After 11 and a half years as head winemaker at Nyetimber, Canadian-born Cherie Spriggs has proved that actions speak louder than words by winning the prestigious International Wine Challenge (IWC) trophy for Sparkling Winemaker of the year 2018.
Not only is this the first time a winemaker outside Champagne has won the award in the history of the IWC but Spriggs is also the first woman ever to take home the trophy. ‘It’s extraordinary, I’m so honoured and excited,’ she says. ‘I’m particularly happy that England has done it first.’
With a cooler climate, winemaking in the UK has its challenges, and historically English wine has not been held in the same esteem as our European counterparts. This is something, Spriggs says, that has changed in the past few years. ‘Thirty years ago, English wine was perceived as almost a joke but perceptions have changed quite dramatically. We had a turning point in 2012 where I’d finally got the consistency of quality I wanted to bring to the business and it’s getting better every year. Now it’s rare to find someone who hasn’t heard of English sparking wine in the UK.’
Nyetimber, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is the first producer of English sparkling wine to exclusively grow three celebrated grape varieties: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. ‘We are very fortunate at Nyetimber that we only use fruit from vineyards that we own, so we can be incredibly meticulous about the entire winemaking process,’ says Spriggs. ‘In terms of production, we use the same method as champagne, but the wonderful balance of fresh English fruit characters and the delicacy that comes from the ageing process makes for such an exciting combination and that really sets us apart.’
Last night’s win adds to the three trophies and four gold medals already presented to Nyetimber at the awards. It also gave Spriggs the chance to reflect on what it means to be the first woman to win. ‘It’s interesting, getting an award like this made me pause and think, “why aren’t there more women in this industry?” In truth, I’m so focused on what I’m doing, I don’t think about my gender very much, but it’s a job that suits women very well. We’re good at tasting, we have a sensibility to respond to the environment and how the fruit comes in.’
Spriggs herself entered winemaking after studying biochemistry in her native Canada and then winemaking at Adelaide University in Australia. Soon after, her parents brought her a bottle of Nyetimber from a trip to England. ‘I remember thinking, “there is potential in this wine that I haven’t seen in a sparkling wine anywhere in the world”,’ she recalls. ‘That memory really stuck in my head because five years later when my husband Brad and I were about to take winemaking jobs in Canada, Brad said: ‘Why don’t we apply for our dream jobs, things that we’re never going to have the opportunity to do’. My first thought was: “I want to make sparkling wine in England” so I emailed Nyetimber and they just happened to be looking for two winemakers to join the company.’
Now 11 and a half years on, Spriggs is at the top of her game and Nyetimber is flying the flag for English sparkling wine on the international stage. It’s the kind of recognition she says takes a long time to achieve. ‘It does take time to prove what you can do and to get the quality where you want it. Ten years ago, we really had to get out there and tell our story, and now we need to do that internationally.’
‘But when you beat around 20 other countries, 100 different wineries and more than 1,000 wines to come out on top, it’s time for the world to sit up and take notice.’