During March, presumably amidst Brexit stockpiling panic, searches for English Sparkling Wine were up 488% according to Google search trends. Sacre Bleu, what will we have to drink if it all goes to hell, you may ask? Well, the good news is, even if the French decide to burn down the channel tunnel, it really wouldn’t be too shabby on the booze front.
English Sparkling Wine is booming, but you already knew that. Last year was an absolutely bumper harvest after our beautiful warm summer, so we can safely expect the reputation of British fizz to continue bubbling up.
Meanwhile, Sparkling wine is the only category of wine that’s growing, spurred by the meteoric rise of Prosecco which has changed our drinking behaviour; bubbly is no longer just for weddings and NYE, but a part of (almost) everyday life.
As a self-respecting Brit (I know, it feels a bit of an oxymoron at the moment), it’s time to move beyond - “Oh yes, I hear it's supposed to be quite good?” - to actually knowing why it’s so good, and be able to name drop some of the best producers from the different regions in the UK.
First things first.
We have terrible weather. Can we really produce good wine or are we just being foolish and patriotic?
For good sparkling wine that’s made with the Traditional Method (i.e. the Champagne method) you need a crisp, clean base wine with a high level of acidity that’s low in alcohol. That’s because the secondary fermentation, (the key stage that creates the bubbles and, with time, the classic toasty, brioche character) will add a level of sweetness and increase the alcohol by a percent or two.
That’s why as the world warms up, the Champenoise are needing to pick slightly earlier, before the grapes have accumulated too much sugar, in order to end up where they need to be.
This gives the cooler climate UK an advantage as we retain that critical acidity for longer, while still leaving time to develop flavour complexity in the grape.
Why is it so expensive? I could buy a bottle of 'Real' Champagne for less
This is certainly a barrier for a country that loves Prosecco as much as we do. Not to mention Cava that slowly but surely is addressing its misplaced quality perceptions.
Yes, it is expensive. But this is a luxury product. It’s all down to low yields; an unavoidable factor of our cool climate. Add to that the high cost of land in South England and the capital and labour intensive winemaking process required for Traditional Method, and you have an expensive product.
And while you may find Champagne cheaper - you’ll find you’re probably not comparing like for like. Some of the cheaper Champagnes have been made from fruit sourced from multiple different locations and growers, in a well-established and well-supplied trade amongst growers and negociants.
You’ll find a lot of English producers proudly following more of a “Grower Producer” model, where they only make wine from their own Estate-grown grapes. This is not always a prerequisite of quality, of course. But, it is reflective of a more artisanal, handcrafted vibe that is characteristic of our nascent wine industry, as opposed to Champagne’s big shiny, more mass-produced brands. (Brand being the key word in that statement).
These cheaper Champagnes may have only spent the minimum amount of time on the lees (15 months) during their secondary fermentation before disgorging.
Instead, I'm finding a lot of English Sparkling Wine producers leaving the wine on the lees for much, much longer that the basic requirement in Champagne - and even then holding on for further post-disgorgement bottle-ageing before release. It’s an expensive business!
Why is this important? Because the effects of autolysis - the process by which the lees imparts delicious bready, toasty flavours to the wine are thought to show only after 18 months, and most prominently after 5 - 10 years! Hence the longer on the lees, the more complex and interesting the wine becomes. But it requires patience and is a cash flow nightmare for a newly established industry.
We are some way off a regional ‘appellation’ system, but there are distinctly different areas of the UK from which wine is made - from all the way down in Bodmin, Cornwall over to the South Downs of East Sussex. This is a distance of roughly 250km - about the same distance as going from Champagne to Beaune, the heart of Burgundy, to give you an idea of the difference this would make in French terms!
And what of Chalk?
You may hear people talk of how we are geologically part of the Paris Basin, an area of chalk geology that connects from south of Calais, across Champagne to the middle Rhine Valley and across the Channel as far up as South-eastern England. Indeed, we have a lot of lovely chalky soils (see below a pic from the South Downs), and it certainly helps draw the link between South England and Champagne terroir.
However, as Stephen Skelton MW, the authority on wine growing in the UK writes about the fallacy of chalk in his book "Wine Growing in Great Britain":
"Why do growers of Chardonnay in Champagne prefer chalky soils? Not because the chalk gets into the wine and causes 'steely', 'flinty', 'mineral', or even 'chalky' characteristics. They prefer it because deep down, chalk soils retain moisture, even in drought years, and their vines, which can root deeply in these soils, have access to water, thus keeping their foliage green and sustaining high yields, and keeping acidities higher than on less chalk-rich soils. I sometimes wonder if those UK growers who have actively sought out (and paid huge prices for) chalk land to grow their vines on, have actually taken on board the reasons why Chardonnay growers in Champagne like chalk. After all, in the UK, we have no requirement to retain acidity in our grapes (or at least not in most years)."
“If An Idea Is Not at First Absurd, There Is No Hope For It.”
Once said Albert Einstein. It's important to remember that grape growing in England is still an absolute fool’s game. The cost of buying land in the South of England (as invariably the warmest sites are), planting a vineyard, maintaining it, waiting 3-4 years for the vines to establish, harvesting, winemaking, cellaring, disgorging many years later, cellaring some more, then selling an expensive product made in a country with no historical credentials for wine - in fact - if anything, negative associations for wine, is frankly, lunatic behaviour.
One enduring image of British viticulture is the sight of multiple candles being lit in the vineyard overnight during the early Spring to ward off potentially devastating frosts. The smoke and heat creates an airflow and disturbance that prevents the frost from settling. The effect is of some kind of mystical seance, a sacrificial ritual with mother nature to protect the precious buds! Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midnight frosts....
