It felt mildly embarrassing. A member of the team from Black Chalk was trying to explain to me exactly where their Hampshire vineyard was as we sipped the fine, precise new 2020 vintage of their Classic cuvée. The Test valley, she offered? But while I am from southern England, my sense of Hampshire’s geography consists of little more than the A3 with Portsmouth and Southampton at the end. It was like trying to explain Champagne’s location to a Brit who vaguely knew where to find Paris and Calais.
Does it matter? Do you need a sense of place to enjoy a wine fully?
Most wine consumers have only a vague idea where on the map their glass comes from. They do, however, know Champagne – in marketing terms foremost a brand, despite being a geography and a group of terroirs. It is that identity that England’s producers are still looking for, even as their wine goes from strength to strength in quality and profile.
Perhaps simply being English will be enough for some. But “English sparkling wine” doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. So there have been some attempts to create a non-geographical English wine identity. Yet the mooted designations of “Merret” and “Britagne” have gone nowhere. A recent Twitter debate threw up suggestions including “Albion”, “Spenglish”, “Portsmouth” and “Britpop”: this isn’t going to work.
Or else producers can double down on geography. Since 2014, Vineyards of Hampshire has been running annual press tastings with the goal of putting the county on the wine map. Last month’s Hampshire tasting in London showcased ten producers. Quality was impressive. And over the three such tastings I’ve attended, I’ve enjoyed watching these producers, mostly still tiny by Champenois standards, grow steadily in ambition.
It’s hard to see a Hampshire style developing yet. Consider the range of approaches in three of my favourites: Hambledon’s new Première Cuvée Rosé NV (88% Pinot Meunier, long lees time), Hattingley Valley’s Kings Cuvée Rosé 2015 (100% barrel fermented and seven months in old oak barrels) and Exton Park RB45 Blanc de Blancs NV (100% reserve wines dating back to 2011, three years on lees).
Yet terroir sets the parameters of all these styles. And as the industry develops, and as producers increasingly use only their own grapes – Black Chalk’s 2020 vintage is their first such – regional differences will surely become more pronounced. Oz Clarke, author of the definitive English Wine, points out that south-westerly winds are cooler and damper when they hit Hampshire than by the time they reach Kent, where grapes can ripen a couple of weeks earlier – despite mostly growing on the same chalk.
“I do think differences are clearly showing, and I’m sure many are already to do with soil and weather,” says Clarke. “And I want there to be differences. One of the boring things about traditional Champagne was how you couldn’t tell enough about where the grapes came from.”
That still leaves the question of how Hampshire – or any wine region – creates a sense of place in wine drinkers’ minds. How far does mental geography matter?
For mass-market wines, probably not much. “Brand Australia” helped work wonders for sales of the country’s wines in the UK and elsewhere – but only as a vague sense of a place that is, as it were, both hot and cool.
But English sparkling wines are not going to be produced in large enough quantities any time soon to become supermarket favourites. And while I admit that have an intensely visual memory, I believe that for anyone with a more serious interest, a sense of a wine’s geography enhances your enjoyment of it.
Of course, local terroirs involve microgeographies beyond even many knowledgeable drinkers. I remember a light-bulb moment on my first visit to Burgundy when I properly grasped the complexity of the Côte de Beaune.
I had studied maps and tasted some of the wines. But only when I stood just below the treeline on the hill of Pernand-Vergelesses, looking across to the hump of Corton, did I understand the subtle variations of aspect laid out before me: how many hours’ extra sunshine a year ripened the Grand Cru grapes on the slopes of Corton versus those at my feet destined for village wines? And then in Meursault Premier Cru Les Perrières, where a few steps across a single-track road took me into Les Genevrières, quite different – and where 400 metres down the hill, the same Chardonnay grapes qualified only for humble AOC Bourgogne.
So part of the way to create a sense of place is to visit that place. Wine tourism in Hampshire and elsewhere in the English vineyards is still in its infancy. It is not helped by producers being relatively spread out, at least compared to wine areas in, say, the Rhône or Mendoza. Wine production does not – yet – dominate the rural economy of anywhere in England.
But while Winchester might not yet be the St Emilion of Hampshire, there are a growing number of wine tours available there. And English producers are generally more entrepreneurial in wine tourism and cellar-door commerce than their French counterparts: more Margaret River than Epernay.
For serious wine drinkers trying to get a sense of place, most of the time maps have to substitute for visits. This summer I will visit both Ribera del Duero and Rioja for the first time: I know I’ll come away from both with a greater appreciation of wines that I already love, better understanding both the lie of the land and local culture. Meanwhile, though, I can feel a road trip down the A3 coming on.
Photo by Scott Evans on Unsplash