English sparkling-wine maker Nyetimber has had a good year, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. With an expected one million bottles to be produced from this year’s harvest, the husband-wife duo of Brad Greatrix and Cherie Spriggs talks about the brand’s expansion into Asia. 

When you think about sparkling wine, champagne is, more often than not, right on the top of your mind. This little glass of “bubbly” is a heady delight, often very expensive, and considered a treat for special occasions. Or, as I like to say, Monday evening.

Flippant jokes aside, the realm of sparkling wine is serious business. Sparkling wine consumption has grown tremendously over the past couple of years. In 2018 alone, 2.7 billion cases of wine were consumed around the world.

Of these, 261 million cases, or close to 10%, were sparkling wine. In fact, since 1990, sparkling wine sales have grown by an average of 1.9% a year. The International Wine and Spirit Record forecasts sparkling wine sales will grow by 1.1% a year until 2023.

Research firm Nielsen’s data also shows offpremise sales of sparkling wine grew well ahead of table wine, rising 35.5% against table wine’s 13.3% growth in August this year, compared to the same period in 2019. As it turns out, the “new normal” has brought about a shift in wine consumption, as people move their celebrations from restaurants to homes.

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To be sure, wine-making has had a challenging year.

As the global economy reels from the Covid-19 pandemic, the wine industry has not been spared. The industry has been faced with labour shortages, impacting production, distribution, and the livelihoods of seasonal workers.

However, despite the challenges, English winemaker Nyetimber is optimistic, and has seen a great year for its harvest of grapes (pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay). In a recent virtual roundtable with the press, Nyetimber head wine-maker, Cherie Spriggs, and wine-maker husband Brad Greatrix, say they could not be happier with the harvest.

Brad Cherie Vines- - THE EDGE SINGAPORE

“It’s been such an incredible year across the globe. And of course, England has been no different in the challenges we face as people on this planet try to navigate through Covid,” says Spriggs. “From about late March to early April, the weather in this country was just extraordinary, with very dry, very calm, and clear days. And, of course, these conditions are not just conditions which people like, but grapes like.”

She adds: “The fortunate thing about that is the grapes this year were able to mature and proceed along their pathway very nicely. It was one of those years where the grapes just developed really, really well; such that around October, at the time when our harvest was happening, the fruit quality we got was outstanding. We were super happy.”

Making sparkling wine only from grapes grown in their own vineyards ultimately allows even more control over everything. Nyetimber’s estates can trace their roots back to almost 1,000 years ago, when the estate, then referred to as Nitimbreha, was named in the Domesday Book in 1086.

Some 500 years later, in 1536, the estate came into the possession of notorious English monarch Henry VIII, who gifted it to his adviser Thomas Cromwell, before it came into the hands of Henry’s wife, Anne of Cleves, in 1540. The planting of the estate’s first vines, however, did not happen until 1988. Then in 2006, Dutch entrepreneur Eric Heerema became the owner and custodian of Nyetimber, which now spans 260ha across West Sussex, Hampshire and Kent in England.


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Global acclaim

Since then, Nyetimber wines have gone on to achieve global acclaim, winning international awards and blind-tasting competitions, as well as being recognised by some of the world’s most celebrated wine experts. Spriggs, too, was named Sparkling Winemaker of the Year at the International Wine Challenge 2018, making history not only by becoming the first woman to win it, but also the first person outside of the wine region of Champagne to take the title.

Nyetimber was launched in Singapore last year, and most recently, in Japan — to enthusiastic response.

“International growth has been impressive and really important for the future of Nyetimber. But I think particularly in Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong, Nyetimber’s found kind of a second home,” says Greatrix. “The challenge for English sparkling wine is that people don’t think of England as this viticultural superpower, right? People imagine English weather, and they don’t think of vines.”

“But where there’s a natural affinity, I think, is that in these markets we didn’t face the same sort of scepticism as some other markets. So I think we’ve started on a very strong foot,” he says.

Spriggs adds: “I think that partly plays into the level of wine connoisseurship that exists in these countries. And that is a very refreshing thing for a new brand or a new country in the world of wine — people who understand good wine and don’t need fancy messaging. What they need is to taste it, and then they go, “Oh, wow, this is delicious.” And bear in mind, many types of Asian cuisine can work really beautifully with sparkling wine. So it’s a fact we’ve got a nice affinity there.”

Nyetimber is focused on putting its fantastic harvest to good use in 2021. Spriggs says: “We don’t know precisely yet, but we anticipate we will make around a million bottles from this 2020 harvest, and that will occupy a big part of our wine-making year. It is a real privilege for us that we don’t buy or sell fruit, we only use fruit from our own vines. But what comes with that is as demand grows, and as we as a business wish to grow, we must continue to find appropriate land.”

“The long-term plan is to reach the two-millionth bottle mark, but there’s still further growth to get there, hopefully by 2030. We still have a good decade ahead of us. As we say, the most patient wine-makers in the world are the sparkling-wine makers,” says Spriggs, laughing.