Interview with Brad Greatrix

The first English Sparkling Wine I had was a bottle of Nyetimber Classic Cuvée. I think my sister and I got it for Mother’s day one year and we were all in awe of the delicate texture of this delicious nectar. That was maybe six or so years ago, and I couldn’t even tell you what we had at Christmas last year, it was that sort of memorable. Nyetimber started cropping up everywhere. If I saw it on a wine list I got a giggly sort of excited, the famous Nyetimber bus was at Henley Royal Regatta, Badminton Horse Trials and more recently, it has made its way into our favourite restaurant at home, The George of Stamford. Whether you like it or not, Nyetimber have been the pioneers of the English Sparkling Wine movement, they’ve raised the bar and we have a lot to thank them for when it comes to the outstanding quality of many English wines that we see today.

After my little jaunt to Sussex at the end of the summer, I had a lot of questions about winemaking on this wonderful parcel of land. Coming from a farming background, I have a vague understanding of how much land can differ from field to field. In fact, most of our fields have names whether they are as simple as ‘The Seven Acre’ or ‘Jack Fenn’s Field’ or ‘Pie’s Nest.’ I can tell you that The Seven Acre is quite a dry field, its prone to very lush green grass which means we have to be careful with the horses in the summer.

Puffball mushrooms seem to thrive in the 7 acre and no matter how many times we pull it out, ragwort grows up time and time again in the summer. Across from this field, with only a hedge in-between (and bear in mind this isn’t a large area) is possibly the wettest field on the farm. It’s had the same mistreatment over the years, horses, sheep, hay making etc. It just stays wet throughout the whole of winter and the hay we make in the summer is often quite pungent with herbs, it’s a totally different parcel of land.

Why am I telling you this? Well, Nyetimber own all of the vineyards they use and so they get to know the land extraordinarily well. They can make use of the nuances that the site provides them with and as Brad says, “Not all Chardonnay tastes the same, even within one parcel.” This has enabled Nyetimber to take things up a level, and by harvesting these parcels separately, they create up to 100 base wines. There is no special treatment making these wines, they like to just be in the background ensuring things are running as usual. However, it is the next step that has led Nyetimber to be able to create extra special sparkling wines such as Nyetimber 1086. “Out of 100 base wines, we may only be able to select three or four to go into 1086,” Brad tells me. The vision of this wine comes from the owner of Nyetimber, Eric Heerema, who Brad says never has a bad day. “He backs up everything he says with actions and amazing determination,” says Brad. It is Eric that has made everything possible, but Brad Greatrix and Cherie Spriggs, two very humble characters, have created astonishing wine.

I was over the moon that the wine-making duo agreed to chat to me for my blog , here’s what they had to say:

First of all, I must say what a fantastic job you’re doing at Nyetimber. I recently tried a large selection of the current offerings at Amps wine fair and I was just so impressed at the delicacy of each wine’s individual character. They really are something!

So, I have heard the story Cherie, that your father took some Nyetimber back to Canada with him and when you tried it you wrote a letter to them essentially asking for a job. Could you just divulge a little on the details? And what had your experience of winemaking been like up to this point?

The story is slightly different so hereby the full version:

Cherie’s father was born in England and her parents have always travelled regularly back to the UK from Canada.  On one of their trips they asked if we would like a souvenir, and having recalled seeing Nyetimber mentioned in the World Atlas of Wine (5th edition – England was on the last page before the index) Cherie asked for a bottle.  Her parents picked one up from Berry Bros at Heathrow.  When we eventually tasted it, the potential of the wine left enough of an impression that years later when I asked Cherie what her dream job would be she mentioned Nyetimber.  We were out for a walk when I asked that question to Cherie, and when we got home we sent an email to info@nyetimber.com to say how impressed we were and wondering about the size of the English wine industry and whether there were possibilities for two young winemakers to move over.  We really had no expectations at the time, but our email was passed to Eric Heerema (Owner and CEO of Nyetimber) and we got a reply saying there were two positions at Nyetimber if we would be so kind as to send our CVs.  We promptly did that, then had two follow-up calls, and in less than three weeks from our first ‘info@’ email we had our first day at work at Nyetimber, moving all the way over from the west coast of Canada.  That all took place during February 2007, and the rest is history. 

Regarding our background, we both have a BScH in biochemistry (we met as undergraduates), an M.Sc from the Wine Research Centre at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada), and a graduate diploma in Oenology from Adelaide University.  Following our academic studies we did harvests in several parts of the world: Australia, New Zealand, USA (Oregon), France and Canada before moving to England.

Now you’ve been at Nyetimber for how many years? What have been the biggest learning curves, how have the wines developed with this in mind?

We’ve been at Nyetimber since 2007, so it will be 13 years this coming February.

It’s hard to single out a specific learning curve aspect because nearly everything Nyetimber is trying to do is unprecedented.  But we have a tireless desire to produce something special, and that starts right from the top with Eric Heerema. 

We’re a growing business and have been planting vineyards since 2006.  Nyetimber are committed to always making wine from 100% estate grown grapes, so from identifying suitable potential sites all the way through the production process no aspect or detail has escaped scrutiny.

Would you say you have a favourite, or even a special vintage?

2009 was a special year for us because it was the first year we had the quality coming in from the vineyard to be able to bottle 1086.  It was also the year we discovered that special parcel of Pinot Noir at our Tillington vineyard that became the Tillington Single Vineyard Wine. 

