KEEP CALM AND SPARKLE ON
Once derided, English wine is now definitely a thing – and one that quietly continues to expand and impress the experts. ANDREW DEMBINA talks to some top producers
SPARKLING AND STILL wines from England are among the latest toasts of the drinks world – yes, wines produced in a country notorious for rain and chill. This is not an extremely late April fool leg-pull, it’s actual – and England (now with its own recognised appellation) joins other wine regions in higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere (and lower ones in the globe’s more southerly reaches) in enjoying one of the few benefits of global warming: an expansion in decent grapevine microclimates.
Last year was the fledgling English wine industry’s most prolific yet. The nation’s 480 vineyards – predominantly in the southern counties of Sussex and Dorset – along with a further 22 in the principality of Wales, produced a sizeable 3.86 million bottles in 2017.
The most talked about are sparkling wines – made the same way and with the same grapes as in France’s Champagne region; in fact, in their early days most producers commissioned viticultural surveys and operational consultations from the experts from northwest France. The resulting sparklers have been winning international wine awards and a few have fared very well against French and other more established European fizz-makers.
Such success has even attracted houses from France to invest in English vineyards that share chalky soils and climate very similar to those in the Champagne. This spring, Vranken-Pommery became the first of the big champagne marques to release an English non-vintage sparkling wine: Louis Pommery England Brut.
And all this is not an entirely new story; 2000 was the first significant year of UK wine production, at 1.34 million bottles. If that sounds like a lot, bear in mind that latest stats for France (the world’s third-biggest wine producer) is 4.74 billion, according to an April report by the International Organisation of Vine and Wine.
But when a domestic sparkling wine became the official pour of Queen Elizabeth II’s 80th birthday in 2006, and then of the British prime minister’s residence a few years later, things started to appear more serious. These were from Ridgeview estate, the first English wines to impress international judges at the annual International Wine & Spirits Competition, held in London in 2005, when its vintage blend Bloomsbury 2002 received the Best International Sparkling Wine award. Ridgeview has continued to impress in wine competitions – in particular, with its all-Chardonnay Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs, from vines planted in 1995. Fast forward to June 2017 and to
Country Life magazine’s first annual UK Wine Awards, judged by five Masters of Wine and other notable palates. Almost 300 wines were put forward by producers of all sizes, ranging from the ever-increasing selection of sparkling wines to still whites, rosés and reds. At the close of the event, TV presenter, broadcaster and wine writer Oz Clarke said, “The range of winners shows just what extraordinary directions this industry is going in.”
Coates & Seely became the competition’s overall winner with its La Perfide Blanc de Blancs 2009. This producer’s bubbly features on impressive London wine lists,
being favoured by that bastion of elegant old-school Englishness, The Dorchester. The hotel’s head of bars, Simon Rowe, says of it: “Coates & Seely sparkling wine, produced in the North Hampshire Downs on the same rift of chalk that runs through Champagne, is a delicious wine – incorporating modern wine techniques to create delicious flavour. The rosé non-vintage has wonderful scents of rose hips and strawberries, and pairs well with our afternoon tea – we were delighted to also be pouring this alongside The Dorchester’s afternoon tea at our pop-up at the Chelsea Flower Show this year.” The label is also the exclusive English pour at the beautiful Goodwood racecourse.
Like their French counterparts, some of the most complex English sparkling wines pair well with food. This applies to Ridgeview’s two limited-release vintages made solely from pinot noir fruit – a Blanc de Noirs (recommended with mackerel, mushroom or duck dishes) and a Rosé de Noirs (a good companion with bread-based salty canapés, salmon and strawberries), both of which won major accolades.
A producer that’s become synonymous with quality English wine is Chapel Down in the county of Kent, whose wines have been available in Hong Kong and Japan for 10 years. Its winemaker, Josh Donaghay-Spire, says its sparklers (it produces still wine too) are enjoyed in the same way as French champagne, but the flavour profile is a little different. “We like to get as much expression from our fruit as possible,” he explains. “So our wines are generally less about yeast characteristics and more about a fresher style.”
Rebecca Hansford, joint owner of 15-year-old Furleigh Estate in Dorset with her winemaker husband Ian Edwards, admits that English bubbly initially took its cues from the French. “In the early days we did copy champagne and they are the masters,” she says. “But now the industry is growing up we’re developing a particular English style: freshness, fruitdriven – and there’s not so much of the very old reserve wines [in the blend], just because we’re a very young industry.”
So how is the world treating English sparkling wine generally? “Ten years ago, we were taken less seriously than we are now,” says Donaghay-Spire. “Anyone who’s knowledgeable about the world of wine is well aware of the developments in England. Our wines are now regularly beating champagne in blind tastings, we continue to gain market share and we’re now looked at in a completely different light.
“It was also very pleasing to see Taittinger plant a vineyard in 2017, close to one of our own in Kent – a [French] ‘grande marque’ champagne house planting a vineyard in the UK with the aim of producing a top-quality English sparkling wine. We look forward to tasting them sometime around 2023.”
And it’s not all about bubbles. Still wines from England, in smaller quantities, are also beginning to have their day. Furleigh Estate also makes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as Bacchus, a German grape variety found in some of that country’s white blends and that’s sometimes compared to Sauvignon Blanc.
“It’s quite distinctive when it’s grown in the UK, with
“we continue to gain market share and we’re now looked at in a completely different light ”
gooseberry and elderflower flavours,” says Hansford. Her winery also grows Rondo, a full-bodied fruity red hybrid variety created and planted in northern Europe from the late 1990s.
As well as Bacchus and Pinot Noir, Chapel Down also produces a few thousand bottles annually of a prized oak-aged reserve Chardonnay at its Kit’s Coty estate. It’s one that Donaghay-Spire is particularly proud of, saying it’s “a world-class Chardonnay that can rival the best from Burgundy”. Demand for this single-vineyard bottling, which averages 90 points across leading wine publications, is high and last year, a £100 blanc de blancs sparkling wine – Kit’s Coty Coeur de Cuvée 2013 – was released with fruit from the same plot. This took the crown for most pricey English fizz on release, previously set by Nyetimber’s Single Vineyard Tillington 2010 (a mere £75). Nyetimber in West Sussex was England’s first winery to embark on the sparkling-wine mission, readying its vineyards more than 25 years ago, and some of its older vines are already producing more complex wines.
Among others, this year sees the release of a sparkling blanc de blancs from Rathfinny Wine Estate in Sussex, after bottling its first wine in May 2015. The family-run estate aims to reach production of more than 960,000 bottles by 2025.
Last year’s bumper UK bottle count was up 64 percent on 2016, when 2.36 million bottles were released. Just five percent of all wine made in England is estimated to be exported, and growing curiosity is outstripping demand. Whether bottles can be laid down to mature for drinking pleasure and appreciate in value for collectors remains to be seen, as the industry is still very young – and the experts won’t commit themselves just yet.
But it seems time to take note of English wine’s credibility. “It’s OK if some consumers treat it as a novelty drink – which they do to a degree,” concedes Donaghay-Spire. “But once they taste our wines they’ll understand what’s happening.”
Josh Donaghay-Spire, winemaker at Chapel Down
RIDGEVIEW ESTATE VINES AND SURROUNDING FARMLAND AND VINEYARDS IN SUSSEX