Sparkling and still wines from England are among the latest toasts of the drinks world – yes, wines produced in a country notorious for rain and chill. England (now with its own recognised appellation) joins other wine regions in higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere (and lower ones in the globe’s more southerly reaches) in enjoying one of the few benefits of global warming: an expansion in decent grapevine microclimates.
Last year was the fledgling English wine industry’s most prolific yet. The nation’s 480 vineyards – predominantly in the southern counties of Sussex and Dorset – along with a further 22 in the principality of Wales, produced a sizeable 3.86 million bottles in 2017.
The most talked about are sparkling wines – made the same way and with the same grapes as in France’s Champagne region; in fact, in their early days most producers commissioned viticultural surveys and operational consultations from the experts from northwest France. The resulting sparklers have been winning international wine awards and a few have fared very well against French and other more established European fizz-makers.
Such success has even attracted houses from France to invest in English vineyards that share chalky soils and climate very similar to those in the Champagne. This spring, Vranken-Pommery became the first of the big champagne marques to release an English non-vintage sparkling wine: Louis Pommery England Brut.
And when a domestic sparkling wine became the official pour of Queen Elizabeth II’s 80th birthday in 2006, and then of the British prime minister’s residence a few years later, things started to appear more serious. These were from Ridgeview estate, the first English wines to impress international judges at the annual International Wine & Spirits Competition, held in London in 2005, when its vintage blend Bloomsbury 2002 received the Best International Sparkling Wine award.
Fast forward to June 2017 and to Country Life magazine’s first annual UK Wine Awards, judged by five Masters of Wine and other notable palates. Coates & Seely became the competition’s overall winner with its La Perfide Blanc de Blancs 2009.
Like their French counterparts, some of the most complex English sparkling wines pair
well with food. This applies to Ridgeview’s two limited-release vintages made solely from pinot noir fruit – a Blanc de Noirs (recommended with mackerel, mushroom or duck dishes) and a Rosé de Noirs (a good companion with bread- based salty canapés, salmon and strawberries), both of which won major accolades.
A producer that’s become synonymous with quality English wine is Chapel Down in the county of Kent, whose wines have been available in Hong Kong and Japan for 10 years. Its winemaker, Josh Donaghay-Spire, says its sparklers (it produces still wine too) are enjoyed in the same way as French champagne, but the flavour profile is a little different.
Rebecca Hansford, joint owner of 15-year-old Furleigh Estate in Dorset with her winemaker husband Ian Edwards, admits that English bubbly initially took its cues from the French. “In the early days we did copy champagne and they are the masters,” she says. “But now the industry is growing up we’re developing a particular English style: freshness, fruit-driven – and there’s not so much of the very old reserve wines [in the blend], just because we’re a very young industry.”
So how is the world treating English sparkling wine generally? “Ten years ago, we were taken less seriously than we are now,” says Donaghay-Spire. “Anyone who’s knowledgeable about the world of wine is well aware of the developments in England. Our wines are now regularly beating champagne in blind tastings, we continue to gain market share and we’re now looked at in a completely different light.
And it’s not all about bubbles.
Still wines from England, in smaller quantities, are also beginning to have their day. Furleigh Estate also makes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as Bacchus, a German grape variety found in some of that country’s white blends and that’s sometimes compared to Sauvignon Blanc.
Chapel Down also produces a few thousand bottles annually of a prized oak-aged reserve Chardonnay at its Kit’s Coty estate. It’s one that Donaghay-Spire is particularly proud of, saying it’s “a world-class Chardonnay that can rival the best from Burgundy”.
Whether bottles can be laid down to mature for drinking pleasure and appreciate in value for collectors remains to be seen, as the industry is still very young – and the experts won’t commit themselves just yet.
But it seems time to take note of English wine’s credibility. “It’s OK if some consumers treat it as a novelty drink – which they do to a degree,” concedes Donaghay-Spire. “But once they taste our wines they’ll understand what’s happening.