When I travelled around a few English vineyards, I was fascinated with the topic of yeast (to be quite honest I’m still not sure I fully understand it.) Some vineyards were using their own but many were not… Is there a simple way to explain the yeast process and the advantages and disadvantages of using your own?

As you probably know, the basic job of yeast during fermentation is to convert sugar into ethanol and carbon dioxide.  But alongside that conversion are complex processes of metabolism that can alter the wine’s flavour and/or texture composition. Using commercial yeast means you get a reliable and slightly more predictable outcome.

But aside from commercial options, yeast are ubiquitous in the environment (at least where fruit is grown). So it’s entirely possible to not add any yeast at all and let the naturally occurring strain(s) carry out the fermentation.  This can be a bit unpredictable, but has the  benefit that it’s unlikely anyone else has the same composition of microorganisms, so you’ve got something distinct in terms of flavour contribution. 

We use a mix of strategies at Nyetimber.  Most of our fermentations are done with a couple of commercial yeast but we do also use some spontaneous fermentations.  For wines where we are going for purity, like our Blanc de Blancs, we would always use commercial yeast because we can achieve a delicacy that isn’t possible with indigenous yeast.  Spontaneous fermentations can be beautiful, but the flavours of the resulting wines can be dominated by the yeast. Our preference is always to have our vineyards shine through in our wines so even where we use spontaneous fermentation, it’s always just a part of an overall blend. 

Can we talk about Pinot Noir. How has the harvest been this year? I noticed a real variation of this grape across sites that were so close geographically. Is it a bit of a diva to grow in the UK? What characteristics should we be looking out for in your wines?

It’s hard for me to comment on variation on other vineyard sites, but it’s certainly true that Pinot Noir can be a diva, or some people say chameleon.  PN is very sensitive to site and climate, but also there is a large diversity of clones planted in the UK which in itself can produce dramatic variation in how the bunches look and the resulting juices taste. 

At Nyetimber we own all of our vineyards and embrace the nuance and diversity that our sites bring us in terms of wine qualities.  Even though we have just a few wines in our portfolio, at harvest we produce up to 100 distinct base wines to capture all the unique characteristics of our sites and parcels within.  So the flavour profiles of our PNs are quite diverse, ranging from bright and citrussy, through to red fruits, black fruits and even some beautiful combined floral and red fruit expressions from Tillington.

Another potential bit of magic you add to the wines is being a team. There are all sorts of opinions flying around that women have a different winemaking style to men and vice versa. Would you say having the two of you on board makes a difference to say, just Brad or just you Cherie?

I think there’s definitely an advantage having the two of us together.  Wine tasting is a very  subjective activity, certainly when one get’s into the nuance of top tier wines.  Cherie and I have been tasting wine together for over 20 years now so we have great instincts with each other, and also know where each other’s strengths are.  Cherie is the Head Winemaker at Nyetimber (my boss), so if we weren’t married there would be the usual politics between us and she would always want/need the final say. But as a couple we can be completely open with one another – Cherie defers to me in areas where I have strengths and vice versa, meaning we hopefully always get the best result. 

How much do you get stuck in on the vineyard verses the winery? What’s your day-to-day like now we’re in November/ rapidly approaching December?

 Cherie is more closely involved with the vineyard than I am on a day-to-day basis because our Viticulturist reports to her as well.  But at key points during the growing season, and certainly as harvest approaches we spend as much time in the vineyard as possible to understand how things are tracking and what the nuances of that particular season might be.  

Outside of winemaking…what do you two get up to? Are you foodies? Any pairing suggestions with the wines you know so well?

We are certainly both foodies and love to spend our time in the kitchen or in our garden growing our own produce.  

Food Pairing:  A suprising and delicious discovery is pairing our Cuvee Chérie (Demi-Sec) with savoury courses – particularly with fragrant and mildy spiced dishes from Thai or Vietnamese cuisine.   I’d also encourage everyone to try Cuvee Chérie with desserts like lemon tart or Eton mess. That experience can be a revelation for people that have bad memories from being served a brut-style sparkling with a sweet dessert in which both the wine and the pudding come off poorly.  If chosen well then sparkling wine can pair with every course of a meal! 

I think everyone has got the message that English sparkling and still wines are a big deal now. Will Nyetimber ever produce still wine?

We have no plans to produce a still wine at Nyetimber and none in the pipeline.  We think sparkling is what we do best and also where England is the most competitive on a world stage.

And finally, are you both regular wine consumers at home? If so, what are we likely to find in your recycling?

We both love wine – it’s how we ended up in this line of work. We also both believe it’s important to taste widely to keep an open mind and sharp palate, so if you checked our recycling you’d always find something different. But repeat purchases do tend to cluster around France, Italy and Australia.

I asked Brad a little more about this and there is very much a Burgundy (Cherie) Vs Bordeaux (Brad) gentle competition going on within their home. “It’s a case of who gets to the wine rack first!”

Images from @nyetimber Instagram of the Boutique in Burlington Arcade
Images from @nyetimber Instagram of the Boutique in Burlington Arcade
Images from @nyetimber Instagram of the 1086 Nyetimber, Vintage 2010
Images from the @nyetimber Instagram

I don’t think I need to tell you to go out and try some English sparkling this festive season, I hope it’s firmly on your shopping list. However, I will just say that Nyetimber have a pop-up shop and tasting room in Burlington Arcade which they are calling The Nyetimber Boutique. I will definitely be going for a glass when I’m next in London, and if you’re there shopping or working or whatever, why not pop in? I’m always keen to hear people’s thoughts so get in touch with yours!

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