Thank you to those who responded with their guesses last Friday. Just for fun, we released an image of a vineyard asking where its location might be. We had some very good guesses as well as a few that were a lot more extreme!
It was in fact a shot of the beautiful Hundred Hills estate in the Stonor Valley in south-east Oxfordshire, which was founded in 2013. I have tracked this project since its infancy and have been fascinated by the journey as much as the meticulous planning that has gone into establishing the vineyard and the winery. I have known Stephen and Fiona Duckett from way back, long before the idea of founding an English sparkling wine estate had gripped them. Stephen has always been a methodical person; but that isn’t at the cost of foresight. When he told me that they had explored well over 100 different sites located in dry chalk valleys across southern England before settling on a run down 50-acre farm in the Stonor Valley, I wasn’t surprised. A clear point of differentiation is that Hundred Hills is a wine estate by design; the Ducketts explored possible locations across the UK, sending soil cores off to be analysed in a laboratory in Champagne and assessing climatic data before committing. If the data and analyses had led them to the other side of the country, that’s where they would have been located – they had the intention from the outset of producing a great sparkling wine, not just another English sparkling wine.
So why the Stonor Valley? Firstly, the chalk here is particularly thick ensuring that the vines would need to work hard to establish themselves and therefore direct their energies into fruit production rather than vine growth. Secondly the nature of the valley is such that it allows cold air to flow down the slopes and away from the vines, which mitigates the frost risk posed in English vineyards. Thirdly, the site is surrounded by dense woodland, which serves to trap warmer air to the benefit of the vines and fruit ripening in a marginal climate. Fourthly (not sure I have ever typed ‘fourthly’ before!) the woodland and steep-sided valley protect the vines from the predominantly south-westerly winds of the British Isles. And fifthly (I have never typed ‘fifthly’ before) the orientation of the vineyard means that at harvest time, which can be mid-October in England, the vines benefit from the early morning sunshine, which reduces the dew and assists the health of the fruit. I think from these few comments you will understand that there is something unique about this site. The French use the word ‘terroir’ to encompass all influences on a specific vineyard site; a very good terroir being a site that has numerous natural benefits. Hundred Hills is a very good terroir.
I remember explaining the outline of Stephen’s project to a grower in Champagne – he was fascinated and asked about the size of the estate, I told him it is just over 20 hectares (a hectare being roughly 2.47 acres) and he turned rather pale. He himself had just under nine hectares in an outlying Champagne district and none was classified Grand Cru! The idea of establishing a sizeable vineyard on a relatively blank canvas offers huge benefits – that is what this grower easily grasped. Hundred Hills is planted with 67,000 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines, all sourced from a nursery in Champagne. They are located in ten individual plots on both slopes of the valley, either side of the winery. The clones (a topic we have discussed in various emails this year) have been very carefully chosen in relation to the soil and aspect of each plot, the fruit from each of which retains its own unique identity until final blending. There will be no specific approach to the wines produced each year, sensible in a vineyard that is establishing itself. Different parcels may come to the fore over time and demonstrate specific qualities – the range of wines produced will be dictated by the vineyard. Interestingly, there will be no Non-Vintage wines made at Hundred Hills – Stephen prefers to see the character of each year represented in the wine and judging by his first releases, detailed below, that is a smart decision. It is also worth stressing that Stephen is only retaining the very best fruit from the estate; the rest is being sold off to different houses who assemble blends supplemented by purchased fruit.
It is one thing to have the foresight and to conduct such painstaking analyses, to be intent on getting things right, but it is another to recognise that you need great advice on hand if you are setting your sights high. Stephen credits the late Dr Michel Salgues as having been a major influence on Hundred Hills. Dr Salgues was born and raised in Champagne and was a hugely respected agronomist and oenologist, having worked for Louis Roederer for over 19 years. Dr Salgues is regarded as having been ‘instrumental in the pioneering ambitions of Roederer Estate’, Roederer’s Californian project in the Anderson Valley. It is little wonder that when news broke that he was consulting Hundred Hills, Champagne critic Tom Stevenson tweeted ‘one to keep an eye on, especially with Michel Salgues consulting!’.
Critics are yet to taste, but before the second lockdown, Richard and I made a timely visit to the estate to taste the first five releases. At this juncture I should make a couple of points clear; I consider myself something of a champagne nut – I get a buzz from grower Champagnes from specific vineyards over and above wider scale blends. You might think I would be predisposed to Stephen’s project, but while I have always appreciated the potential of English vineyards to produce world-class sparkling wines to rival Champagne, I felt that potential would be realised considerably further down the track. I have tasted a good number of English sparkling wines, and without the patriotic blinkers, I have never seen fit to recommend them to our clients. Managing the acidity that is inherent in English wines on account of our marginal climate is tricky – all too many English sparkling wines possess a nervy, bracing acidity, a leanness to the fruit and characters that are all rasping apple and little beyond. I hoped for something different from Hundred Hills, or it might have made for a very awkward visit given my personal connection! I am glad to say that even my highest expectations were surpassed – if we had stopped tasting at wine number 2 in our line up, we would have proclaimed it an amazing success. By the end of the tasting I was simply blown away. If I harboured a little bit of envy when I saw the estate established, the Larkin envy dial sits somewhat higher after the tasting. We have since tasted once more with the whole team at Atlas, managing to sneak in a tasting just before lockdown.
