Exploring English Sparkling Wine
When in England, one might try to fit in with the locals by drinking a pint (or two). I, however, am stubbornly hanging onto my sparkling wine drinking ways. Once upon a time, that may have meant pompously ordering Champagne at the pub. But these days, local bubble is commonly available and justifiably celebrated.
To be precise – English (and Welsh) wine is crafted from grapes grown in England or Wales. (This is not to be confused with British wine which is produced from imported grapes or even grape concentrate). Over two-thirds of the production is bubbly. Yet English Quality Sparkling Wine is not a free for all. Strict regulations stipulate maximum yields, minimum atmospheric pressure, and minimum alcohol of the base wine. Furthermore, the bubbles must be the result of a second fermentation in the bottle and the wine must spend at least nine months on lees.
As for grape varieties, England’s burgeoning vineyards were once dominated by crossings and hybrids specifically created for cold climates. These have largely been replaced by Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The original founders of Nyetimber, Stuart and Sandy Moss are given much credit for initiating the transformation. Upon recognizing that the climate and soil in southeast England was similar to Champagne, they set out to emulate the latter. They released their first traditional method sparkler in 1997 to great acclaim.
Despite northerly latitudes and soggy weather, there are now upwards of 200 wineries throughout England. The majority are located in the south – particularly in the eastern counties of Hampshire, Sussex, Kent and Surrey. Besides boasting a chalky limestone soil, this corner of England has the advantage of sitting in a rain shadow.
I’ve been based in East Sussex for a few months and have at least 10 wineries within 20 miles. Drinking locally has been easy and delicious. That super zippy acidity keeps me going back for more. It is difficult to not compare them with Champagne. Broadly speaking, English fizz exhibits more fruit intensity with a less autolytic character (those yeasty brioche and acacia notes). Where they start to approach Champagne is price. English Sparkling Wine may not be cheap, but it thoroughly merits the splurge – if you are able to find a bottle.
Breaky Bottom Cuvée Koizumi Yakumo Seyval Blanc Brut, 2010 $130
French hybrid Seyval Blanc was England’s most cultivated wine grape at the end of the last century. Peter Hall planted it in Sussex Downs in the ‘80s and made his first sparkler in 1995 – before English Sparkling Wine became a thing. Limpid and clean, it smells like a library of heritage apples. There is also a suggestion of mushrooms and toast as well as a chalky sensation on palate. It might sound weird, but you almost forget this is bubbly. Very dry.
Charles Palmer Blanc de Blancs Brut, 2013 $65
Aged three years on the lees. Enticing aromas of white pear and pastry crust are carried by the elegant bubbles. Tangy lemon curd chimes in on the palate. The vineyards are within a mile from the English Channel, which helps to moderate climate extremes (meaning warmer nights and less risk of frost). It also seems to impart a brininess to this zesty, lip-smacking fizz.
Court Garden Blanc de Blancs Brut, 2015 $60
A classic Blanc de Blancs made entirely from Chardonnay. Light on its feet but very intense, this is almost tropical in character. Pink grapefruit offsets the flinty, minerally core. Lively fizz. Goes beautifully with goat cheese, Dover Sole and popcorn. Yes, the bottle made it through all three.
Henners Brut Rosé, nv $75
Pale colour is just pink enough so you know it’s rosé. This is very classy and oh so Wimbledon with its strawberry and cream character. Scents of strawberry are simultaneously delicate and exuberant. Persistent forest berries follow through on the palate. There is a fruity sweetness, but the finish is dry. Creamy mousse melts leisurely.
Vineyard photos from Wine and Vineyards of England | Wine of England