Philip Day discusses Westwell Wines of Kent and pays close attention to their incredible sparkling wines.
This detailed review of Westwell Wines includes the history, viticulture and wines of this Kent based company.
Westwell Wines is a small family company, whose sole aim is to produce handmade wines of exceptional quality.
It is perfectly located on the chalky slopes of the North Downs just beneath the Pilgrims Way, near Ashford, Kent, a route used for centuries by Pilgrims travelling to Canterbury. The 45 acre (18ha) estate has some 5.5ha currently planted to vineyard, located in a position of between 100-130m above sea level on a south-south-westerly aspect.
The vineyards are pleasantly located close to one of England’s most cherished and picturesque landscapes that has been officially designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), with the views from the top of the North Downs stretching out to the Romney Marshes on the South Coast.
The chalky slopes of the North Downs endow the English sparkling and still wines produced there with a fresh minerality in their character from the grapes grown solely on the estate.
Westwell Wines has a historical background of wine-making – on his Italian mother’s side of the family, through whom, the owner, John Rowe, has inherited viticulture and wine-making knowledge and skills that have been passed down from one generation to another. He decided to revive this family tradition and put his knowledge to use in sparkling wine production, under cool climate viticulture conditions. His personal mission, shared by his wife Rids, is to create the ultimate English sparkling wine. Consequently every decision taken by the couple is based on whether it will drive better quality & complexity in the finished wine…
John Rowe is ably capable of transferring many of the skills he has acquired in his commercial career to achieve his aim. He works for Procter & Gamble for over 15 years, undertaking a variety of roles that included manufacturing, process engineering, packaging design and optimisation. This also included supply chain capability work with both global packaging suppliers and national retail customers advising on and designing manufacturing and Quality Assurance capability systems in a number of packaging and industrial applications to reduce costs, improve efficiency and minimise quality issues. He has also been one of the driving forces behind the AuditOne packaging certification requirements being adopted by many major global packaging suppliers and brand owners.
It took almost three years of searching for exactly the right location for the vineyard, one that offered the ideal mix of geology, aspect and soil properties to produce the most interesting flavours from the varieties he decided to plant.
Established in 2007, after many years of planning, Westwell Wines with its perfect location by the Pilgrim’s Way on the chalky slopes of the North Downs near Ashford, in Kent, means that the geology of their vineyard is very similar to that of the Champagne region. (It has the same prized chalk stratum that runs from Northern France to Southern England, broken only by the English Channel.)
The chalky soil and premium clones lends the wines a fresh, fruity, mineral character from the grape varieties grown on the estate.
English Quality Sparkling Wine PDO
Westwell Wines (John and Rids Rowe)
Total: 18 hectares (45 acres) (5.5ha/13.6 acres planted)
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier & Ortega
Special Cuvée Sparkling
Pelegrim Brut NV
Special Pink Sparkling
Blanc de Blancs Sparkling
Ortega Classic Ferment
Ortega Classic Pink
‘Naughty Hare’ Chardonnay
‘The Philosopher’ desert wine
Six classified soil geologies on site, offering a variety of flinty or sandy silt-loam soil layers, above a chalk sub-stratum,
Around 10,000 bottles of sparkling wines a year, plus a number of still wines.
|Top Vintages Produced
(Special Cuvée): 2010, 2011, 2014
All the wines produced by John and Rids Rowe are made solely from grapes grown on the Westwell Wines estate simply because the couple want to have complete oversight and control of the entire process from grape to glass. Only by micromanaging each phase can they ensure that only the best fruit is selected for each of their wines that truly reflect and embody the individual personality of the land on which the grapes have been grown.
Four varieties of grapes are grown on the estate; three destined for sparkling wines (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) are planted in just over 9 acres (3.6 ha) and a further one (Ortega), grown over 4 acres (1.6 ha) for their still wines.
Additionally, for each variety, several premium clones were selected to maximise the complexity and choice for the sparkling wine blend.
There are six classified soil geologies on site and each variety and clone has been planted according to its best suited position.
The Chardonnay vines are situated on shallower chalky soils where flint proportions are the highest but their location also ensures they capture the evening sun best and have flints to radiate heat at night. This enables the Chardonnay vines, the longest maturing variety, out of the four, to break bud earlier offering them the best chance of ripeness.
The Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are grown in sandy/chalky soil, while the Ortega vines are planted in the sandiest, most sheltered spot to fully develop its fruity aromatic style.
Beneath these flinty or sandy silt-loam soil layers, lies a chalk sub-stratum, similar to that in Champagne. This provides both excellent deep drainage and gentle moisture to the vines even in the driest of summers. It also gives mineral characteristics to the wines, accentuating the fruit profile. Additionally because the soils generally contain high proportions of flint, this aids drainage while retaining the heat of the day, before radiating it back during the night.
All the wines made by husband and wife team John and Rids Rowe, make use of the latest equipment, following a low interventionist approach to express the wine’s origin as much as possible.