Before you read my tasting notes on the two wines we are offering today, I thought I should make a few comments on the style of the wines. I was surprised to encounter riper fruit characters than I have before in English wines - this is due to the long ripening season permitted by the site. It has delivered all sorts of nuances of stone fruit – nectarine, yellow plum, apricot all appeared in my notes. The wines are impressively pure and persistent – again this is surely influenced by the health and ripeness of the fruit and the fact that Hundred Hills employs the very best of the fruit from their vineyards. The style is luxuriant, and this is created by the mousse – soft, layered and expansive, this aids the sense of roundness that the wines possess. I said at the outset that Hundred Hills is a winery by design. The same forethought has gone into the winemaking, with Stephen and the team thinking very carefully about the tools and techniques that could be employed to ensure his wines have a mid-palate texture and breadth atypical of the wines of these Isles. The use of oak, the use of bâtonnage and a slow secondary fermentation have all contributed in creating wines with a sense of roundness and luxuriance, while the avoidance of malolactic fermentation allows a dynamic freshness to counterbalance the textural richness. The very best fruit coming from an impressive vineyard sensitively handled is a great recipe for success, and that is why these wines stand out. They are extraordinary.
This is the first of two offers and will focus on two specific wines that have the potential to age for up to a decade – remarkable given that 2016 was Hundred Hills’ first vintage. That said, I don’t want you to blithely accept my recommendation and tuck a three-bottle case in your reserves; I would urge you to take delivery of a case and taste for yourselves and validate my views – you should also tuck a second into reserves for further maturation. It is fascinating to taste wines from a location in their first vintages without any specific sphere of reference. A completely unique experience.
2016 ‘First Edition’, Hundred Hills
£150 per 3 bottle case in bond
The aptly named ‘First Edition’ was the only wine made at the estate in 2016. It is an equal blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Only the best bunches were selected, with a harvest date of 20th October – a very long season, ideal for maturity. The Chardonnay component comes from a single plot at the top of the west-facing slope opposite the winery. The Pinot Noir largely comes from an easterly-oriented slope just to the north-west of the winery. The base wines were aged in oak and bâtonnage (stirring of the fine lees) was employed once per week for two months. It was aged on its lees in bottle for 48 months and disgorged in May 2020.
Deeper in hue than the Blanc de Blancs, immediately signalling the Pinot Noir component, the aromas of bruised apple are supported by riper nuances; juicy nectarine and subtle almond pâtisserie notes. A really harmonious style, where the Pinot Noir certainly lends weight and backbone, as well as hints of sappy red fruit. There is no denying those nectarine/apricot nuances that seem particular to the estate, and they broaden the palate with a discreetly creamy intensity. There is an impressive sense of proportion to the 2016 and yet it is still holding something in check. Long, focused, taut with chalky nuances coming to the fore – this is more classical in style than you might expect. A hugely impressive first vintage, and while I enjoy tasting it now, and it can be enjoyed now, I can’t wait to see how it will evolve in bottle as I believe it will age incredibly well. You can see why the first disgorgement has been limited, allowing a proportion to continue to age on its lees. This is refined, pure and mineral – what a stellar wine this is. 2021-2030+ (SL)
2017 Blanc de Blancs, Hundred Hills
£150 per 3 bottle case in bond
Taken exclusively from the same parcel of Chardonnay employed in the 2016 First Edition. The base wine spent two to three months in cask with bâtonnage as above. Aged on its lees in bottle for 30 months and disgorged in March 2020.
Pale green gold in the glass with a fine bead of bubbles, the aromas suggest white flowers, with hints of ripe stone fruit; nectarine, apricot and a discreet creamy, pâtisserie note. The fruit on the palate is so pure, crystalline if you like – there is a taut, energetic feel to the palate, but it is offset by more notably ripe fruit characters than you expect, with juicy, intense notes of tangy yellow plum, greengage, nectarine and just a gentle rasp of Cox’s apple, all the while underscored by a chalky, mineral nuance. Creamy, freshly-baked pâtisserie notes lend complexity to this strikingly pure Blanc de Blancs. I noted that it simply refuses to fade, showing an uncommon persistence of flavour that would put many wines in the wider category to shame. Such a fine example, showing the benefits of an extended season – riper fruit notes backed by scintillating, but not obtrusive acidity. A truly remarkable first release. Drink 2021-2028. (SL)
I think you will be as fascinated as me by these two releases from Hundred Hills and I feel certain that this is a name that you will hear more about over the coming years. These first releases are staggering – I can’t put it any other way.
Please let us know of your interest and do heed my comment above regarding broaching a bottle in the coming months and storing a further case. I will be interested to see what you think.
All the best,