A sommelier who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, Ronan Sayburn is positive about the future for English wine. Just look at New Zealand, he says.
When a customer at one of the hotels in the boutique chain Hotel du Vin selects a bottle of English wine from the wine list, they can be confident that the wine and spirits director at the chain has more than a passing knowledge of how the wine came to be produced.
In October last year, Ronan Sayburn joined a group of fellow sommeliers at Hush Heath Estate in Kent to see for himself the process by which its wine is made and to gauge the health of the industry in England.
He says: “I was very impressed with the health of the vineyards in Kent. The vines were clean and virtually pest and virus-free. Bordeaux loses 5-10% of its vines per year due to esca or dead arm disease. English vineyards are too young to have this kind of disease.
“Planting pinot noir and chardonnay is totally the correct thing to do – these are ‘noble’ varieties that ripen in a cool climate more easily than say riesling, and produce better wines than chasselas or muller-thurgau.”
North Yorkshire-born Sayburn is confident that the secret to the success of the English industry will be the successful selection of varieties that are suited to the particular conditions facing growers in this country, as New Zealand growers had done in the 1970s.
He says: “Forty years ago, New Zealand was a cottage industry struggling to ripen its muller-thurgau. Now, with the benefits that come from a more organised, confident industry, good cool climate canopy management and using better varieties they are still a tiny producer of wines, on a global scale, but every serious wine list in the world lists some NZ wines.
“As the UK wine industry grows I believe it will go the same way and eventually English sparkling, Chablis styled chardonnays and fine pinot noir will become must-haves for wine lists.”
Does terroir really work as a concept in the UK without the centuries of traditions and culture which has shaped the European idea of terroir?
Sayburn considers it can. He says: “Yes. Terroir is more of a concept of many small things working together in harmony, in a same way as a chef making a good dish; it’s getting lots of small things right. To start with choosing your site very carefully – the ideal gradient of slope, the correct aspect to the sun to capture maximum sunlight hours, preparing the land correctly before planting, choosing the best varieties and rootstocks, considering the drainage, the micro and macro climate, correct canopy management, etc. Getting everything right in the vineyard and then carrying that through to the winery with skilful winemaking.
“European terroir has evolved over centuries and only the best sites, with all these factors in place, have survived.”
The last bottle of English wine that Sayburn tasted was a Chapel Down Chardonnay 2009.
With much interest on English sparkling wine both home and abroad, he is confident where such wine lies in relation to Champagne.
He says: “The best English sparkling wine matches up to middle quality at the moment, but well above the lower quality champagnes. One problem is that they can be quite expensive.”
The UK is a great place to be a sommelier, considers Sayburn. A sommelier working in, say Rioja, will only work with Rioja. Here, the wines of the world are available. Is this international reach something the wine drinker can also enjoy?
He says: “The UK has always had a great history of importing wines – we owned Bordeaux for 400 years! Anywhere that does not make large amounts home-grown wines are great for wine lovers. Scandinavia and the Netherlands are similar to the UK in this respect.”
How long before the English industry makes this statement passé?
He says: “Some in the industry are already being taken seriously; but in general I would say 5-10 years. But they have come along way in a short period of time.”
There are brakes on the UKL industry, he says: “A lack of production, uncertainty of supply, customer perceptions and trade resistence. High land prices, high labour prices, route to market not easy, high prices that have to be charged. Lack of facilities; we need a good co-op style operation to bring down prices and work on a global marketing plan.
“The UK has a major brake on expansion in the fact that many sites that could be great for vineyards could already be developed in to other things. Our ‘chablis grand cru’ may well be a pub car park somewhere.”
North Yorkshire-born Ronan Sayburn joined the Hotel du Vin Group as its wine and sprits director in February 2010 after two decades in the wine business. His previous experience includes stints working for Le Manoir Aux Quat’ Saisons, Pied à Terre, wine merchant OW Loeb and the Gordon Ramsay Group.