English Sparkling Wine – everything you need to know about this Champagne-beating style

If you’re only hearing about English Sparkling Wine now, then you need to play catch-up on this Champagne beating wine style.

Drew from The Wine Wankers ventured to England’s wine country in September 2016 – these are the facts you need to know

  • The same chalky soil that influences Champagne, influences the English wine country – the two regions are actually connected with one big bedrock of chalky soil that travel under the English channel. Now you know why the White Cliffs of Dover are so white!!
  • England’s sparkling wine country is locates south of London. If you’ve ever flown in to London’s Gatwick airport, it’s 60 minutes south of there!
  • In 2015 there were 502 commercial vineyards, 133 wineries and 5.06 million bottles of wine made in England and Wales. There’s only 2,000ha under vine, but even that has doubled in the last 8 years.  It will grow another 50% by 2020.

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  • Sparkling wine accounts for 66% of production
  • If you’re wondering why you haven’t seen English Sparkling wine in your neck of the woods, that’s because only 5% of the £82M is exported. This is expected to increase 10 x fold by 2020.
  • The growing environment is determined by The Downs; a prominent set of chalk hills that run across the south east of England, which serve to protects the southern vineyards from the cooler temps and wet weather of the north. Sunlight is very abundant here, thanks to the protective buffer of the Downs.
  • The climate in this south east corner is very marginal, and quality grapes are dependent on a very long growing season. So anything that upsets this and stops the grapes from ripening fully, can be disastrous.  That’s why the final growing burst in September is vitally important to get an optimal vintage.  If it’s too cold, the flavours wont develop and the wines can become too austere.
  • The most recent stellar years/vintages for English Sparkling wine have been 2010, 2011, 2014
  • 2012 was the shittiest year on record, thanks to rain and cold temps. You have been warned.
  • England has a longer growing season compared to Champagne, which picks three weeks earlier than England. The longer growing season is better for natural acidity.  Champagne is also said to have greater yields in comparison to English Sparkling wine.
  • Even though the principle grape varieties being used to make sparking are chardonnay and Pinot Noir, you’ll be hard pressed find a lot of still wines being made by the two varieties.  During my trip in September, one of the few still Pinot Noirs I enjoyed was from Denbies.  The 2014 was also a bargain at only £18.  2014 was a lucky vintage; very warm and with lots of sunshine hours to ripen the fruit.
  • Nyetimber is considered to be the founders of the English Sparkling Wine scene in the UK; it was the first to plant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in 1988, and the first to make a sparkling wine. It now has the oldest Chardonnay vines in the country.
  • Nyetimber’s breakthrough moment was in 1998 when its 1993 Classic Cuvee won the best sparkling wine in the world at the International Wine and Spirits Challenge. This win stimulated a second wave of producers, keen to cash in on the glory of England being able to produce serious quality sparkling wine.  The third wave of producers have started to plant in the past few years, keen to ride on the coat tails of the success from the current rising stars.

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  • Both Pommery and Taittinger have now bought up land in England and intend producing sparkling wine
  • Wiston Estate is another great label producing top quality English Fizz – in fact, winemaker Dermot Sugrue used to be the winemaker at Nyetimber before defecting almost 10 years ago. His wines are different – rather than being grown on grey sand like Nyetimber, they are grown on the same chalk soil that influences Champagne.  He believes this soil is much better for sparkling wine production.  His wines don’t go through malolactic fermentation, which is why they need extra time on yeast lees and bottle age.  They also are old oak barrel matured, in order to round out the wine’s flavours

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  • Bolny Estate was the first wine label to be established in the English countryside, way back in 1972. It wasn’t producing sparkling wine or the associated varieties, however, focussing instead on hybrid varieties until sense prevailed and they started to plant better suited varieties.  The brand has recently sidestepped in to producing gin, using a base spirit made from English wine grapes!  The challenge was to find the right botanicals that could balance out the personality of the wine grape spirit, rather than overpower.  Look out for Fox Hole Gin.
  • Spring frosts can be debilitating for the baby vine shoots in English wine country; the fronts can halve a vintages yields over night before they even get a chance to grow the grapes. One wise producer who has thought of a smart way around spring frosts is Ridgeview.  This label will light more than 2,500 large candles throughout the vineyard to keep the frosts at bay, warming up the ground cover.
  • Buyer beware: there are dodgy UK producers selling ‘British wine’ in the nation’s supermarkets, made from grapes imported from Central Europe. Ridiculous UK labelling laws allow such an activity, so long as this fake wine is labelled, “Made in the UK”.  The only way to know for sure you are drinking the real deal, is to look for the worlds “English Quality Sparkling Wine” on the label.  This is regarded as the top tier of locally produced wine, using locally grown grapes.
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8 comments

  1. […] Champagne has come in third place in a three-way battle between English, Australian and Champagne sparkling wines.  An English sparkling wine from Nyetimber, and the non vintage Australia sparkling wine, Pirie, have beaten four of France’s top Champagne houses in an unprecedented wine tasting in Stockholm.  The blind-tasting (called The Judgement of Stockholm!) with five of Sweden’s top wine writers, as well as me, Drew from the Wine Wankers, was held to investigate whether English Sparkling wines were capable of matching Champagne on quality, and price.  If you’re new to English Sparkling Wine – definitely read this article we have also just published. […]

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