Drink Bill Knott
Twenty years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Stuart and Sandy Moss, a couple from Chicago who had made a few dollars in the photocopier business and had a rather eccentric dream: they wanted to make great sparkling wine in the south of England.
To that end, they had found a property: Nyetimber Manor, in West Sussex, a dilapidated medieval priory, once occupied by Anne of Cleves, that came with 105 acres of land. This was in 1987, just before the Great Storm, and the nice chap from the Min of Ag told them to stick to growing apples.
Undeterred, and with lots of help from the curious champenois, they planted the three classic Champagne grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Seven years later, they released their first wine, the Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 1992. It was a hit: there had been plenty of previous attempts at making English fizz, but the Mosses outdid them all, partly because of their soil – the same belt of chalk that runs through the Côte des Blancs in Champagne, with the same revered patches of greensand soil - and partly their insistence on ignoring early-ripening, mostly German grape varieties.
The Mosses sold Nyetimber some years ago, but their influence lives on: earlier this year, Nyetimber’s Cherie Spriggs became the first winemaker outside Champagne (and, indeed, the first woman) to win the International Wine Challenge’s Sparkling Winemaker of the Year award.
The good news for patriotic drinkers is that standards of English fizz have risen across the board. Vineyards are maturing, producing better, more complex juice; stocks of reserve wines – essential for producing a top-quality non-vintage wine – are higher than ever, lending consistency to the wines; and climate change seems to be playing a part, producing riper fruit than in the past. The grande marque Champagne houses are taking an interest, too, attracted by the relatively low price of land suitable for vineyards here: Pommery has bought plots in Hampshire, and Taittinger in Kent.
Producing good fizz is still expensive: this is not tank-fermented industrial prosecco, nor can the fledgling English wine industry hope for the economies of scale enjoyed by Spain’s huge producers of cava, while yields in English vineyards are only a half to a third of those in their Champagne equivalents.
For quality, however, the best wines now represent very good value. Nyetimber’s Brut Classic NV is £31 from the Wine Society; Sainsbury’s has Chapel Down’s Brut NV for £22 (the rosé is £26); and, at a friendlier price, Tesco’s excellent English Sparkling Brut, by Hush Heath Estate in Kent, is a mere £18.
From a drink that used to taste vaguely like cheap Champagne in good years, and more like sparkling apple juice in bad years, English fizz has truly come of age, 21 years since a couple from Chicago released their first wine, to a mixture of scepticism and amusement. And it may yet prove to be the most Brexit-proof tipple for discerning wine lovers: as long as we can find a willing workforce to pick the grapes, that is.