Dedicated to creating ‘ebulliently English’ wines, Ambriel Sparkling was founded by Wendy Outhwaite and husband Charles. Here, she talks to Wildflower about what goes into every bottle of her award-winning fizz
In the past decade, there’s been an explosion of vineyards sprouting up all over Great Britain. In the south, grapevines huddle along the chalk seam which runs from Champagne, under the Channel and along the South Downs, crossing through Kent, Sussex, and Hampshire. When Wendy and Charles planted their vineyard in West Sussex in 2008, they were deemed daringly eccentric. Now wine producers across Britain are considered mainstream as rural employers, exporters and wine tourism hosts. At last count, there were 770 vineyards with 165 wineries producing 10.5 million bottles a year.
Now, Wendy gives us a glimpse into the world of a British wine producer and explains how, through a passion for detail and a love for the land, her home-grown fizz is now internationally recognised as award-winning wines.
“Charles and I had done our fair share of sipping and slurping our way around many of the world’s wineries, and probably drank more than our fair share of ‘bottled sunshine’, but our first taste of English sparkling wine was life changing. It was heavenly. We were inspired to make something ebulliently English ourselves, so we ditched our professions, upped sticks to the sticks, and planted a vineyard.
If I’m honest, it was a lot harder than I’d anticipated. Perhaps it’s because I’m a ‘details’ person: you can change your career but not your personality. We insist on complete control from grape to glass, so life can be gritty and hard graft, but also glorious. While other owners may prefer a hands-off approach, we are determinedly hands on – and usually hands in. We didn’t give up so much in our former lives just to stand by and watch. A total maceration in wine is the fun part; it’s all about ‘Veni, Vidi, Vini’ – I came, I saw, I made wine. When our Ambriel Classic was chosen in Decanter’s ‘Wines of the Year 2020’ we were heart-burstingly proud.
We believe to make great English sparkling wine, you need GBP: not Great British Pounds, but Grapes, Blending and Patience. Patience is the most difficult. Wine fascinates me by constantly evolving. Simply leave it to age and it metamorphisises into something sublime: It’s mesmerising. At my age, anything that improves over time is inspiring.
Most people raise an eyebrow when they’re told our wonderful weather is perfect for growing grapes. Yet all the most flavoursome fruit is grown at the northernmost edge of where it can ripen properly. That’s why Scottish raspberries are so delicious; the slow ripening gently builds up flavour. It’s the same with grapes. Our goldilocks climate – not too hot, not too cold – means it’s warm enough to ripen grapes, but cool enough to retain the essential acidity that makes great sparkling wine. The wine needs acidity to age and evolve. Without it, wine tastes flabby and dull. Our sparkling wines (like most in Britain) are made using the Traditional Method, which is used to create Champagne. Then the wine rests for years in-bottle on the lees (dead yeast) in order to evolve toasty, nutty, utterly delicious flavours. I love our British backbone, because it’s what makes our fizz fabulous.
Britain is a wine-making parvenu, but we’ve had the chance to study the rest of the wine-making world and adopt its best practices. We are not over-regulated or tied by tradition so there’s room for some exciting experimentation. Most importantly, we have not exhausted the soil through hundreds of years of vine monoculture and can learn from the mistakes of others.
“I love our unique British backbone, it’s what makes our fizz fabulous”
Our vineyard in West Sussex is carbon neutral and, like many others in Britain, is managed sustainably with respect for the environment. Walk around the vineyard and you’ll find it is abuzz with wildlife, and grazed by Ouessant sheep in the winter. We’re determined that our green and pleasant land will stay that way. While Kermit complained “it’s not easy being green,” frankly there is no acceptable alternative. Shop local if you like, but the best reason to drink English sparkling wine is because it is delicious.
Today, English sparkling is king: 72% of wines produced locally are sparkling and usually made from the traditional troika of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, although some vineyards are experimenting with Pinot Gris, Pinot Precoce and German varietals. Nearly all Sparkling (98%) is made in the ‘Great British Classic Method’, effectively the Traditional Method, as Champagne is made, with a second fermentation taking place in the bottle.
From a still wine perspective, Bacchus has been hailed as the quintessential English grape, although it originated in Germany. It takes its name from the Roman god of wine and is a relatively young grape, first grown in the 1930s. Bacchus does well in our climate as it ripens early and produces a crisp white wine that is highly aromatic with a grassy, elderflower nose and tropical lilt: A perfect English summer wine. While cooler seasons tend to be unkind to red winemakers, some sensational British Pinot Noir has been produced in warmer years.
Of course for summer I would recommend a Sparkling English Rosé – it’s a garden party in a glass. Alternatively, you may want to explore some of the refreshing still wines on offer such as a Bacchus, or a 2018 British Pinot Noir; it’ll be light-bodied and light-hearted, with more strawberries on the nose than are dished up at Wimbledon.