The English wine industry is thriving. English sparkling wines are exported all over the world. Sommeliers in the US are clamouring for the best bottles. More than a million new vines will be planted this year and English sparkling wine has been served at Buckingham Palace. Even the French are moving in: Champagne Taittinger has just planted its first vines in Kent, while Champagne Pommery is also looking for a piece of the Anglo-Saxon action. By Darren Smith
It’s in sparkling wine (which accounts for two-thirds of production in England) where the advance is most obvious. English fizz has beaten Grand Marque Champagne in several notable blind tastings in the past year or two, both at home and abroad, and many of the top English wineries – Wiston, Nyetimber and Ridgeview among others – have now reached a stage where they have built up a stock of reserve wine, meaning they are able to release not just single-vintage bottlings, but a wide range of non-vintage wines with which they can show off a proper ‘house style’. This is an expensive way of producing sparkling wine, but, as Champagne producers will testify, it makes the most sense in the long run – vintages are still up and down in terms of quality (2012 was disastrous) and those producers with stocks of reserve wine have an insurance policy against the vagaries of the proverbial ‘bloody English weather’.
It’s another sign of the robustness of the English wine industry that many of the best wineries are increasingly investing in wine tourism. There’s a wealth of interesting stuff happening, from the high-end to the hands-on: most estates offer open days, tutored tastings and cellar tours, while more and more are offering full-on gastronomic experiences, meet the winemaker events, even actual sparkling wine-making sessions. So there’s never been a better time to see for yourself just how the scene is developing.
Of course, one of the pitfalls of such rapid development is that there are a lot of new players in the industry, with lots of different wines vying for your attention. It can be hard for the uninitiated to separate the wheat from the chaff. So below are my 10 best English sparkling wines from the recent annual English Wine Producers tasting in London.
Wiston Estate Cuvée Brut 2013, West Sussex
Dermot Sugrue is the winemaker here. A lynchpin of the industry with a love of mineral, finely structured styles of sparkling wine, who continues to weave a gossamer thread of finesse through some of England’s top labels. This is possibly the best English sparkling wine on the market, with a marvellous balance of texture, depth and freshness. Some cream and brioche character but tempered by racy citrus and floral notes. £32.95 Stockists: UK: wistonestate.com, Booths, Corney & Barrow, Hennings Wine Merchant; US: K&L
Wiston Estate Blanc de Blancs 2010, West Sussex
Wiston is so good it made the top 10 twice. Their 2010 Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay) is matured half in steel tanks and half in used oak barrels, aged in the cellars for six years. Creamy Normandy butter, white flowers, even a touch of Chenin Blanc-style wet wool. £39.95 Stockists: UK: wistonestate.com, Booths, Corney & Barrow, Hennings Wine Merchant; US: K&L, Zachys Wine & Spirits, Saratoga Wine Exchange
Hush Heath Balfour Brut Rosé 2013, Kent
Hush Heath made its name producing this rosé. 2013 was a very late harvest in England (into early November) with good maturity and overall balance of sugars and acids. Only the best (cuvée) juice used, with this rosé being a blend of Champagne grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. A refreshing sparkling rosé with notes of whitecurrants, rosehip and a subtle herbaceousness. £28.79 Stockists: Waitrose, Harrods, Whole Foods, www.hushheath.com
Jenkyn Place Cuvée 2010, Hampshire
A small estate for which Dermot Sugrue makes the wine. Now in its seventh year after vintage, this wine’s pure chalky citrus character is giving way to more baked bread, quince and tropical fruit. Still very fine though. A blend of 60% Chardonnay, 32% Pinot Noir and 8% Pinot Meunier. £24.99 Stockists: Waitrose, Wimbledon Cellar, Handford Wines, Fenwicks, St Andrews Wine Company
Chapel Down Kit’s Coty Coeur de Cuvée 2013, Kent
The most expensive wine in England, made from Chardonnay using grapes from the prized Kit’s Coty vineyard on the pure chalk of the North Downs. Pure and honeyed with white flower and subtle bready notes. Persistent on the palate. £100 Stockists: www.chapeldown.com
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée NV, West Sussex
This is the first non-vintage Classic Cuvée (taking advantage of accumulated reserve stocks of wine) from one of the acknowledged leaders of top-quality English sparkling wine. Wonderfully complex, rich and honeyed with almond, biscuit and spiced apple notes to the fore. £31.99 Stockists: Booths, Ellis of Richmond, Majestic Wines. The Wine Society Waitrose
Exton Park Pinot Meunier Rosé NV, Hampshire
A Pinot Meunier sparkling rosé is a rare thing even in France, but in England it’s the only one you’ll find. Winemaker Corinne Seely has coaxed a surprising elegance from a grape that is typically places third fiddle to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Champagne-style blends. Some wild berry and floral notes and a little spiciness on the finish. £38.95 Stockists: UK: Corks Out, Le Vignoble, Plymouth, Luton Hoo Hotel, Butlers Wine Cellars, Brighton, English Wine Centre, Berwick, The Fizz Company; US: distributed by Primrose Fine Wines, New York
Gusbourne Brut Rosé 2013, Kent
One of the finest English sparkling rosés you’ll find from a producer that becomes more refined with every vintage. 100% Pinot Noir with seductive strawberry citrus and white flower notes, They also produce an own-label English fizz for the Queen’s wine merchant, Berry Bros & Rudd. £37.95 Stockists: Berry Bros & Rudd, Fortnum & Mason, Harvey Nichols, Theatre of Wine, St Andrews Wine Company, Field and Fawcett
Meonhill Chardonnay NV
In 2005 Didier Pierson became the first Champenoise winemaker to plant vines in England. His vision of what English sparkling wine can be is encapsulated in this blanc de blancs – a rich, toasty, baked apple-y treat with hints of Christmas cake spice. Meonhill is now owned by Hambledon, for whom Pierson consults. £24.50 Stockists: Fareham Wine Cellar, Waitrose
Ridgeview Blanc de Blancs 2013, East Sussex
Ridgeview is one of the most respected and garlanded estates in England, based on the beautiful South Downs. Their sparkling wine is served at Buckingham Palace state banquets and 10 Downing Street. This is their only single-estate wine from their original Chardonnay vineyard. Honey, citrus and brioche meet butter, fruitcake and baked apple notes. £44.50 Stockists: UK: Ridgeview, Fortnum & Masons, Butlers Wine Cellars; US: Banville Wine Merchants