Forget Beaujolais Nouveau, England has produced its own vin de primeur for decades, writes Dan Farrell-Wright
Harvest time is well under way in the vineyards of England. In Kent, Balfour started harvesting Chardonnay on September 20, in Devon, the team at Sandridge Barton started to bring in the Pinot Noir Précoce on September 21, and in West Sussex, Artelium started on October 3. The sunshine in August suggests that 2022 will be a high-quality vintage, even if low rainfall may mean low yields.
Grapes are a relatively new commercial crop for the UK, but for the established wine regions of the northern hemisphere they have been around for thousands of years. Vineyards swell with additional workers at harvest time, supplying the extra hands needed to get the grapes in at their best. Once the work is done it’s customary to celebrate with a glass of wine from the first grapes picked during the harvest – known in French as vin de primeur – of which the most famous example is Beaujolais Nouveau.
As a regular feature of the wine calendar, it’s hard to believe that it was only just over 60 years ago, in 1961 that Beaujolais Nouveau wines appeared on the market, when a canny marketeer called Georges Duboeuf saw their mass-market potential. Beaujolais Nouveau Day, which takes place on the third Thursday in November, is now an international celebration of the most recent harvest. It is the first chance consumers get to taste the vintage and to discover its potential. But Beaujolais Nouveau is not alone. England has a nouveau of its own.
Since 1999 Sharpham Wine has been making New Release, a wine which in many ways is similar to Beaujolais Nouveau. The grapes are picked, pressed, and vinified in around six weeks to create a fast, fun, fruity wine which is ready to drink immediately. Unlike Beaujolais the wine is white, vinification is in stainless steel rather than concrete tanks, and there is no carbonic maceration.
Towards the end of October head winemaker Duncan Schwab tastes his way around each tank in the winery, looking for the most approachable wine, “when I think, I could drink a bucket of this, I know that’s the one” he explains. Often this will be 100% Madeleine Angevine (the same grape used in their entry level still white, Dart Valley Reserve), though in some vintages this may be blended with up to 5% Bacchus to give more depth.
The first New Release vintage was a reaction to the French decision not to take English beef after the BSE ban was lifted. It was a way to support the local farming community, the thought being “if they won’t take our beef, we won’t take their wine,” says Duncan. For a young vineyard the quick conversion of grapes into cash was an added bonus – it can take between three and five years to get a return when making sparkling wine.
In a nod to the Beaujolais Run initiated by Sunday Times columnist Alan Hall in 1973, there was also a race. Teams of Sharpham wine drinkers from local pubs, sporting fancy dress, had to collect their New Release from the old winery on the Sharpham Estate. They then raced the 2.5 miles from the vineyard quay on the banks of the River Dart to the Steam Packet Inn in Totnes. The rules stipulated that two modes of transport had to be used and that they must be exotic, exciting, and eccentric. Thus, a motley fleet of boats, dinghies, canoes, bicycles, carriages, and horses were employed to cross the finish line – at which point much New Release was enjoyed. After a few glasses, the event finished with all the participants rolling a barrel of New Release a further half mile up the steep incline of Fore Street to the Totnes Wine Shop.
Maybe it was the hedonism or maybe it was the potential for a health and safety disaster that meant the race only ran for four years, but the tradition of making an early wine continued. 2022 will be the 24th vintage of New Release.
On Beaujolais Nouveau Day (November 17) Wickhams will host an an online tasting event of two Beaujolais Nouveau wines and the latest Sharpham New Release. Tickets can be bought here. You can pre-order the Sharpham 2022 New Release for £14 per bottle (or £12.60 as part of an any six mix deal) via Wickhams.co.uk