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Albion Gets Serious: English Sparkling Wine
BY NEAL MARTIN | JULY 08, 2020
“I imagine hell like this: Italian punctuality, German humor and English wine.”
–Peter Ustinov, actor
Though English born and bred, in my formative years as a wine pro, I never bought into the fervor for my homeland’s vinous contribution. A mixture of national pride and underdog spirit encouraged some of my compatriots to extol the virtues of what I tasted as ordinary wines that mainstream media would subsequently use as fodder for promoting England as a viticultural Shangri-la. The same old headlines would be wheeled out: “Look out, Champagne! The Brits are coming!”
Whatever. There might have been 38 vineyards mentioned in the Domesday Book (the Norman conquest did have its upside) and Londoner Dr. Christopher Merret might have made Champagne feasible when in 1662 he recommended using thick glass to prevent bottles from exploding into a frothy mess, but the reality is that while our European cousins nurtured their own sophisticated wine cultures to accompany their sophisticated gastronomy, the English had little incentive to create profound wine to marry with turnips and Spam. Instead, the Sceptred Isle guzzled ale and mead and England became a petri dish for decent wine writers: we couldn’t make it, so we might as well write about it. Sure, a small number of amateurs dabbled with German varieties and hybrids, but the results were at best drinkable and at worst made paint stripper seem palatable.
This began to change in the early 1990s. Pioneers such as Camel Valley and Nyetimber adopted a more serious attitude toward winemaking, and when their first releases were garlanded with awards, it signaled to others what might be possible. A new breed of winemaker with a professional attitude and ambition began to usurp the old guard of winemaking dilettantes. Albion, God forbid, began producing sparkling wine worth talking and writing about.
My negative attitude toward English sparkling wine has changed because incontrovertibly, the wines have improved no end. When the current pandemic rendered my passport temporarily redundant, my instant reaction was to taste close to home, since I can cycle to my nearest vineyard in 20 minutes. So, I commenced gathering samples with the idea of a summer report, to put a stake in the ground in terms of Vinous’s coverage. This is not an all-encompassing article that strives to review every English estate; instead, it focuses upon most of the top producers. In the coming months, as we hopefully open up post-lockdown, I may hop in my bike or car to check out more producers omitted from this article.
This spot is about 10 minutes’ drive from my house on the North Downs. The cutaway exposes a band of Cretaceous white chalk – the same band that surfaces in Champagne. Albury Vineyard lies about 10 meters away.
English Wine 101
Since this is the inaugural Vinous report, I shall give readers a 101 on the English wine scene. I use the word “English” principally because all the wines in this report are from England; however, there are vineyards in Wales, which has its own PDO status (Protected Designation of Origin) recognized by the European Union. While writing this report, I found tasting notes from a visit I made to Wales’s Ancre Hill a while ago, but for some reason never published. I mention the distinction between Wales and England simply because the data and statistics below are courtesy of the official website for “The Wines of Great Britain,” published in May 2019.
There are currently 763 vineyards in Great Britain and 164 wineries. Most of those cluster in the southeast of England, especially the counties of Kent, West Sussex and Hampshire, where it is driest and warmest, and home to the Cretaceous chalk basin that forms the North and South Downs, part of the same band that breaks through Earth’s crust in Champagne. Around 76% of wineries are located in the southeast and another 13% in the southwest. In total there are 3,500 hectares of vines, representing a notable increase of 79% since 2015. Around 1.6 million vines were planted in 2018, mostly classic Champagne grape varieties, although it may surprise you to know that the most cultivated variety is actually red; Pinot Noir makes up 29.7% of current plantings. This is closely followed by Chardonnay at 28.9% and then Pinot Meunier at 11%. After those three, in order of acreage, are Bacchus (a hardy white variety created in the Thirties by crossing Müller-Thurgau with Silvaner x Riesling that became widely planted in the UK in the Seventies), Seyval Blanc and Pinot Gris.
