May 13, 2021

Uncorked: England’s Nyetimber puts emphasis on sustainability

Bird Bangers work so well in the Nyetimber vineyards they can have an affect on humans.

In an effort to protect the vines’ berries, a tasty treat for birds as they ripen, a device makes a loud noise to scare the winged poachers away. It’s one of the many ecologically friendly practices the English sparkling wine house has used to focus on sustainability and harmony with nature.

“A Bird Banger gives off a loud pop that drives away birds,” said Alec Robinson, Nyetimber brand ambassador. “We try, as always, not to be heavy-handed. There are way fewer bugs around when birds are present. They are useful and eat things that would go on to eat our grapes, too. You will jump when you hear [a Bird Banger] if caught off guard.”

In a Zoom call the day after Earth Day, the affable Robinson detailed Nyetimber’s bold venture into English winemaking despite the naysayers, and discussed its environmental commitment.

When Chicagoans Stuart and Sandy Moss decided to plant vineyards of the classic Champagne varieties of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier in 1988, there were 36 vineyards. Today, there are over 770.

“People have woken up to the idea that you can grow world-class grapes and make sparkling wines here,” Robinson said. “It’s an incredibly exciting time to be part of an industry that’s still young and growing, and also be at the forefront of a new category.”

With 11 separate vineyards in the counties of West Sussex, Hampshire and Kent, Nyetimber has preserved large wildlife corridors to not disturb the habitat of native animals. Sheep graze vineyards in the winter, which reduces mowing, while their droppings add natural nitrogen fertilizer to the soil. Sonar and kites also help scare away birds, and used grape skins are composted.

Even a bottle that is just 10% leaner helped reduce fuel usage. It’s only a small amount of glass that over time adds up.

But it fits the culture of innovation at Nyetimber.

It was fitting that last year, Nyetimber was one of 12 wineries to “formally achieve recognition for sustainable credentials under the industry’s environmental sustainability scheme” by Sustainable Wines of Great Britain certification.

“Our overarching ambition is to have a low-input philosophy,” Robinson said. “We use natural methods first. Any movements are targeted to manage vagaries of weather, and bolster biodiversity. These are natural management systems for keeping vineyards healthy. Flora and fauna do the work for us. Half of our estate is nonproductive hedgerows. We have trees and forests that manage and bolster the ecosystem. We planted 2,300 trees last year, and that has always been part of our philosophy. We have a 360-degree approach to look at what we need to do as responsible producers, and always want to measure and improve our process.”

While the winemaker has done its duty as steward of the land and has proved that the new frontier of possible grape-growing regions includes English counties, the Nyetimber Classic Cuvee Multi-Vintage ($55) also delivered as an awesome sparkling wine.

It has a lively, crackling acidity that livens up your palate. Yeasty aromas on the nose and flavors of stone fruit, green apple, warm red apple and sage. Even with the high acidity, a mouth-coating texture develops.

The south-facing slopes for growing provide shelter from the harshest of the coastal weather, and the soils are almost identical to Champagne, France, with chalk and green sand. But the colder and rainier English weather chased away any serious ambitions about planting chardonnay or pinot noir for years; the former wouldn’t ripen, and the latter would rot under water pressure due to its thin skins.

Vineyards were thought about in the 1970s, and today there’s a full planting boom underway. What if the climate continues its warming trend? What would be the potential for English sparkling wine, and could a still wine of chardonnay or pinot noir become en vogue?

“That opens a Pandora’s Box of questions,” Robinson said. “Being in the northern part of the growing region for the grapes we work with, the challenge for us is ripeness more often than not when it comes to acidity.

“We are singularly focused on making the world’s best sparkling wine,” he said. “We think we could make quite a good sparkling wine.”

In memoriam

Piedmont has lost a winemaking pioneer.

Pio Boffa, 66, the fourth-generation leader of Pio Cesare for 40 years, died after a battle with COVID-19 last weekend. His daughter, Federica Rosy, 23, assumes the leadership role of her father, and is the fifth generation to run the family estate. Pio’s cousin, Augusto Boffa, and Federica’s cousin, Cesare Benvenuto, will assist in operations as well.

Tasted in March, the Pio Cesare Barolo 2016 ($82) had dried roses and violets on the nose. There was leather, cherry and an herbaceous earthy note on an outstanding red wine. The Pio Cesare Barbera d’Alba 2018 ($25) was a dark fruit masterpiece with meaty flavors.

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at