Steven Spurrier at Bride Valley Vineyard, producing wine in the Dorset vales

Friday, 12 July, 2019
Dave March CWM
Everyone in the world of wine knows the name of Steven Spurrier. His 55 years in the wine business are well documented and fascinating reading.

He was a central figure in ‘The Judgement of Paris’ in 1976, the event that ‘revolutionized wine’ and the basis of the rather awful ‘Bottle Shock’ film. The ground-breaking event pitching Californian wines against the best of French was never meant as a competition, but an educational tasting - wine education being a central thread throughout Steven’s life (he is Honorary President of the WSET and founded L’Academie du Vin).  The effects of the New World ‘victory’ in 1976 were considerable, a Burgundy producer even refused to supply Steven with wine afterwards.

His own education in wine began in 1964 then later as owner of a small wine shop in Paris in 1971 with an advert in The Herald Tribune which said, ‘Your wine merchant speaks English’, “that was brave” I commented, “not really”, said Steven, “I knew what I wanted and worked to achieve it”)  and since then a plethora of judging roles (including some in SA, like The Old Mutual Trophy Show), wine ‘ambassador’ visits around the world, books, friendships with all of the industry’s great and good (Steven was about to go to dine with Remington Norman) and nearly every award you can think of (including consulting editor for Decanter for whom he has written more than 300 pieces). 

Much has been written of Steven’s adventures in wine, but I wanted to concentrate on his and wife Bella’s latest, their Bride Valley Vineyard in rural Dorset, England. It’s not really a new venture, they have lived in the beautiful Victorian Manor House for more than 30 years, but there wasn’t land, not enough for Bella’s horses, until acquisition of 200 acres of nearby rolling farmland saw them plant 25 acres of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, the classic Champagne triumvirate, using 13 Burgundy clones. “Did you ever think you would make wine, all those years ago?” I ask, “no” Steven quickly replies.

The fields of the farm are gently rolling, mostly South or South-West facing, and under the pastures was grapevine gold, Kimmeridgian chalk, limestone and some marl.  The actual village of Kimmeridge is a short drive away. Steven even took samples to France to show experts there and they guessed its origin as Champagne. So close to the ocean, frost isn’t a problem, but rain is, in 2012 they didn’t even harvest a crop because of it, and in 2017 mildew reduced their 30,000 bottles to 9,000. Normal harvest will yield around 50,000 bottles, under 20,000 and it’s doubtful any profit will be made, Steven rattles off the figures learnt the hard way, “when the yield is a quarter bottle per vine, it’s tough going”, he says. Any plans to increase the vineyards and thus the production, I ask, “no, none at all” he says. 

In good years, though, and 2018 was a good year, the harvest was so promising they made their first still wines from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the Chardonnay is white flower, lemony-lime and zesty fresh, no surprise with acidity at 7.5grms/l, “That’s what we get” says Steven, “we may chaptalise a bit, but no wood and always MLF”. 

Bella is closer to the wine growing, being a grower of all things at heart, and she wants honest wine, “everyone wants the soil to speak” and theirs does. If you are looking for New World tropical exotica, the Chardonnay isn’t it. Steven felt it has tones of Montagny, but that it was “very English in style”. Bella is happy that it reflects their home, and we agreed that “of course the flavour comes from the soil”.

Friend Ian Edwards at Furleigh Estate makes their wine and decisions are joint, especially at blending and dosage time, but I wondered how much time Steven can devote to his role in the marketing and business side, being in such demand - he was about to travel to London to present awards at yet another function. “Do you mind the constant traveling?” I asked, “not if there is a good reason and it is carefully planned”, he replies and standing beside the vines looking towards a sweep of bucolic Dorset countryside I could see the rewards of returning from travel. 

The wine range is limited to a Champagne method Blanc de Blanc, an apple bright and floral Brut style at 8grms RS, a red berry, faintly crimson tinged Rosé, named for Bella and a Crémant from all three varieties. The first two spend around two years on the lees. The still wines might occur again if the seasons permit, but Steven isn’t banking onit to happen (2019 has potential so far). The Crémant is interesting for its name, after all, Crémant wines are French, outside of Champagne, right? And many have 6 bar pressure, like Champagnes, which traditionally they didn’t have (Crémant means ‘creamy’ as they were less fizzy). Steven successfully applied for the right to call his English made, under 3.7 bar sparkler, ‘Crémant, and we wondered if others would follow.

After more than 50 years as a wine lover, writer, critic, judge and educator, Steven retains his passion for it all. Walking through his vines he caresses leaves, marvels at pre-flowering bunches, is excited for the next vintage and isn’t tired of sharing his story.

Talking of his friends, like Jancis Robinson MW, Eduardo Chadwick, Michael Broadbent MW (Steven’s mentor and the subject of his book, co-produced with Hugh Johnson, which is a touching tribute from them to Steven’s wine hero), most of the great European winemakers and producers and so many other luminaries, as well as the places, the wines, the stories he could tell, it could be overwhelming. But not a bit of it, Steven and Bella welcomed me despite it being a Sunday and shared wine and stories, in the old stables (now smartly prepared to welcome others for meals or events), surrounded by photos, pictures, momentos and awards dotted around the walls, garnered over those 50 years. Steven’s book of memoirs (‘Wine - a way of life’) ends with him as wine producer, or ‘poacher, turned gamekeeper’, he has, as Eric de Rothschild says, at last, ‘joined the club’.


Steven Spurrier
Steven Spurrier

Bride Valley
Bride Valley

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