Updated: Aug 8
After a splendid afternoon wandering around the vineyard of Hundred Hills, situated deep in the Stonor Valley, Henley-on-Thames, I became inspired about the direction of English wine. It's undoubtedly on a phenomenal upwards trajectory. Spearheading the development and cognitive understanding of of English wine is Hundred Hills, a future icon of the wine world.
The attention to detail mesmerises us at Cépage. Everything is perfectly crafted, from the space between the vines (utilising GIS mapping technology), to the subtle bottle design and hiring vineyard managers which have worked the slopes of Barolo, a similar topography to the Ampetheatre Vineyard at Hundred Hills. No wine made by Hundred Hills undergoes malolactic fermentation, allowing the purest expression and quality of the fruit to come to the fore. Burgundian clones benefit this winemaking decision.
Rather than try to explain everything ourselves, we asked Stephen Duckett, winemaker and owner of Hundred Hills to explain the intricacies of the vineyard and inception of the concept. Stephen's personal journey into wine and to Hundred Hills has been fascinating, as well as his insights about the incredible Oxfordshire winery....
"Over the 25 years I spent going back and forth to California from the early 1980s it was hard not to marvel at the transformation that shaped the Napa Valley over the time. When I first visited in the 1980s it was definitely a farming region first and wine region second but, as San Francisco and the tech boom accelerated, the late 1990s and early 2000s saw the emergence of one of the world’s great wine regions. The small boutique wineries and carefully crafted wines soon dazzled wine lovers and the tech entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley quickly embraced the complex, detail-oriented wine world as a natural adjunct their own. England has an amazing opportunity to replicate this success and Hundred Hills aims to be at the vanguard of bringing high quality wines and beautiful wine-related experiences to English wine lovers"
How long did the Hundred Hills project take to manifest, from inception to the first release?
Fiona and I first began the search for the ‘perfect’ vineyard site to produce world class English sparklings in in 2009. After three years, and sampling soils and modelling micro-climates in over 100 potential sites, we settled on Hundred Hills in late 2012. We released our inaugural 2016 First Edition in December 2020, so eight years after acquiring the empty hillsides in the Stonor Valley, but it was always a 25-year plan for both of us so we’ve been very happy with our progress so far.
How would you describe the winemaking philosophy at Hundred Hills?
Minimalist – I was taught to make wine under the tutelage of Dr Michel Salgues who also mentored and tutored a number of Champagne’s top wine makers. Michel always emphasised that great wines were made in vineyards not wineries. Focus on careful hand picking and rapidly moving the grapes to gentle pressing. After that he advised all you had to do was ‘not screw it up’! My approach was to deploy a lot of technology and in-winery tasting and testing to ensure tight control at every step of the winemaking process, as well as making sure we had a winery team who were passionate about wine and understood the hard work ‘minimilism’ involves.
What is it about the Hundred Hills chalk which is so special?
All chalk is special and Southern England and Northern France are fortunate to have nearly all of the chalk the world offers for planting vines. To produce great fruit the vines have to struggle and chalk is fabulously tough on them. But it also gives vines everything they need to survive and flourish while bearing beautiful grapes; free draining soils that hold enough micro-droplets of water to survive drought; the efficient capture of sunlight to re-radiate heat in a cool climate and minimal nutrients so leaves and tendrils aren’t encouraged. At Hundred Hills our vines sit on 160m of chalk above an aquifer, and the dry chalk valley that has formed from decades of gentle rains creates the slopes, soils, airflow and drainage capable of delivering perfect grapes year after year.
Not planting Meunier is an interesting choice for English sparkling, can you explain the reasons behind this decision?
With the climate Champagne enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s, and soils that no-one can tell apart from those in the Cote de Blancs, we started out with a great understanding of which Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones had produced the finest vintage champagnes of that time. Pinot Meunier, while frost resistant and high yielding in cool, damp sites, typically delivers simple, youthful fruitiness to sparklings but not longevity or much complexity and so was relatively rarely used the very finest expressions of sparklings in Champagne in the middle of the last century. Today’s warmer climate is seeing it’s higher acidity at comparable sugar levels attract new proponents in Champagne but this is not an attribute we need in Pinot’s grown in England.
