Expert’s choice: English sparkling blanc de blancs
What better way to celebrate the arrival of spring than with a glass of crisp, quality sparkling wine? Susy Atkins says that blanc de blancs is the very finest of English wine styles – and here’s why
Blanc de blancs: is it now England’s finest style of wine? I believe so, firmly. The wines I have chosen here are all exquisite. And I could have happily recommended at least half a dozen more, had there been space. Yet 20 years ago it wouldn’t have been possible to run this feature. A few decent English blanc de blancs were emerging (Nyetimber’s first release was a blanc de blancs in 1996), but nowhere near enough to fill these pages. So what has happened to produce this extraordinary burst of wonderful wines?
Stephen Skelton MW, a viticultural consultant specialising in England, believes the warmer climate has led to it. ‘When I started here in 1979, it was very difficult to ripen Chardonnay,’ he says. ‘In fact, until the turn of the century, we just didn’t get the sugar levels needed.’ Now, he says, the acids have dropped, and the sugar levels are way up – a result of more and hotter sunshine, and warmer night-time temperatures.
Still, the acidity – that fresh, crisp, magical tingle at the core of every fine English blanc de blancs – is key to its charm. Think of the country’s best fruits, says Skelton, citing Cox’s Orange Pippin apples, rhubarb and blackcurrants: all high acid. ‘This is what we do best. Champagne lacks it, but English Chardonnay has it. Temper it with age and dosage, and nothing beats it.’
Heights of elegance
Charlie Holland, winemaker at Gusbourne near the south coast of Kent, says: ‘The challenge is walking the tightrope of acidity so you don’t end up with rasping lemon juice. We want salivating but balanced wines, acid-driven but not acid-dominant.’ Use of oak, extended lees contact and dosage can all be used to meld the wine together to mitigate that sharpness. He agrees that, at its best, blanc de blancs is England’s flagship wine: ‘Elegant, focused, with citrus and cream.’
Dermot Sugrue, the winemaker behind four of my choices here, describes blanc de blancs as ‘absolutely my favourite style, especially if the Chardonnay has been grown on chalk’. He admits the chalk is ‘not essential’, but thinks the fruit ‘reaches its greatest heights of elegance when grown on it’, adding that it’s ‘light, delicate, aerial, not necessarily fruit-driven, but more saline and compelling’.
Then of course there are the flavours added by autolysis; for me, that’s cream, yoghurt, bread, brioche and the gentle toastiness that blanc de blancs Chardonnay gains after three or four years.
It’s likely that the growing maturity of many English vines is helping to create greater complexity in blanc de blancs, too. ‘They’re starting to hit their stride, stretching their legs as they gain in years,’ says Sugrue. Talking of maturity, Skelton thinks the wines from cooler years such as 2013 and 2015 with ‘leaner acids’ are those which will last longer. Certainly it will be fascinating to see how the wines I’ve chosen here mature.
A word on the definition of ‘blanc de blancs’ for this purpose. I only included wines made entirely from white grapes, of course, but went beyond the obvious Chardonnay-only wines, so there is one wine that’s a blend of Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc, one of Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, and a 100% Seyval wine included here.
Clearly these make magnificent aperitifs, while for food-matching you can’t go far wrong popping the cork with oysters, crab, fruits de mer and lightly smoked salmon, as well as cold chicken with a lemony dressed salad; save the older examples for richer, creamy seafood dishes or smoked salmon pâté on hot buttered toast.