red fruits. Good cherry-skin acidity and easy-going, fine tannins complete a very convincing picture.