The style of wine is predominantly sparkling, at 69% of production, equivalent to just over 9 million bottles, 99% of those produced by the traditional method. In 2019, just under 67,865 hectoliters of white were produced compared to 10,731 hectoliters of red/rosé. Currently, around 8% of English wine is exported to 40 countries, the number one market being the United States.
On this subject, Nyetimber winemaker Brad Greatrix told me that he sees huge potential in the US. “Sales in the recent few months have dropped off because of our focus there, and for all export markets, is in the on-trade, so lockdown has had a big impact on us,” he explained. “However, our optimism is undiminished for the long term. I was in New York at the beginning of February this year and was very impressed by the reception for English sparkling. I kept meeting people that had heard of Nyetimber but not had a chance to try it yet, and they were keen to do so. For general consumers in the United States, I would say access to and awareness of English sparkling wine is low, and so in some ways it reminds me of the UK 12 or 13 years ago when it was niche. What is different is that in the US trade, there is a buzz and interest in English sparkling wine that should hopefully allow for more rapid uptake.”
Of course, COVID-19 has changed everything and will certainly impact the wine industry. A survey in May this year to assess its immediate effect showed that two-thirds of wineries are concerned about cash flow and half are worried about recruiting seasonal workers. This will be impacted not only by the pandemic, but also by our exit from the European Union, since a large percentage of skilled pickers come from Eastern European countries. Despite this gloomy scenario, wineries also reported that in recent weeks, online sales improved by 25%. As in any wine region, long-term sustainability will be determined by how the industry adapts in an increasingly fast-moving and unpredictable environment.
Why English Wine Is Improving
Nothing extraordinary or unusual underlies the ascendency of the English wine industry in recent years. As already mentioned, once investment began to pour into the industry, winemaking had to become financially viable. That meant that you could not get away with selling substandard fare. Land prices are exorbitant in the areas with potential to make high-quality wine, and capital outlay from day one will only attract investors with long-term aims. The old adage that you need a large fortune to make a small fortune rings true apropos of English wine, which explains why many proprietors made their money elsewhere before being bitten by the wine bug. Alternatively, vineyards sometimes occupy parts of large historic estates in order to make economic use of their land and possibly attract visitors. I am sure when Gusbourne was founded in 1410, they never imagined that the estate would be making wine 600 years later.
Secondly, global warming has lessened the risk of successive growing seasons succumbing to frost or being wiped out by rain and rot. The weather remains unpredictable and we still have a marginal climate at the mercy of maritime influences. However, with global warming there are now sufficient warm, dry summers that extend into harvest to give greater assurance that the climate is suited to large-scale viticulture. It does inhibit the expansion of organic viticulture, even if the vineyard that I mentioned earlier near my house is biodynamic.
A third factor that is fundamental to improvement has been the movement away from German varieties, especially the once popular Müller-Thurgau, toward classic grape varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. There is a reason why Champagne has planted those varieties for centuries: they make delicious sparkling wine. If it works there, then it will work here. Nearly all the sparkling wines reviewed in this report consist of those varieties, though I must confess that I have encountered one or two dry whites made from Bacchus that suggest this variety can produce “interesting” wines, though not ones I would hail as world-beaters. Another factor is that vine plantings are maturing. Nyetimber planted their first Chardonnay in 1988, so even the oldest vines would be considered young ’uns in France. But it does mean that year by year there is greater potential. Where work does need to be done is in rootstock and clones. In this emerging industry, it takes a few vintages to learn empirically what succeeds best in this climate.
This report focuses on wines with bubbles, though one or two non-sparklers snuck in. Some English dry whites are definitely worth seeking out and should not be dismissed, but clearly the sparkling wine category is the strongest card, since the Cretaceous chalky soil on hills with southerly exposure is identical to that of Champagne. Coupled with our cooler climate and extended hang time, the fundamentals to produce high-quality, acid-driven fruit for sparkling wine have always been in situ. It is also the area where we are accumulating the most knowledge and hands-on skills, whether homegrown at Plumpton College, England’s own UC Davis, or acquired from our friends in Champagne. The sharing of knowledge has been just as important as reverting to classic noble grape varieties, and let’s hope it continues post-Brexit.
