Nestled in the bucolic surroundings of the rolling South Downs, Albourne Estate is picture-postcard pretty. Cresting the brow of an incline on the long driveway, the house, vineyard, outbuildings and winery suddenly appear below you, beautifully illuminated on the morning I visited by shafts of morning sunlight breaking through the clouds. As an attractive destination for a vineyard tour and tasting, it is definitely a winner. I hoped that the wines would be as striking; all the awards and accolades garnered by Albourne for their English wines and English Sparkling Wines strongly suggested that I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Before tasting, I wandered through the vineyards with Albourne winemaker Matt Brass. The vines looked in excellent condition, with decent bunch sizes and development. Interestingly, their Bacchus was yielding relatively less this year than other varieties, which Matt had heard on the grapevine (if you’ll excuse the pun) was occurring in a few other vineyards this year – the theory was that this variety did not do so well after a bumper year such as was experienced in 2018. [I have, however, heard other vineyards saying that it is another great year for their Bacchus].
The vines, planted over 10 hectares, are now 10 years old, and the estate is at capacity. There are no current plans for significant expansion. The existing plantings are just manageable by the incumbent team and increasing a little bit would require a disproportionate investment in extra staff, while increasing a lot to justify the extra employee is not physically possible, at the moment.
The soil in the vineyard is not actually the famous chalk that several other producers of English wine heavily promote in their marketing, but greensand – fast-draining earth that is also an excellent home for vines.
It is all very different to Matt’s last role, which was in a larger scale producer in California – much closer to his first role after graduating from Plumpton, which was working with Will Davenport of Davenport Vineyards.
Matt then took me to the winery, where a new tasting room is being constructed, to try some samples from tank and barrel. This experience always drives home to me that, although you cannot turn lead into gold, it does take immense skill and experience to take the raw ingredients and create the most balanced, expressive wine from them. It really is not, as some would have you believe, all about the terroir: and this should be obvious from the rise and fall of producers’ reputations as winemakers come and go.
The market dynamics are such that most of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir end up in their (excellent) sparkling wines, which is a shame as people are missing out on some potentially world-class English still wines. A sample from one Pinot Noir barrel in particular was stand-out, and I promised Matt that I would be first in the queue to buy several cases if they did bottle it.
Finally, we made it to the old tasting room to try some of the finished wine. Given that Matt’s first passion is making sparkling wine, he was probably a little disappointed in my focus on their still wines, although far too polite to show it.
We tried the Albourne Estate Bacchus 2018 first. Slightly reductive at first, to my nose, with a little aeration it blossomed beautifully, displaying the classic nettle and elderflower notes that the English expression of this grape is so renown for, married to crisp but not overpowering acidity and a long, fresh finish. This wine has subsequently been one of the most popular white wines we’ve served by the glass in our shop, garnering some rave reviews.
I actually preferred the Albourne Estate Sandstone Ridge 2018, a blend of Chardonnay, Ortega and Pinot Blanc. The Ortega adds a little bit more body, bolstered by judicious use of oak for some elements of the blend, and some more tropical notes, to the citrus and tart green apple notes that the Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc provide. It really does display excellent complexity but also wonderful drinkability for its price point.
The third still wine I tried was their Albourne Estate White Pinot Noir 2018. This unusual wine challenges the mind’s preconceptions with its translucent colour yet red berry aromas and flavours. Absolutely ideal for sipping well-chilled on a hot summer’s day, able to match up to more robust food pairings than many other white wines.
The Albourne Estate Single Vineyard MV is an excellent value traditional method English Sparkling Wine. At this price point, there are few rivals who can offer such a balanced wine that marries fresh and dried fruit aromas with panettone-like notes from the 24 months on lees, all carried by waves of lemon and apple acidity.
For the final flourish, Matt gave me a sample of the Albourne Estate 40 Vermouth, a semi-dry white vermouth with (the clue is in the name) 40 different botanicals in it, including saffron, camomile, cardamom, tea and rose petals. The complexity was sensational, and the integration of the flavours seamless. It was absolutely delicious just on ice, but clearly would make a fantastic cocktail ingredient.
So, that is The Albourne Identity – it may not be long before The Albourne Supremacy!
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