Furleigh Estate, revisiting ‘Quality English (Sparkling) Wines’ and ‘Ten Mile Menus’

Friday, 30 August, 2019
Dave March CWM
Seven years ago I visited Ian Edwards and Rebecca Hansford at Furleigh Wine Estate just miles from the Jurassic coast in the bucolic dales of Dorset, England, just as English wines were on the rise and gaining recognition worldwide.

The aim was to see how a smallish family run winery with 22,000 vines produced award winning sparkling wines and a popular Bacchus white, some of which was gently oaked as fumé.

Seven years later I wondered how different it would be, would it be twice the size, involve more technology or a wider wine range?

Obviously some things can’t change, just seven kilometres direct from the coast they sit on free-draining sandy loam, like the southern L’Aube region of Champagne and though the climate has a maritime influence, frost can be devastating at budburst. Much larger Denbies Wine Estate is known to use their burners in the vineyards frequently during spring. Disease and poor weather can still cause havoc, in 2010 there was no harvest here. Bird netting and rabbit protection are common, deers are frequent hungry visitors, too.  Ripening needs a long season, often into November (that’s May in SA), chaptalisation is frequent as many harvests will yield alcohols at around 10% (Rebecca says 12% alcohol in a Chardonnay “would be high”, the 2017 has 10.5% alcohol) and with acidity often initially topping 20grms/l, MLF and cold stabilization are the norm. The 2017 Chardonnay had 9.9g/l acidity and 12 g/l RS to balance it. 

Little evidence of localised global warming then, no Cabernet Sauvignon plantings, no guaranteed ripening –sometimes maybe not even a crop.

In fact, not much had changed. No new acres planted, no new varieties, no racks of new oak barrels, thoughI don’t remember any American oak in the winery as now (a touch of old wood is used in the red blend). Exercise classes in the vineyards and pop-up dinners with celebrity chefs are now on offer, but the approach is still simple, Ian and Rebecca are happy to just keep doing what works.

Production can be just a few thousand bottles, or 120,000 bottles as in 2018, but there are no plans to expand, “you don’t plant vines to earn a living”, says Rebecca. 

It seems that despite healthy bottle prices (a reasonable sparkling wine will cost around R400-R500) and international awards, English wine producers have the same profitability nightmares that others around the world do. I heard that one internationally renowned producer in Southern England, with Trophy wines to its name, was losing more than R70million a year. Rebecca laughs at the idea of making a healthy profit, especially as initial investments are so high (most winery equipment comes from abroad). “It’s difficult explaining to a Bank why you won’t sell sparkling wine sitting on its lees during tough times, they don’t understand the idea, especially of it being held for several years before sale, they see it as potential income to be realized immediately”.

The vineyard is familiar, forming a delightful vista from the couple’s farmhouse cottage, flowering is beginning, Pinot Meunier standing boldly grey amongst the green. I asked why pruning doesn’t occur much later to delay budburst to avoid frost threats, “pruning takes a long time”, explained Rebecca, “the cane pruned le taille trellising means a lot of work per vine, it takes weeks (most help is by friends and volunteers) so they have to start early, straight after leaf-fall and before Christmas”, that’s June in the Southern Hemisphere. Harvests (by hand) also linger, at around five weeks of picking time. 

Furleigh Estate have added two still wines to their range, a lemony, floral crisp Chardonnay and a white Pinot Noir. Rebecca said I was not the first to exclaim “why?” About a Pinot Noir blanctable wine. It comes from the press after the cuvèe is taken for the sparkling wines so has no skin contact colour. It had some weight and depth and a lovely nose, not red berried, but with fruity tangerine and greengage. Rebecca says it is good to be able to offer more than just sparkling wines at the cellar door. It was nice to hear the delicious Bacchus Fumè was still a favourite, Bacchus has “typically English” notes she says. “Is it easy?” I ask, “no, it’s difficult in the vineyard and in the cellar”; very English, I thought.

The Vintage Blanc de Blanc remains, as does the Classic Cuvée Brut, also Vintage, which is classic indeed, and a wild berry fruited, irresistible Rosé (the colour is added from Pinot at dosage) but the 2014 Blanc de Noir was my pick, all elderflower, hazelnut and peach, rich and still fresh and not yeasty despite three years on the lees (though not made every year). Rondo still added its rustic earthy kick to the ‘Tyrannosaurus Red’.

Maybe the biggest change is with the consumer. 

As in South Africa, people are looking local, there is a concern with ‘air miles’ collected by produce and their environmental effects. A sense of place is important, a wine’s origin is almost as important as price it seems. A trend is for restaurants offering ‘10 mile menus’ where everything on the menu, including the wine, is sourced within ten miles (16km). Chefs are important in driving the message and sommeliers very much so. Many wineries are selling much of their stock to local on trades. A village winery with a local chef can sell out an evening of a ‘20 mile menu’.

However, a sense of place is not so clear cut under EU regulations. Rules now allow for Wine of England (aka‘Product of England’) wines to be ‘British Wine’ (no regional basis and won’t be from Britain and is imported grape juice) or ‘English Regional Wine’, which are PGI, or quality ‘English Wine’ (PDO), unless it has non-European non-vinifera grapes in it, in which case it must be labelled ‘Varietal Wine’ (not PDO or PGI and ‘English Wine’ mustn’t appear on the label ) although many hybrids have been given honorary quality status (like Rondo). Lastly there is just ‘Wine’.

Clear as mud. 

Furleigh Estate offer wines that are very English, there is a linearity, bright steeliness and crystalline flavour profile running through them all. An acid backbone is always present and their floral notes, delicate stone fruit hues shine, even after four years on the lees, very much reflecting ‘a sense of place’. Undoubtedly, Furleigh are producing ‘Quality English Wine’. 

www.furleighestate.co.uk

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