Albury Vineyard pictured under glorious cloudless skies on June 25, 2020 and already looking very promising for a good-quality vintage like 2018.
David, Put Down Your Sling
There is still a soupçon of jingoism that creeps into the promotion of English sparkling wine, David challenging the Champagne goliath. Just days before filing this report, I read another headline suggesting that Burgundy should quit making white wine because soon, wine lovers will wonder how they ever drank Montrachet when Yorkshire Chardonnay is so profound. Hey, stop laughing at the back! A recent report suggested that if global warming continues at the current rate, by 2080 the north of England could become the optimal place to cultivate white varieties, and yes, there’s plenty of untapped limestone soil up there.
English sparkling wine should carve out its own niche rather than putting up its fists and challenging the grands marques because their tastes do differ slightly. English sparkling wine is a tad more malic and, with maybe one or two exceptions, not as nuanced. We might share the same chalky soil, but the wines have their own personalities, and that is a good thing. English sparkling wine is not Champagne. It will never have the same history or become as embedded in our culture or psyche. It will never have the same cachet or be as onomatopoeic – Champagne just sounds reassuringly expensive. Houses such as Taittinger and Pommery branching out across the Channel to invest in land is not proof that they are convinced English vineyards are better. It has as much to do with the simple economics of brand extension, transferring both their distribution channels and the luster connected with globally recognized names to a different wine region. All this applies to any sparkling wine outside the boundaries of Champagne, such as Cava and Prosecco. Some of the wine industry’s more vocal, saber-rattling proprietors should tone down the posturing and grandstanding. Put down the sling, David; Goliath is your friend.
AC UK OK?
There is a movement to define sub-regional characteristics and form what would ostensibly be an English version of the French appellation contrôlée system. In 2016 the county of Sussex, home to around 70 wineries including Rathfinny and Ridgeview, applied to the European Union for PDO status. Opinion is divided on the matter. Personally, I am against such a move. Apart from the fact that this nascent industry has to move forward as one, estates need to build up track records and, to put it bluntly, I don’t really give a fig whether my English sparkling wine comes from Kent, Hampshire or the Outer Hebrides – I just care whether it is good. In any case, many blends comprise fruit sourced from different parts of England that can act as a vital safety net if one vineyard is hit by frost and another is unscathed. It also risks confusing consumers, particularly those in overseas markets who are unfamiliar with and indifferent toward English counties. The move seems to have lost momentum in recent years, and our exit from the EU also has ramifications, since they ratify such classifications.
Never Knowingly Underpriced
One barrier to English sparkling wine is price. In a nutshell: it isn’t cheap. Producers must charge a premium in order to cover costs, not least of which is the price of land. Some of that is offset by the lucrative and burgeoning tourism industry. Many wineries lie close to London and their picturesque settings make them ideal venues for weddings and conferences. Nevertheless, consumers must still open their purses wide to enjoy sparkling wine from their own country, which rarely undercuts more keenly priced grower Champagnes, and Cava and Prosecco are nearly always less expensive. This could become problematic if we enter a recession and demand cannot keep pace with expanding supply. In terms of distribution stateside, some of these wines are currently imported, though one or two producers informed me that the pandemic had put things on hold for the time being.
Maybe the best English sparkling wine I have tasted thus far – Wiston’s brilliant 2015 Blanc de Blancs.
I tasted just under 50 wines from around a dozen estates between April and June 2020. These wines reinforced my belief that English sparkling wine has come a long way in just the last decade. There is much talk of English wine “coming of age” in 2018 after that year bestowed a sizable crop of good-quality fruit, and there is a lot of truth in that. More maturity in terms of viticulture, winemaking and marketing is reflected in the wines that I tasted.
