The Champion English Winemaker giving Champagne a run for its money.
Continuing our series of interviews showcasing the stories behind a selection of women within the English Wine Industry, we introduce Cherie Spriggs; head winemaker at prestigious Nyetimber and officially one of the best Sparkling Winemakers in the world.
Since starting at Nyetimber, Cherie and her husband Brad’s oenological efforts have played a major part in transforming this trail blazing, West Sussex producer into an internationally recognised premium brand of Sparkling Wine.
Most recently, Cherie was awarded the milestone accolade of ‘Sparkling Winemaker of the Year’ at the International Wine Challenge 2018; one of the most highly-regarded wine competitions in the world. Not only is Cherie the first ever Winemaker outside of France to receive this coveted award, she is also the first ever woman. With similarly successful female peers including Emma Rice of Hattingley Valley and Sam Linter of Bolney to name a few, Cherie’s success provides inspiration to women in the industry.
Whilst this is intended as a celebration, we also hope that it provides meaningful and inspiring insight to those considering a career in wine.
At which point did it become obvious that wine making was the route you were destined for? Was this always the plan?
No, this wasn’t always my intended route. The point it became really obvious for me was while I was doing a Masters of Science degree at a wine research centre in Vancouver, Canada. Having studied Biochemistry for my Bachelors, I started this masters degree in wine research partly because I wanted to do a masters degree and partly because I loved wine. During that degree (which I cannot speak highly enough of - the level of science in wine we were working at was cutting edge), I realised that as much as I enjoyed studying the science in wine, my creative side really wanted to be more involved in wine making. So that really was the point. Whilst the artistic side of life is important to me (I trained as a classical pianist), I also loved science and I just felt like that fit of science and art was such a beautiful blend.
What brought you to Nyetimber?
I am, despite sounding like a Canadian, a dual citizen with Canada and the UK and have been ever since I was a young girl. My parents live in Canada but on a trip to England, some years ago, my father brought me back a bottle of Nyetimber. I remember tasting it and thinking ‘oh okay... not perfect but there's some really interesting stuff here’. Five years later, our intention was to become winemakers in Canada. We had job offers on the table but they were not dream jobs. Whilst out on a walk one evening, Brad said to me, ‘you know what?, why don’t we just apply for dream jobs? - things we think we’re never going to do?’ The first thing that came into my mind, was tasting the Nyetimber, 5 years prior. So I said, ‘okay, i’m gonna write Nyetimber an email and just ask them if its worth moving to England and looking for work’. Nyetimber replied the next day saying that they’d been looking for two qualified wine makers for six months. We had interviews with the C.E.O and it went well - and here we are! Because I had the dual citizenship, I knew what to expect of England so it was an easy transition for me.
Please describe the highest point of your career so far...
I was very honoured to win Sparkling Winemaker of the Year at the International Wine Challenge! I was the first person from any country in the world other than France to win this having always been won by someone from Champagne for decades until me. Plus I was the first woman to receive the award. After working for 11 years at Nyetimber, to build the quality and consistency of Nyetimber and be the pioneer of our thriving industry, having such an award was very gratifying.
How do you balance your work life / personal life?
Being a winemaker is incredibly intensive, but the thing is we work in an amazing industry and I love wine. People always ask if I drink wine when I go home at night. I say, of course I do, because wine is such a pleasure, I really really love it. So for me in the traditional sense, one could say that there is a mis-balance between my personal life and my career but it’s just it’s such an amazing field - it’s not like I work in a job that I don’t like. All that being said, I do think it’s important to take breaks. So you do, you find gaps when you can get away… on either a day to day basis or on a vacation. I love gardening, I love to spend time with plants and in nature. I can’t do everything that I love to the full capacity I want, but you find gaps and then you find ways to do these things. I have a piano and I don’t get to play nearly as much as I’d love to...I can’t say i’m progressing very well! When you have the opportunity to go on a proper vacation, then we rely on our amazing team to do things to a great standard while we’re away. I have a guy in the cellar who’s been working with us for almost 10 years and he’s fantastic. We have a really good, solid and stable team that we can trust.
As part of an industry which has been historically male dominated, do you feel your gender has ever acted as a barrier to your success?
Not at all. I can’t say that I’m unaware of some of the difficulties that some of my female colleagues may have encountered but I have personally never experienced this - it doesn’t even cross my mind. I have worked in other wine producing countries, some of which have the reputation of that being an issue. Maybe i’m ignorant to it but this has not been a problem for me.
To anyone looking to start a winemaking/viticultural career within the English Wine Industry - what are the two main pieces of advice you would give?
If you’re planning a career in the industry, get a good education - it really matters. You have to do a very good oenology degree particularly, I would say, for sparkling wine because it is that much more technical. Whilst you do hear stories of the winemaker that learnt by experience or the garagiste as it were - i’d say that it’s a risky plan. I completed a Masters of Science degree in Vancouver at the Wine Research Center but I studied for my Oenology degree at Adelaide university in Australia. One of the reasons the university there is so great is that it is surrounded by the heart of the Australian wine industry.
The second point that I feel is very important is actually advice given to me by a very important teacher at Adelaide University. One of the things he said to me was that if your aim happens to be to go and make the world's best chardonnay, of course you should get experience with chardonnay in different areas of the world. He also said that he would highly encourage you to go and experience wine making completely different to Chardonnay - go and do something very different to keep your mind open and fresh. I think that’s really important. I actually did that myself - we chose to work in a region producing a wine that I don’t actually really care for that much but it was very beneficial to see a completely different way of working.
Which of your current wines are you most excited about?
Am I allowed to say all of them? Are you forcing me into current? We have some releases coming up soon, which i’m super excited about. In terms of current releases commercially available right now - we launched our new 2013 vintage of our Tillington single vineyard a few months ago. This beautiful young wine is going to be great and offers a proper expression of what our Tillington vineyard is all about. If i’m allowed to give two though - I would say our Demi-Sec. This isn’t a new release but it’s a release we’ve had for a while.We were the first ones to go to market with an English Sparkling Demi Sec back in 2012. It was conceived out of a need for something to go with a light dessert but I am actually really, really liking it with Asian food at the moment. Sparkling wine pairings can be tricky - especially with such a diverse category as Asian food. I’m not saying that our Demi Sec will go with all of them because the Asian category is so diverse (a big heavy red curry is not going to work with this wine) but there are some lovely examples of Asian food pairings which I am just loving at the moment.
What were the last two truly memorable English wines (that weren’t your own) that you tasted?
You know more and more what’s important to me when i’m looking at other English Sparkling wines are people that are able to bring consistency. This is what I feel I have brought to Nyetimber over the years - consistency of good wine year after year after year.
A consistent wine that stands out to me every time I taste it is the Bolney Sparkling Rose. I think Sam has nailed this, she’s got herself into a really good position. That’s really what springs to mind for me. What I like is the fact that for let’s say the last 5 years I’ve tried it, every taste makes me go ‘yep, Sam, you’ve done it again!’
How do you feel the English industry and wines themselves compare to some of the other newer cool climates regions you’ve previously worked in?
I would say England is cooler than any of the regions I’ve worked in, despite them all being cool climate. Ofcourse the growing conditions in England are wonderful for making Sparkling wine but we’re right on the edge here - and the beauty of that is that you can get these exciting sparkling wines. We usually get it almost exactly perfect with exactly the kind of weather we need but it can still be challenging… it’s England - it rains - we need to deal with that. You know what - every wine region in the world has it’s achilles heel so England has its challenges but frankly whilst i was working in Australia - so did they. Every region in the world has something that they’re watching or taking care of - it's just different.