The first taste is the sweetest . . .
Marc Millon visits Lyme Bay Winery with Michael Caines for a first taste of cask and vat samples from the first Lympstone Manor harvest
Lyme Bay Winery, Shute, Devon 16 April 2021 — I recall sitting out on the lawn with Michael in 2014 just after he had made an offer for Courtlands, then a run-down, delapidated Georgian manor in need of total renovation. As we shared a glass of Champagne, he outlined to me his dream: to create a luxury country house hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant, and to plant a vineyard on the then grassy and overgrown pasture that led from the manor down towards the Exe estuary. It seemed at the time an extraordinary and far-sighted vision of the distant future. And yet, literally just a handful of years later, Lympstone Manor is already an acclaimed and established Relais & Châteaux luxury hotel, the restaurant has earned its first Michelin star, and grapes have now been harvested from the vineyard that he planted in May 2017.
What a special and privileged moment, then, at last to have the opportunity to sample the wine made from those Lympstone Manor grapes for the very first time! The drive to the Lyme Bay Winery, in Shute, East Devon is no more than a half hour from Lympstone Manor and we arrived in brilliant sunshine on a bright and chilly April morning. James Lambert, Lyme Bay’s Managing Director and Winemaker, was there to meet us together with Paul Sullivan, Head of Sales and Marketing, and Sarah Massey, Lyme Bay Assistant Winemaker. Steve Edwards, Lympstone Manor’s Operations Director, and Andrew Hunt, LM Vineyard Manager, who are both closely involved in the project, were as eager to sample the wines as were Michael and myself. Wine writer and broadcaster Susy Atkins, who has closely followed this project since its inception and who took part in the actual planting of the vineyard, also joined the group to add her considerable tasting expertise and knowledge.
The Lympstone Manor vineyard complrises 17,500 Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay vines. The grapes from the three-year-old vines were harvested over a period of about 10 days in October 2020 and transported the short drive to the nearby Lyme Bay Winery. There each variety was fermented separately in small vats to produce the component elements that together will be assembled to create Lympstone Manor Cuvée, the luxury sparkling wine that Michael envisaged when he embarked on the project.
Michael’s desire has always been to create a full and rich Pinot-driven style of sparkling wine that will be food friendly to accompany his acclaimed cuisine. It was therefore fascinating to taste the component elements individually, with the winemakers explaining how they had been vinified, as well as what each will contribute to the finished blend. What was most striking across all the samples we tasted was the rich, ripe, juicy quality of the base wines from the warm 2020 vintage – the creamy soft fruit of Meunier, the brambly, red berry fruit, structure and power of Pinot Noir, the stone fruit of the Chardonnay, with its invigorating backbone of grapefruit acidity. The Chardonnay had been part barrel-fermented in French oak with bâtonnage (stirring of the lees), and part fermented in stainless steel tank.
We were all astonished by the quality of these young, not-yet-complete wines and the potential they have to produce finished wines of real quality and personality. Michael’s pride and satisfaction was clearly evident as he tasted and then tasted again. It was a special moment indeed, and we all clinked our glasses together and toasted the success of this extraordinary and special project.
What happens next is that James and Sarah, together with Michael, Steve and myself, will in another month or so taste the different component elements once more to decide on the final cuvée. The wines will then be blended together (a process known as assemblage), cold stabilised, and then bottled in order to undergo transformation into sparkling by the laborious method of secondary fermentation in the bottle. A small amount of yeast and sugar will be added to each bottle which will then be sealed with a crown cork. The bottles will then be laid to rest on their sides for a period of at least 18 months. During this time, yeast will feed on the sugar, imparting about a degree of alcohol to the finished wine and at the same time releasing carbon dioxide as a by-product. The fine carbon-dioxide bubbles that result become dissolved in the wine and thus captured within the bottle, resulting in bottle-fermented sparkling wine. During this process, which cannot be rushed, the wines evolve and take on a yeasty, bready character and complexity that comes in part from ageing on the fermentation lees. When the moment is deemed to be ready, that yeasty sludge will need to be nudged into the necks of the bottles from where, once frozen, it can expelled. The bottles will then be topped up with wine and a dosage of sugar and reserve wine if deemed necessary, then the final cork will be inserted and wired down, and the bottles will be almost ready to be released, opened and enjoyed! But not quite yet. They will still need further repose for a period of some months before the first vintage of Lympstone Manor Cuvée will finally be opened by Michael to share with you and me.
There may, however, be one rather special wine that could appear before that time. During the 2020 harvest, one parcel of Pinot Noir from a particularly precocious clone had ripened far earlier than the others. This was deemed too forward to be utilised to make sparkling wine, but it did present the opportunity to produce a still red wine. The grapes were fermented in stainless steel on the skins for about 10 days, with the skins fully submerged. The wine was then racked into a mixture of brand new and used French oak barrels of varying degrees of toasting. Now was our opportunity to taste the result: the colour was extraordinary for an English Pinot Noir, deep, almost New World in tone, and the wine had a clean and beautiful brambly nose, smooth from the oak ageing with a slight smokey finish. Clearly it is a wine still in its infancy and needs further time in oak to gain in complexity before it will be ready for release perhaps sometime in late 2022.
Lympstone Manor from the onset has been a labour of love, driven by Michael’s vision and passion and the same is true for the Lympstone Manor vineyard project. For the many guests and supporters who have followed this story from the start, some of whom actually helped to plant the vines, we are all now eagerly awaiting the release of these special wines that will bring a new level of enjoyment to the Lympstone Manor experience. Imagine arriving at this special place and immediately relaxing over a flûte of Lympstone Manor Cuvée as we gaze across the vineyard and down to the broad and beautiful Exe estuary below. Imagine enjoying these special wines with canapés or as part of a Michael Caines Signature Tasting Menu paired wine flight! Or imagine luxuriating in a soak tub on the terrace off your junior suite, or in a Hikki hot tub outside your shepherd hut with an ice bucket and a bottle of Lympstone Manor Cuvée by your side. Michael can hardly wait for these moments to happen and to share a glass or bottle with you and with us all!