I will briefly summarize some of the producers included. First is Ridgeview in Sussex on the South Downs, just north of Brighton. Twelve years ago, it was their Bloomsbury cuvée that changed my perception of English sparkling wine when an MW friend poured it blind against Dom Pérignon. Guess which one I preferred – it wasn’t French. I subsequently visited the winery and met founder Mike Roberts, who passed away in 2014, the mantle taken up by his daughter Tamara. The estate does conduct tours and tastings, but it has never gone down the oenotourism route with the zeal of others. Instead, it is entirely focused on quality. The latest releases prove that they have not lost the knack for producing sparkling wines with that extra degree of complexity and nuance, especially in their excellent Blanc de Noirs and Cavendish. Ridgeview recently renamed their “Knightsbridge” and “Grosvenor” labels. Tamara Roberts told me that their cuvées were originally given a London connection to honor Christopher Merret. They intend to keep those for their non-vintage range, whereas their vintage releases will be known as Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs and Rosé de Noirs to highlight their blend.
Another name to look out for is Wiston. Owned by the Goring family, this is a relatively recent arrival whose first vines were planted in 2006. The 6.5-hectare vineyard is planted with the three classic Champagne varieties on chalky soils, and they use a traditional Coquard basket press, apparently one of only four outside France. Winemaker Dermot Sugrue was lured away from Nyetimber to create the winery and is clearly delivering the goods inside the bottle. Their range is consistently impressive, their 2015 Blanc de Blancs perhaps the best sparkling wine that I have tasted from these shores. Also check out the “Trouble With Dreams” cuvée that Sugrue makes under his own name. Nyetimber themselves are one of the best-known wineries not only because they were instrumental in forging ahead with more serious winemaking in the Nineties, but because under Brad Greatrix they continue to produce impressive wines from a variety of vineyards in Hampshire, Sussex and Kent. They do not have the field all to themselves, as they might have done decades ago, but competition always keeps you moving forward, and they maintain a high standard.
Then there is Coates & Seely, the project co-piloted by Christian Seely, a name usually associated with AXA Millésimes properties such as Pichon-Baron and Domaine de l’Arlot. I actually visited Seely’s Hampshire vineyard on the chalk ridge of Watership Down just after they released their first sparkling wine. I have long admired their Rosé, while their top cuvée, the 2009 Blanc de Blancs “La Perfide,” is one of the finest out there. Gusbourne is another name to look out for. Their fruit comes entirely from their own 60 hectares of vineyard in Kent and another 30 hectares in West Sussex. Charlie Holland is in charge of the winemaking, and wines spend a minimum of 28 months on the lees. Their evocatively named Boot Hill Guinevere Chardonnay is well worth hunting down, and their Pinot Noir is not bad at all. I must admit that I served it blind to the sharp palate of my better half, just to see where she would deduce it might be from, and she thought along the lines of a decent New Zealand Pinot.
Rathfinny is another estate located on the South Downs, the vines situated on a south-facing incline three miles from the coastline. They are another recent name on the scene, since their first vines were planted in April 2012 and the maiden vintages released in 2018. They accomplished a great deal in a short space of time under vineyard manager Cameron Roucher and winemaker Jonathan Médard, an alumnus of UC Davis and trainee at Mouton-Rothschild. Their 2016 Blanc de Noirs is excellent.
One of the few sparkling wines that I reviewed not made from classic Champagne varieties, courtesy of the marvelously named Breaky Bottom.
Prior to COVID-19, the English wine industry was upbeat about the future. It always seems to look on the brighter side of things, which is understandable given its remarkable progress in terms of vineyard area and market share. Long-term success will depend upon establishing English sparkling wine as a serious category in the eyes of merchants and particularly overseas consumers, because at the current price point, there may not be sufficient domestic demand to support an industry so determined to expand. A recent report by the University of East Anglia suggests that 35,000 hectares of prime vineyard land lies unplanted.
In April 1985, cricketer turned wine writer par excellence John Arlott wrote: “English wine is made by idealists who surely deserve our support in their enthusiastic effort to renew an ancient English tradition.” We have come a long, long way since then. I hope that those dismissive of English sparkling wine begin to take it more seriously. As in any wine region, there are good and bad examples; however, at its best, English sparkling wine is performing at a higher level and more consistently than ever. That looks set to continue and accelerate with each passing season. If the great Peter Ustinov were around today, I suspect he would revise the remark quoted at the top of this article.
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