These wonderful pictures are from Hattingley Valley's Instagram, during frost risk this year and the last:
But this is exactly what makes it so thrilling. This is the essence of what makes it wonderful. You have to be something of a dreamer, an eccentric and hopeless romantic at heart to endeavour to make wine in the UK.
(And that’s exactly why I hope to join the ranks of them one day!)
Just think Oregon, a now world-renowned winemaking region for quality Pinot Noir, was not on the world wine map 30 years ago. Now they have a flourishing wine industry that has created enormous value.
So, we have a lot of extremely exciting developments to look forward to. And if Brexit doesn’t leave too much of a sour taste for all things British, we can be proud of creating such a fine product.
Producers You Need to Know About
There are so, so many and part of the fun is discovering new ones all the time. But you should at least know the following:
One of the UK’s more innovative, award-winning wineries and a business that plays an important role in the English wine industry. Simon Robinson is a champion of the industry, and through their work they support many small wineries to come to fruition. They also export to reportedly 14 countries making them something of a flagbearer for English quality sparkling around the world.
These guys famously won the “World Champion” medal at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships for their 2011 Rosé, much to the chagrin of the Champenoise. Their winemaker is a lady called Emma Rice who is one of the UK’s top winemakers, having won that accolade more than once.
About as English as you can get, in the middle of Hampshire. Think Tweed jackets, and classic cars that belong in The Wind in the Willows (check out their branding image below!)
It would be rude to write a piece on ESW without mentioning Nyetimber. Without Nyetimber, the perception of English Sparkling Wine as a brand probably wouldn’t be where it is today; it owes a lot to the huge investments made by Dutchman Eric Heereema (yep Dutch). Nyetimber have one of the most credible brands that, out of all the British producers, acts most like a true “Grande Marque”.
They are also one of the first big producers to create a single vineyard wine - Tillington Single Vineyard - made from Pinot Noir. This is unusual in the world of sparkling wine which is typically all about the cuvée (the blend).
Previously a watercress farm, the owner recognised the (marketing) potential of his chalky terroir and repurposed the site to viticulture. They use a Bucher inert press. This is not unique in itself but it enables them to press the grapes with essentially no oxygen contact with the grape juice. No oxidation preserves the freshness and colour and extreme delicacy of the base wine.
Divinely delicious. One to watch.
Home to two of the longest running vineyards in the UK: Breaky Bottom and Bolney Estate - the accolade for the oldest goes to Biddenden in Kent.
Breaky Bottom is the most “authentic” (if you’ll forgive me that expression) winery I have come across in the UK, in an idyllically beautiful setting lost somewhere in the folds of the South Downs. When Peter is not busy fending off rapacious pheasants from the neighboring shoot, you’ll find he quickly proves himself as one of life’s great raconteurs.
I had the pleasure of getting involved in the secondary fermentation bottling process a few years ago, and being part of the 2018 bumper harvest in early October last year!
One of our longest running producers, going strong for 35 years, they also produce a sparkling from Seyval Blanc, (an underrated grape for sparkling wine as producers reach for the more ‘famous’, consumer Champagne varieties). I believe this grape could provide a key point of difference for the future of distinctive British sparkling. Crisp apple, floral notes and biscuity hints from lees contact.
They’ve recently undergone a rebranding and launched a new e-commerce website to replace their fabulously vintage previous site (which was almost worth keeping for vintage appeal).
One of the longest running and still family-run with head winemaker and MD Sam Linter taking over from her parents. True pioneers for English wine.
They produce a wide range of sparkling to still whites, roses and reds from a wide range of grapes: Pinot Noir, Rondo, Dornfelder, Chardonnay, Bacchus and Pinot Gris.
They also have a partnership with Kew Gardens with a range of still and sparkling.
The Kew English Sparkling white - if you could bottle the very essence of an English garden in all its floral, delicate, shimmering beauty - this would be it.
A strong branding effort with a distinctive Tiffany-esque blue and a feminine look and feel sees this family owned sussex winemaker gaining attention - and spots on smart wine lists around London.
They even got served at the official BAFTAs party in LA. Their Blanc de Noir, made from barrel fermented Pinot Noir is particularly acclaimed.
These guys have the Royal Warrant. Need you know more?
Yes. You should also know that they are the first UK winery to be granted a PDO - a Protected Designation Origin from the EU. This is like a DOG in Italy or an AOC in France.
It applies to their Darnibole vineyard, a 28 acre, south facing plot, from which still Bacchus wines are produced.
Funny that the UK’s first PDO would be for a still wine; probably not what our international reputation will be based on.
Quietly hoovering up awards and accolades. This may also be one to watch. Like many English producers they’re a fan of extended lees aging during the secondary fermentation, long beyond the requirements for Traditional Method (18 months). Their Classic Cuvee is barrel fermented and then spends 2 years on the lees before being held back for 6 months. While their Blanc de Noir spends 40 months on the lees.
Also with a royal seal of approval, they were served at a state banquet when the King of Spain came to visit in 2013 and the Colombian President in 2016. 28 months on the lees is the self-imposed minimum here, followed by further bottle aging. It’s an expensive business to have such high standards when you’ve got almost 3 years before you can cash in your chips!
One of the biggest, most well known, and most tourist friendly wineries. In fact these guys receive around 50,000 visitors to their winery each year. They recently outbid a French competitor for a 400 acre site on the North Downs to create England’s largest single vineyard and upping their production potential to 1 million bottles. 1 million!!
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Grapes growing in the South Downs - 2018 harvest at Breaky Bottom Vineyard.