Champagne: English Sparkling Wine Throws Down The Gauntlet
“For my own part, I find English wines much zippier than their counterparts in Champagne, with a racing acidity. Think of fresh, green, Granny Smith apples and a dry, electrifying crispness.”
-Will Lyons, The Sunday Times
We’re celebrating the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo this month in case you hadn’t noticed, even though it seems that this battle may not have been as crucial as our history books led us to believe, and the British would never have won it in any case if it hadn’t been for the Prussians, arriving at the eleventh hour to save the day.
After the battle the British troops went on the rampage in Northern France. They pillaged the cellars of the great Champagne houses and there were fears that, as businesses, they were ruined, with future production in jeopardy.
But instead the British had consumed so much that they developed a taste for it. Soon large orders for French bubbly were emanating from the London clubs, and instead of the feared bankruptcy the French champagne houses began to prosper.
Now French champagne is under threat from the British again – this time as a result of many really excellent new ‘méthode champenoise’ houses and vinyards which have become established across southern England, aided by the more clement weather resulting from global warming. These ‘champagnes’ are winning awards against their French rivals. Now, even Taittinger has bought 170 acres in Kent on which to grow grapes for bubbly.
English sparkling wine is still in its infancy however. In comparison to the 300 French houses producing 350m bottles every year, England has 135 wineries producing 4.5m bottles. England’s sparkling has its own taste – it can’t call on the variety of growers that the French champagne houses can, and it still can’t mix years together – so it still doesn’t have the depth. Nevertheless the threat is serious – in The Noble Rot’s recent blind-tasting of eight champagnes and four English sparkling wines, English producers won the top two places, with judge Xavier Rousset commenting on the Hambledon Classic Cuveé “it will be even better in a few years”.
Cottonworth – one of the best of the English champagnes
One of the best is Cottonworth, which has just bagged a Gold medal for its Classic Cuveé and a Silver medal for its sparkling rosé from the UKVA. Cottonworth also runs tours and tastings. Cottonworth is in Hampshire, and although Nyetimber started growing in West Sussex it has since bought vineyards in Hampshire (right next door to Cottonworth) where the climate is more or less the same, but the chalky soil is even better for the grapes. Coates and Seely “scoured the slopes of southern England, in vain, for the ideal terroir” – they knew what they were doing – Christian Seely is the English Managing Director of Axa Millésimes (owners of Château Pichon-Longueville, Chateau Suduiraut and Quinta do Noval, among others). On the point of giving up, the partners finally found what they were looking for in Hampshire.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge served up Chapel Down English sparkling (grown in Kent) at their wedding.
The best English sparkling wines are:
- Cottonworth – Gold medal award for its Classic Cuveé and a Silver medal for its sparkling rosé from the UKVA
- Chapel Down
- Wiston Estate Brut NV (West Sussex) – their Cuveé came 6th in the Rotter’s French v English competition
- Camel Valley (Cornwall)
- Ridgeview (Sussex)
- Herbert Hall (Kent) 2013 sparkling rosé said by Edward Gerard, wine buyer at Harrods, to be excellent
- 2010 Nyetimber Classic Cuveé (from their original vineyards in West Sussex, but now with vineyards in Hampshire) – this came second in the Rotter’s French v English competition. One of the judges, Kate Spicer, described it as “feminine in a Céline kind of way….very elegant; not nasty nightclub bubbles for slags”
- Bolney (West Sussex)
- Coates & Seely (Hampshire)
- Denbies (Surrey)
- Gusbourne Estate (Kent) – the Brut Reserve came 9th in the Rotter’s competition
- Hambledon (Hampshire) – the Classic Cuveé came first in the Rotter’s French v English competition. This was a blind-tasting. “One judge mistakenly wrote ‘this has to be French’, … Jancis Robinson described it as ‘bracing, like a seaside walk'”
And, in the long term, it may be all change again. One study, Changements climatique et impacts sur la viticulture en France [Greenpeace 2009, cited as ‘option 2’ by Glec (Groupe d’experts intergouvernemental sur l’évolution du climat)] , suggests wine growing areas may have moved 1000 kilometres north by 2100 – it won’t be champagne being produced in England, but Bordeaux-type red wines.
And the bubbles – are they important?
Did you know? There are approximately 20 million bubbles in a glass of champagne! As they rise to the surface they pull with them flavour compounds in the champagne which explode out of the glass in a mass of miniature drops of liquid. This is part of what gives it it’s character – both in terms of smell and flavour.
This post is dedicated to Mia Laband and a very special bottle of (French) champagne drunk together on this date some years ago.
What else to listen to as you sip but the Champagne song from Die Fledermaus.