‘Nyetimber often beats champagnes at blind-tasting competitions,’ Eric Heerema says of the sparkling wines produced by his winery in the south of England, which he has steadily expanded since taking on ownership in 2006. His goal: wines that can compete with the best in the world from traditional winegrowing regions such as Champagne.

For Eric, buying Nyetimber was a dream come true. ‘I’ve always been very interested in wine and cherished the ambition of becoming a producer myself one day,’ he says. In his head, he imagined himself in France or Italy, countries with a tradition dating back centuries. Fate had other ideas, however. ‘At the start of the century I was living in London and bought a farm in West Sussex. I planted a few vines and that’s how the idea of doing it on a larger scale was born.’

As part of that strategy, Eric wanted to take over an existing producer. ‘My first thought was Nyetimber. It’s a pioneer of English sparkling wine made from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes; the same varieties they use in the Champagne region.’ And so that’s exactly what he did.

‘Prosecco opened the way for higher-quality sparkling wines from less well-known regions, such as English Sparkling Wine.’

Eric Heerema
Photographs: Erik and Petra Hesmerg

Quadrupled

Unlike France and Italy, England has no centuries-old tradition of wine production. Yet winegrowing has really taken off, with the number of hectares of vineyards in England and Wales quadrupaling to around 3,500 in the last two decades. When Eric bought Nyetimber in 2006, the winery had less than 14 hectares; now it has 326. ‘We set to work planting more vines straight away, first in Sussex, then Hampshire and over the past few years in Kent too.’

Cool climate

Most English wines, like those produced by Eric, are sparkling. ‘Given the cool and fairly wet climate in England, sparkling is the only wine we can produce at world-class level,’ he says. ‘Champagne is the most northern wine region in France. In days gone by, it was simply too cold and wet to produce still wines, so they turned necessity into a virtue. In a cool climate, the grapes ripen slowly, and the growing season is longer, which yields greater complexity and finesse. Sparkling wines from warmer regions lack those traits.’

Global warming is bad news for the Champagne region. ‘Certainly, the southern part of the area is expected to get into difficulties if global warming continues.’ As Eric points out, it’s no coincidence that a number of champagne houses, such as Taittinger and Pommery, now produce grapes in England.

You can’t love what you don’t know. Unlike the major champagne houses, many of which date from the 18th and 19th-century, English sparkling wine cannot lean on tradition.

Photographs: Erik and Petra Hesmerg

Inviting Bordeaux

Eric taught himself to love wine. ‘My parents didn’t really drink wine. I started to read about it and go to tastings from the age of 17.’ He was initially interested in red wine and in particular Bordeaux. ‘That’s the most inviting variety when you’re starting out. Wines from the Bourgogne, Rhône and other winegrowing regions followed.’

Sparkling wines only entered the picture much later. ‘Perhaps I had to reach a certain age first,’ he philosophises. Another explanation could be that sparkling wine is synonymous with celebrations: most people drink champagne or sparkling wines on special occasions. ‘You’re often not really aware of what you’re drinking and it’s not always particularly good quality.’

More than a celebration wine

Yet sparkling wines are more than just for celebrations – something which Eric has seen a growing awareness of among consumers over the past few years. It began after the financial crisis: anything too decadent was deemed inappropriate, so guests were often given prosecco instead of champagne. ‘That opened people’s eyes to the fact that there’s more to choose from than just champagne. I call it the emancipation of the champagne drinker. People were open to other sparkling wines and started to take more notice of quality. ‘To many, prosecco meant becoming familiar with a sparkling wine that ferments in a tank. This process yields a wine that is less refined than those that ferment in the bottle, such as champagne.’ ‘But Prosecco opened the way for higher-quality sparkling wines from less well-known regions, such as English Sparkling Wine.’

Nyetimber has forged quite a name for itself in the UK. The Queen served its wine during her Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

Photographs: Erik and Petra Hesmerg

National pride

You can’t love what you don’t know. Unlike the major champagne houses, many of which date from the 18th and 19th-century, English sparkling wine cannot lean on tradition. In comparison, Nyetimber’s history as a producer of sparkling wine stretches back only as far as 1988, leading Eric to put a great deal of time, money and energy into building the brand. ‘The image has to match the quality of the wine,’ he says. It’s telling that nearly a quarter of the permanent employees work in marketing (around 20 people), which is highly unusual for a relatively small company like Nyetimber.

Photographs: Erik and Petra Hesmerg

Nyetimber has forged quite a name for itself in the UK. The Queen served its wine during her Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Not only is this recognition of the quality, it also underlines the pride the British (or in this case the English), take in home-grown products. ‘They have a strong sense of national pride and that’s why it’s so special to be able to bear the English flag.’ Eric wants to put Nyetimber on the map internationally but is aware that this won’t be achieved overnight. ‘You have to start from scratch in each new country. It’s a case of trial and error. Things go really well in some places and less so in others.’

The UK is, and for the time being will continue to be, by far Nyetimber’s most important market. The winery sold 350,000 bottles in 2019, 90 percent of those on the domestic market; by 2024, Eric expects to be selling a million bottles each year. If things go according to plan, Nyetimber will also turn its first profit around then, the first time since the acquisition in 2006. ‘I look to the long term and the losses are due to investment in the future.’

Winemakers

Quality assurance is in the hands of winemakers Cherie Spriggs and her husband Brad Geatrix. They generally work autonomously and decide, for instance, the best time to harvest and the correct composition of the wine. An additional guarantee of constant quality, says Eric, is the fact that all the grapes that Nyetimber processes come from their own vineyards. In comparison: the larger champagne houses depend on purchased grapes for over half of their production.

Photographs: Erik and Petra Hesmerg

Several hundred specialist pickers - ‘who pick their way around Europe’ - come to the vineyards at harvest time each year. Most are from Eastern Europe. How this will work once the UK has left the European Union is still unclear, although Eric is confident a solution will be found.

Nyetimber also has an eye for sustainability in all investments, says Eric, citing the bottles used as an example. ‘A conventional wine bottle weighs just over 900 grams but since 2008, we have been using bottles that weigh more than 800 grams. With this, we achieve a saving of at least ten percent on fuel consumption.’ Another example is the use of drones. ‘These allow us to accurately map the health of the vines and intervene row by row if necessary.’ The winery also limits the use of pesticides to the absolute minimum and shares knowledge with other English winemakers.

Mother nature rules

We talk to Eric in the week that the 2020 harvest gets under way. ‘It could well be a very good year,’ he says. ‘We’ve had lovely weather in England: very mild, lots of sunshine and not too much rain.’ Moreover, the vineyards have faced few problems from diseases such as botrytis, or grey mould. ‘We’ve had years in which we lost 40 percent of our grapes in the final stage.’ A late spring frost can also cause immense damage. ‘In 2016 and 2017, we lost half of the potential harvest in a single night.’ It’s an indication of the impact that nature still has on wine production in 2020, however modern the methods. ‘We do what we can, but mother nature rules.

To find out more about Nyetimber and their wines, visit NYETIMBER.

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