In order to reduce the amount of protective sprays to a minimum, they utilise weather station data for disease modelling. Additionally they try to maintain a balanced surrounding ecology that includes meadows, trees and cover crops. Special blends of grasses and clovers have been planted to fix nitrogen as well as encouraging a good variety of natural fauna in the soil.
All their vines are trained on what is termed a high VSP (vertical shoot positioning) trellising system. The double Guyot technique, is their pruning method of choice, under which, a new cane is made to burst bud and produce fruit on it each year before being removed and replaced with another. This yearly ‘rejuvenation’ of the vines guarantees the highest quality and delicacy of flavours in the grapes, even if the process is more labour intensive.
All of the gains made in the vineyard are further maintained through to the wine making stage, employing modern specialised equipment.
All the grapes are hand-picked at the optimum time for each variety or clone, to enable selection during harvest. Hand-picking also allows for gentle pressing within a specialised Wilmes press. The juices are handled minimally, being transported either by gravity or using gentle pumps. A small proportion of the base wines for their sparkling wines are fermented and aged in 4-6 year old Burgundian barrels. Barrel fermented Ortega is also used to add texture to the tank fermented Ortega still white.
A UK first is the use of handmade Amphora for fermenting and aging wines. A 500L Amphora, from the same artisan who makes them for Chateau Lafite, Chateau Pavie and Champagne Selosse, is being trialed to see it can add further dimension and complexity to their wines.
Once the Rowes have a good understanding of each sparkling wine base, they are blended to create a vintage-based blend adding some of the reserve wine kept back from preceding years to add further complexity and balance. The style of sparkling wine aimed for is fresh and rounded because more Pinots are included in the blend than is typically used by other producers.
Some of the wine from the best parcels are held back for blends in following years. A further significant amount is stored under light pressure in magnums for later use in a Prestige Cuvée. All of their sparkling wines are built for some ageing and will continue to improve further for a number of years once disgorged.
The Westwell Wines sparkling wines are all bottle fermented, aged on their lees for between 2 and 5 years in temperature controlled cellars, before being disgorged.
The popular still dry white wine variety, Ortega, is also treated with respect to bring its flavours to the fore. The wines from this variety having undergone fermentation in stainless steel tanks, are usually bottled in the late spring of the following year of the harvest, to preserve the freshness and aromas of the grape variety.
Depending on the year the Rowes like to experiment with this variety given its versatility. For example they have previously produced a limited edition desert wine and more recently a rosé, where Ortega was blended with some of their ripe Pinot Noir.
Their other brand, the ‘Naughty Hare’ premium still wine range is left to mature in the barrel until later the following year to further develop and then in the bottle prior to its release.
Westwell Wines currently markets three premium sparkling wines, with further versions to be released over the coming years. All sparkling wines are handmade using the bottle fermentation method.
Special Cuvée Sparkling
A blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier that has been aged a minimum of 30 months before disgorgement. Awarded a Gold at the International Wines Challenge 2017.
Pelegrim Brut NV (meaning ‘pilgrim’ in middle English).
A traditional sparkling wine that is made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay with reserve wines from previous vintages to give further complexity and a consistent extra dry non-vintage style. The wines are lees-aged in bottle for 18-24 months to give depth and some biscuity aromas which only bottle-fermentation can deliver. Awarded a Gold at the Sommelier Wine Awards in 2016.
Special Pink Sparkling
Made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and a touch of Chardonnnay using the traditional saignée method, where the colour is obtained from the skins of the Pinots prior to fermentation rather than solely blending in red wine. It is aged a minimum of 24 months before disgorgement
Blanc de Blancs Sparkling (Available from summer 2017)
Made from 100% Chardonnay, that has been aged a minimum of 36 months before disgorgement.
Additionally they offer Ortega white still variants:
Ortega Classic Ferment
A dry still white made from 100% Ortega, that has been fermented mainly in stainless steel with barrel fermented wines blended in. It has won Silver awards from the IEWA, UKVA and a ‘Commended’ from the Decanter World Wine Awards.
Ortega Classic Pink
A blend of Ortega with the addition of some barrel fermented Pinot Noir. It won a Silver award from UKVA.
‘Naughty Hare’ Chardonnay
Made from 100% Chardonnay. A dry white that has been partially wild yeast fermented, then aged in older French barrels before going through malolactic fermentation in a stainless steel tank. It was awarded a Bronze at the Chardonnay Global Masters.
My top recommendation has to be the Special Cuvée Sparkling 2014.
It demonstrates a harmonious complexity of tastes that are comparable to several expensive French champagnes. It has a subtle toasted bread flavour that is undercut by flinty minerality and an effervescent acidity. A delicious aroma and any equally stimulating taste with fruit notes that are a mixture of raspberries and citrus fruit.
I thought the 2011 was good but their wines just get better.
The Pelegrim Brut NV is also worth trying.
It’s a no-nonsense stylish wine that will impress any diehard non-vintage French champagne drinker. It is a stunningly consistent dry sparkler with complex biscuity aromas and fruity apple, raspberry and lemon notes. It makes an entrancingly moreish aperitif.
Address: Westwell Wines,
Telephone: 01233 714618