On the surface it is a glitzy, globe-trotting spectacle of speed. Peer underneath the bonnet however, and what you find is an unending grind for tiny engineering improvements. Individually, each improvement might give just an extra percent of grip through a corner, or 1mph increased speed on the straight. Yet aggregated in sufficient quantity, these marginal gains can make the difference in winning the championship.
There’s considerably less carbon dioxide produced in winemaking than in running a Formula 1 team. Yet for Simon Woodhead, a former engineer who designed sensors for McLaren F1 cars, there’s a connection. Measuing CO2 output is how he controls fermentation speeds at his West Sussex winery Stopham. Rather appropriately, it’s done via a sensor.
If fermentation is proceeding too quickly, a sensor on the tank detects the extra levels of CO2 being outputted, and it cools the tank to slow the process. If the sensor detects too little CO2, the tank is warmed, and fermentation is sped up. Most winemakers set their tanks at a particular temperature, which they hope will generate the best results overall. “Often that’s too high at the start of fermentation,” Simon explains, “and too low at the end. So, what’s the right temperature? Well, you can tell what’s right by measuring the CO2 and controlling the rate of fermentation in real time.”
In the contest to make great English wine, that’s marginal gain #1 for Stopham.
That Stopham exists at all is due to a passion for wine in general, and for aromatic grape varieties in particular. Without passion, how else can you explain Simon’s decision to swap the glamour (and pay cheques) of a leading F1 team for a winemaking course at Plumpton and a field near Chichester?
Yet visit the field – now Stopham’s 16 acre vineyard – and you’ll quickly see why Simon fell in love. The vineyard slopes southwards, a suntrap with the protection – and exquisite views – of the South Downs National Park. In the centre of the vineyard is a beautiful 300-year-old Corsican Pine, which you’ll see emblazoned on Stopham’s wine labels. Grape vines adore the site’s free-draining Greensand soil.
Stopham specialises in still wines from aromatic grape varieties. Of 21,000 vines planted, 17,000 are Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, with Bacchus, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir bringing up the tail. This too was a decision driven by passion. After all, when he found the site in 2007, most thought England too cold to make high quality still wines. It was mentor Chris Foss at Plumpton that pointed the direction. “He was a real pioneer of encouraging people to believe they can plant vines and make good wines in England,” Simon tells me.
“He inspired me to look at Alsace varieties. Hardly anyone was doing it; Pinot Gris and Blanc are hard to grow. It’s harder to make still wines anyway. You need ripeness in the grapes rather than getting flavour via secondary fermentation like sparkling wines. But these varieties are incredibly aromatic, and I love to drink aromatic whites.
“Pinot Gris is our top selling wine because it’s got such a lovely flavour profile: stone fruits, mango, passion fruit. Very complex and succulent. Lovely long, luscious, lingering finish. Really versatile for food – curry or blue cheese.
“We’re often compared to Alsace Pinot Gris, but to me the Stopham is more refreshing, not as sweet. It has a complex, rich mouthfeel, but still really refreshing. More similar to New Zealand or Oregon than Alsace.”
Simon’s passion is clear. It is also clear that he is incredibly proud of what he and his small team have achieved at Stopham – there are just four of them who do everything, from pruning the vines to making the wine, to looking after visitors on vineyard tours. Yet what he’s most proud of right now is his brand-new frost protection system, which sprays the vineyard with water in the event of the temperature dropping below zero.
Quick wine geek moment – the type of frost that vineyards are particularly susceptible to during the delicate budburst period in spring is called a ‘radiation frost’. This can happen on cloudless nights with little or no wind and low humidity. Once the sun sets, all the heat that has been absorbed by the ground during the day radiates upwards, and because there is no cloud, it escapes into the upper atmosphere, with cold air being drawn down in its place. This can be devastating for the new buds.
When water is sprayed above the vines, the freezing process releases energy stored in the water – around 80 calories for every 1 millilitre of water, raising the air temperature around the vines. In addition, when the water freezes, it forms an igloo-like ice capsule around the buds, which prevents the buds themselves freezing.
The new system can be programmed to target only sections of the vineyard at risk of frost, preventing any unnecessary use of resources. For a vineyard that prides itself on sustainability, it’s a lot more efficient and environmentally friendly (though less picturesque) than burning bougies.
This ethos of sustainability runs throughout the setup. Stopham isn’t certified organic, but rarely sprays. Part of sustainability, Simon tells us, is having a business that succeeds. While he’ll always try to avoid spraying, he argues it is more sustainable to save the crop if rain is followed by warm weather and mould becomes a risk. Yet like a Formula 1 team, the Stopham team is always on the lookout for better solutions. Moving away from herbicides in favour of mowing under the vines is a recent marginal gain.
Further gains come from reusing resources. The winery is in a lovely Victorian Grade II listed barn and is very much a winemaking facility. This is no grand, manicured, trophy estate with millions of pounds of investment in tasting rooms and vineyard restaurants. It’s much more akin to the kind of gorgeously arcadian winery you might stumble across while on holiday in rural France. The type of place where you’ll meet a single vigneron who looks after the vineyard, and then makes and ages the wine in his own cellar. Like the best of those holiday discoveries, the wines are incredible.
Sometimes, car design ideas that are meant to improve aerodynamics end up reducing grip and so on. By focusing on still wines, and particularly on difficult Alsace varieties like Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, could Stopham be in danger of building a lemon?
Given that many in the English winemaking scene are moving in Stopham’s direction, the answer must clearly be a resounding ‘NO!’ Pinot Gris is now the ninth most planted variety in the UK. It is the most planted noble variety outside of the big three Champagne grapes. Some are suggesting it could become the country’s signature white wine grape.
To test this theory, Marasby will shortly be hosting a Pinot Pioneers tasting, which will focus exclusively on English white wines made from the Pinots. Simon may have been one of the first in England to plant these grapes on any scale – but even he is surprised at how many producers have been able to submit wines in this category. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
The Marasby Pinot Pioneers tasting is about highlighting the overall quality of white Pinots being produced in the UK, and examining the style. We prefer to focus on what’s exciting about the category overall, rather than setting wines against each other in competition.
Having said this, there’s a pretty good chance that Stopham’s marginal gains will end up winning them the championship.
The Stopham team are true pioneers of this grape variety in the UK, and it really shows. The 2022 is a beautifully precise Pinot Gris, yet Stopham’s winemaking passion shines through with its combination of ripe, succulent peach and pear fruit, and its zesty, limey, goosberry-fruit finish. It is incredibly ripe and intense – so much so that you almost wouldn’t believe that it is an English white wine.
Yet English it is – and if you want to understand why so many are talking up Pinot Gris as a potential signature grape for English white wines – this would be a great place to start.
Pair this with crispy air-fried chicken wings, served with a honey-sriracha dipping sauce.
We built MARASBY to be a trusted place where you can find helpful and interesting content about British-grown food and wine.
Our content is written by humans who love local, sustainable and delicious UK wines. We make every effort to check our content, but as humans, we occasionally make mistakes. If you spot anything wrong with the site, we’d always rather you told us. Don’t be shy!