Welcome to Hambledon Vineyard's latest podcast series 'The Road to the Finest English Fizz' presented by our good friend and BBC2's wine expert, Joe Wadsack.
Here we will explore some of the people proudly playing a part in the legacy of England's Oldest Commercial Vineyard and helping to drive English Sparkling Wine into the forefront.
Today, Joe interviews our very own Resident Winemaker, Felix Gabillet, about his upbringing in the Loire Valley, his winemaking background and (of course) his passion for wine.
So sit back, relax, pop open a bottle of Hambledon Classic Cuvée and enjoy!
And if you are interested in meeting Joe and Felix for yourself to learn more about English Sparkling Wine and the traditional Cap Classique method, then come and join us for our 'Be a Winemaker' event this November 26th.
So Felix, hi there. Let’s start right at the beginning - where are you from?
I am from France, from the Loire Valley, I grew up in Tours, between Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, and Gamay as well.
Ha ha. You can tell that you’re a winemaker as they always navigate the world by grape variety.
And so, did you grow up in a wine background, was this career choice inevitable for you?
Well, I grew up in the food industry; my father was the director of a cash-and-carry, so he was always in contact with restaurants and wine growers; we used to do harvest with my father’s team in a vineyard in Bourgueuil (Loire), and that is how I fell in love with wine, by going in the vineyard, going into the winery afterwards, sharing the meal with the winemaker and owner and all the picking crew. That’s how my interest in wines started.
Do you have any memories growing up of particular wines that were like “epiphany wines” to you, wines that made you want to do this for a living?
Yes, in fact. My grandfather on my mother’s side lived in the middle of the Chinon appellation in the Loire, and he was a big fan of Chinon and the Rhône wines of Gigondas. He had a very nice wine cellar in his garage and when he passed away, like twenty five years ago, we started to drink all the cellar, just to enjoy it. For me, that was my first memory of “wow that’s fantastic, what is that?” because it was very old Chinon, very old Gigondas that he had over the years ever since my mother was a child, so it was very old vintages, and I would say “That’s bloody interesting!”
Then in the early 2000’s my father bought a vineyard in the appellation of Touraine, a little bit further from Tours, near Blois, near Vendome, of 20 hectares, and he kept this vineyard for about seven years… I started working with him there as well, in the holidays after my studies, which again helped my interest.
Okay, if you hadn’t decided to become an oenologue, a winemaker, what do you think you would have been?
A chef or cook in a restaurant, because food and wine always brings really good memories to me, we always had big family gatherings with lots of good food and wine.
You come from a miraculous place for food, I mean, if I think about wanting to go somewhere for a gourmet weekend, the Loire valley is hard to beat. That must have been some education. So, Felix, where did you go to college and what did you do after that?
I went to the Lycée Agricole near Tours, so that’s general farming where you study all kinds of things, from core subjects to cultivating grapes, cherries, everything. After college I did a two year Graduation course in wine-making and viticulture.
I started in Hambledon in 2015, but before that I did two vintages in New Zealand, two in Australia, one in California, one in Luxembourg, one in Canada, and I worked in different kinds of places – from small wineries, to a huge factory with 30,000 tonnes a year – and I just wanted to experience different kinds of winemaking; as a winemaker you need to experiment, because you need to understand the process at every scale.
So, except for the countries you’ve already been to, give me another three countries you would love to visit, and why, for winemaking
Firstly Japan, I think, because there is so much going on at the moment and I think there is good potential for sparkling wine as well. I’ve actually been to Japan already, but not for winemaking. Also I’ve never been to South Africa or South America, so those are two more places I would like to visit for winemaking.
Are there wine styles which you’re not familiar with which you would like to explore outside of the sparkling wine arena?
Yes! I would like to learn how to make Vin Jaune, that was the first style I learnt to love, basically a bright yellow oxidised wine protected by yeast on the top of the wine.
For those people who don’t know what Vin Jaune tastes like, it’s a very delicate, very perfumed, unfortified wine, but similar to Fino Sherry, and I think it tastes awesome with roast chicken.
Oh yes I would agree with that! Fricassée de Poulet aux Morilles with Vin Jaune is just fantastic!
Oh wow! A French classic! Delicious! So what’s your biggest ambition, where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?
I would like to stay at Hambledon for at least another five or ten years but at one point I would like to start my own project, somewhere in England, somewhere in the Loire valley or another place in France.
OK Felix. When you’re not digging around in dirt in the vineyard, building a giant chalk cellar, labelling thousands of bottles of wine, or working late in the lab, what do you like to do when you’re winding down in your spare time?
I like to cook! I love to try different things, so recently I tried to cook dim sum which I have never tried before, a few months ago it was Mexican food and yes, just trying to explore new things.
When you first arrived at Hambledon you had already been travelling….
This was not my first time in England! I had already spent thirteen weeks in Liverpool to study English, although before Hambledon I was in Switzerland where I spent three more years to study winemaking more deeply, so I lost bit of my English but yes, it was quite easy to catch up. But a big part of the winemaking is in French anyway, so (laughs)…..
So tell me, what things have you noticed about the English that you both like and don’t like, since you’ve been living here?
Err, what I don’t like is no-one taking proper lunchbreaks (both laugh); not able to sit for half an hour with good food and at least a glass of wine is something I find, even now, a bit difficult to adapt to! (we both laugh)
Out of the wines that are currently available, you have the Classic Cuvée, the Premier Cuvée and the Rosé, which is your favourite and why?
At the moment, it’s a wine that we have not released yet, it’s a Blanc de Meunier, vintage Première Cuvée on the bottle, from the 2018 vintage. This was a wonderful vintage in terms of maturity, and the grapes were very clean, so we were able to produce three more wines that we will release later on…
Wow, that’s exciting! Well long may it continue, and hopefully I’ll see you very soon back at the winery!