I had been looking forward to tasting these wines for quite some time, in fact, ever since I saw Stephen Duckett’s beaming smile at the conclusion of the 2018 harvest.
Stephen is the owner and winemaker of Hundred Hills in the Stonor Valley in south-east Oxfordshire, which was founded in 2013. As I have written before, ‘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’.
The Hundred Hills journey has been catapulted further forward by the 2018 vintage – of that there is little doubt. As Stephen commented three years ago, ‘the 2018 vintage will be a reference point vintage for English wine’ thanks to the near ideal conditions. Given this was a few years back, it is worth recalling that the Met Office recorded 2018 as the warmest summer in England since detailed records began in 1910! After an unusually warm May, temperatures touched 30 degrees Celsius in June, as the country basked in a glorious summer with customary hosepipe bans. A little rain at the end of August was much need, increasing berry size and pushing the fruit on to full ripeness. A hallmark of Hundred Hills is the long hang time they achieve: in basic terms, the duration the grapes can stay on the vine to reach optimum maturity. In 2018, the autumn was dry and unproblematic, so the grapes remained on the vine for between 102 and 110 days, enabling hints of those riper, stone-fruit flavours and aromas that already seem part of the Hundred Hills signature to develop.
If you would like to read more background on Hundred Hills, please follow this link to my previous introduction.
Stephen’s pride and enthusiasm for the 2018s is fully founded. Low acidity is not an issue in English vineyards; in cooler years, wines can show a racy, almost bracing acidity in their youth. On account of the conditions in 2018, the acidities are a touch lower, the ripeness is such that a wonderful balance is struck with fine depth of fruit. Unsurprisingly, the 2018s are the most complete wines I have tasted from Hundred Hills. Their inaugural 2016 release was and still is staggering, the 2017s showed a ripeness uncommon to a cool year, and frankly uncommon to English wines, and the 2018s move up a notch in purity and poise, with depth that comes from riper year. There is a classicism about these wines, which relates to how the balance has been struck. I think the 2018s could be enjoyed earlier than their 2017 counterparts in most instances, given the generous fruit and lower acidity (note lower not low, all things are relative), but those character traits will certainly not preclude these wines ageing gracefully for many years to come; it is all a question of balance.
The new releases feature the follow up vintages to the 2017 Blanc de Blancs (made from one distinct parcel of Chardonnay) and 2017 Preamble No 2. Initially the Ducketts intended to use the Preamble name for a series of first releases, but given how well it showed and sold, they have now decided to make one Preamble every vintage in the style of the 2017 Preamble No 2. This wine aims to showcase the stone-fruit characters that the ripest fruit in the vineyard attains. And then, we have the first release of the stunning Rosé de Saignée, a wine that is sure to turn some heads. This is a tiny production, just 600 bottles were made in 2018, and it is possibly the most extraordinary English sparkling wine I have ever tasted…more on that below. We have been fortunate enough to wrestle a good allocation away from the team at Hundred Hills, who had one eye on holding it back!
Please note that none of the following three releases went through malolactic fermentation. All the wines were aged on their lees in bottle for 30 months before disgorgement, and the dosage on each is between 5 and 6 grams per litre.