The chances are that if you are reading this Blog you read a fair bit about wine, and if you do you have probably read something in the past few weeks about English sparkling wine. You may even have drunk some! As the large Champagne Houses gear up for the pre-Christmas supermarket discount campaigns (perhaps not so evident this year), the producers of English fizz have been attacking the market through some well-timed blind tastings where the British contingent has done pretty well.
One of the tastings to garner a bit of publicity – it helped that Jancis Robinson wrote it up in the Financial Times – was conducted by the boys behind Noble Rot, the wine and culture magazine which now has a wine bar in London’s mid-town district, on Lamb’s Conduit Street. Tasting blind, a coterie of experienced judges placed three English sparklers in the top half-dozen, with two English wines taking the two top spots.
Noble Rot Champagne v English Sparkling Top 6
- Hambledon Classic Cuvée
- Nyetimber Classic Cuvée
- Pol Roger Brut Réserve
- Taittinger Brut Réserve
- Bérêche Brut Réserve
- Wiston Estate Cuvée 2010
Noble Rot Magazine’s fascinating tasting
Of course it’s far from the first time that England has triumphed over France in British wine trade organised blind tastings, but it all adds to the…well, is it fame or is it hype? What does the future of English and Welsh sparkling wine hold, and which are the wines currently leading the pack?
UK Sparklers in the Press
There are upwards of 500 vineyards in the UK which engage in some level of commercial production, and about 130+ wineries (contract winemaking is very common). We have a little over 4,500 acres of vines (that’s just less than 1,900 hectares), and now the largest portion of those vines are the traditional “Champagne” varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Approximately 65% of production is sparkling wine (25% still white and 10% red). Production is concentrated in Sussex, followed by Kent and Hampshire, but there are vineyards as far west as Cornwall’s Camel Valley, and as far north as Leicestershire (Welland Valley), Norfolk (Winbirri) and Shropshire (Wroxeter). Wales also boasts several vineyards making a name for themselves. The English Wine Producers web site has a lot of useful statistical information.
The surprise is that even though the industry has grown a lot in the past five or six years, it really is about to take off. From the current production of just over 6 million bottles per year, it is estimated that by 2020 England and Wales will be producing 12 million bottles, in other words double current output. But the sky could be the limit if full advantage is taken of a study by the Government Environment Agency. According to Rebecca Smithers in an article in The Guardian (How English wine went from a joke to sales of 6m bottles a year, Guardian Sustainable Business, 16 December), their laser-mapping study shows a further 75,000 acres of viable vineyard land. She also quotes figures from accountants UHY Hacker Young which show a 40% increase in applications to HM Revenue & Customs for a licence to produce alcohol (65 applications in 2014, up from 43 in the previous year).
The question on many wine lovers’ lips is “will growth like this be sustainable?”. That’s a difficult question to answer for two reasons – quality and price. The first of those is really going to be determined by levels of investment. The key to quality, it seems to me, has been proved to be longer lees ageing of the wines before bottling and release (and the building up of Reserve Wines for non-vintage blends). If you are buying quality Champagne you are probably just beginning to invest in some 2008s, but from many top producers, the current vintage might be 2006. Some English producers who offered early promise had a case to answer over quality a few years ago, when one suspects that wines were being pushed to market too early out of commercial necessity – for cashflow.
As the industry becomes more stable, we are seeing the benefits of longer ageing by the top players. What effect a substantial increase in planting would have, should it all come on stream at once, I’m not sure. At around £30 for a bottle of good English fizz, the quality really needs to match Champagne at a similar price, and with more wine to sell, that will put pressure on price and therefore quality.
Nyetimber’s smart advert in the prestigious World of Fine Wine journal
So which producers are the best? A poll I posted on wine-pages.com provides a snapshot of the views of one part of the wine community. From a little over 100 individual replies, the voting was as follows:
- Nyetimber – 49%
- Ridgeview – 10%
- Gusbourne – 9%
- Camel Valley – 7%
I don’t think those results would surprise many, although the category “Other” garnered 15 votes and I have scratched my head at which producers I missed off my list of sixteen suggestions? For what it’s worth, I will add a few more to look out for: Exton Park, Meonhill, Hambledon (successful at Noble Rot’s tasting but only two votes on Winepages), Hattingley Valley (not tasted but someone I trust has, and their King’s Cuvée (around £65) joined Nyetimber’s Blanc de Blancs 2007 in Decanter Magazine’s 50 Star Buys of 2015), Wiston (along with their winemaker Dermot Sugrue’s own bottling, Sugrue-Pierre), Coates & Seely and Wales’ own Ancre Hill (which we enjoyed at an Oddities lunch this year).
Sugrue-Pierre, the personal cuvée from Wiston’s ace winemaker, Dermot Sugrue
It’s worthwhile listing a few of the English sparklers which have won awards over the past twelve months or so:
- Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championship 2015 National Champion – Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2010 (their 2003 won best Vintage Magnum in 2014)
- Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championship 2014 National Champion – Digby 2009 Reserve
- Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championship 2014 World Champion Vintage Rosé – Hattingley Valley 2011
- Decanter World Wine Awards 2015 Regional Trophy – Coates & Seely Blanc de Blancs NV
- Decanter WWA 2015 Gold Medals – Chapel Down BdeB 2009, Digby 2009, Gusbourne BdeB 2007, Hoffmann & Rathbone BdeB 2010, Hush Heath Balfour 1503 NV and Ridgeview BdeB 2011
- International Wine Challenge 2015 English Sparkling Trophy – Court Garden BdeB 2010
One of the best places to buy English sparkling wines is from Waitrose. This supermarket chain may be mentioned less often these days for its wine offering than used to be the case, but they still have an impressive array of English and Welsh fizz. You’ll find an exemplary locavore attitude to stocking wines at their local branches, but the whole range, approaching 40 lines, can be found online at Waitrose Cellar.
Exton Park, whose wines I enjoyed at this year’s “Fizz” tasting in London
On a smaller level, London has it’s own specialist shop for home grown wines, The Wine Pantry by London’s Borough Market. They have an excellent range and I don’t know of any UK wine shop which stocks more. However, if you are willing to invest in a little history, perhaps it’s worth visiting Berry Bros & Rudd. They still have stock of Nyetimber’s 1996 Blanc de Blancs, £110 in magnum. It would make the perfect Christmas gift, for me at least!
I particularly like the Cuvée Rosé and the quirky (Dornfelder based) Cuvée Noir from my local vineyard, Bolney Estate
I think the future of English sparkling wine looks bright, though I do hope that in an attempt to find a marketing hook, an all-encompassing label for the genre comparable to Champagne, the powers that be don’t choose Britagne, or something similarly cringeworthy – just my opinion. There’s no doubt that, despite the undoubted hype over this category, there are some truly magnificent wines being made. Exciting times, especially for those of us who live so close to a good number of the main players. There are now a lot of wines worth trying. Perhaps we’ll begin laying them down too, so that the likes of that 1996 are not isolated treats.
Happy Christmas and a wonderful 2016 to all my wonderful readers, who obviously love exploring the outer reaches of our wine galaxy as much as I do. I would genuinely like to thank everyone who took the time to read my Blog in 2015, and those who made such kind and constructive comments.