The purity of fruit at Hundred Hills is exquisite and really comes through in the bottle. Would you put this solely down to the different clones used throughout the vineyard?
While hesitating to start any reply to a question like this with the word ‘terroir’ clearly it is this that lies at the heart of the answer. Certainly, the clones we’ve planted are low yielding and capable of beautiful fruit expression in the English climate we’re experiencing today. But it’s the land and its location that delivers intense fruit purity. Poor, dry soils that make the vines focus on fruit; an inland location that gives us a dry ripening and harvesting season; as well as a constant breeze down the valley that helps fends off mildews allowing us to keep the grapes over 100 days on the vine season after season. And it’s the hard work in the vineyard, mechanically cultivating inter-vine so we have healthy organic soils and manually leaf stripping from flowering right through to harvest, so the air and sunlight can really get to the berries throughout the season. It is all these things and many more that come together in the bottle – ‘in vino veritas’ as they say!
On the subject of clones, how many different types are used at Hundred Hills? Are they all Burgundian?
We have ten different Burgundian clones, five of Chardonnay and five of Pinot Noir, each carefully chosen to deliver something different from the vineyard depending on the season. With the volatility we expect from an English climate we only hope to have five or six of our ten distinct parcels to be exactly where we want them in any given year. That way we can always take our best grapes, our best presses from these grapes, our best base wines from these presses, and ultimately only our best finished wines to become Hundred Hills.
What has been your favourite vintage of Hundred Hills (so far)?
It’s hard not to love 2018, a beautifully warm spring and summer that faded into a long dry harvest. Every parcel in the vineyard perfectly delivered and gave us an opportunity to explore fully the base wines that could be expressed at Hundred Hills. So plenty of single parcel wines like our Blanc de Blancs and Rosé de Saignée as well as several very different rosés and a properly luxuriant ‘Preamble’ with all the peaches, apricots and plums we have come to associate with that particular wine. And very soon our ‘Signature’ wine for that fabulous year which should age well and evolve for decades.
Can you describe the topography of your vineyards, and why having a vineyard manager who used to work the hills of Barolo matters to you?
They’re steep! Almost 1 in 2 in some places and even in a fully tracked tractor it takes courage to head down them in all weathers. Enrico was born on hills like ours and still loves the challenge!
What’s goes on at Hundred Hills to maintain a sustainable winemaking program?
We use literally hundreds of sensors to monitor soil health, minimize nutrient additions and optimise sustainable yields in a carbon neutral vineyard that has never used herbicides. Our winery was especially designed to have ultra-low power and water use with one of the lowest carbon footprints anywhere in the wine world. We are one of the first English producers to be accredited under the demanding Sustainable Wines of Great Britain scheme, for both vineyards and winery, and in 2021 we were awarded a research grant by the EU Horizon programme to help commercialise some of the work we’ve been putting into sustainable winemaking at Hundred Hills. We’re hoping to publish some of the first results in early 2023.
The label design is so intricate, who designed them?
We worked with Neil Tully and his team at Amphora in Bath to come up with our label designs. Neil, who is also an MW, has been working on wine labels for wine producers around the world for decades and it was terrific to give him and the team a new challenge so close to home. Working from some old family crests that had come down through the ages Neil and his team used these as an inspiration for a 21st century take on some very old traditional designs.
When you’re not drinking Hundred Hills or English Sparkling, what do you enjoy tasting?
Carefully crafted wines of all different styles from around the world, ideally at the winery!
Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, and why?
Although in sparkling form it’s Blanc de Blancs that most often reach the heights for me, overall it has to be Pinot Noir, perhaps the ultimate test for any terroir-driven wine producer. It’s endless variation across the world’s cooler regions provide opportunities for the very best to evolve with age and develop the entrancing autumnal, mushroom and savoury notes, alongside complex fruits and a natural sweetness, that charm so many wine enthusiasts, including me.