Food & drink

Raise a glass to English fizz

A view of Nyetimber's vineyard

Nyetimber’s vineyard.

Move over Champagne, let go of Prosecco, it’s time for English sparklers to shine, says J’AIME’s resident wine expert Kieran O’Brien

Once the subject of many a wine trade joke, English sparkling wine is now being taken seriously and challenging the position of Champagne as the world’s best bubbles. A combination of good soils, a warming climate and improvements in winemaking have led to a golden era for English wine, and even the French want a piece of the action.

With legendary Champagne house Taittinger planting vines in Kent with a view to producing a premium quality English sparkling wine, the potential of English vineyards can no longer be in doubt.  Having trounced their rivals from across the channel in a number of prestigious blind tastings there is a confidence among English producers that their time has come. 

The optimism currently surrounding English wine is a far cry from the decades of derision towards an industry seen as the preserve of hobbyists and home winemakers. For years plantings of the inferior Seyval Blanc and Muller Thurgau grape varieties dominated and British wine, as it was branded, would not be seen on supermarket shelves never mind Michelin-starred wine lists. However, with the influx of expertise, a new wave of winemakers decided to concentrate purely on sparkling wine – and for good reason.

Much of the south of England shares the exact same soils as those found in Champagne. The chalk and limestone combination is the key to quality in Champagne, and with global warming meaning the climate here in now roughly similar to that of Champagne 20 years ago, the potential for producing great wines became clear. The final factor was the planting of the three grape varieties used to make champagne; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  With all this in place an ambitious group of producers set out to make world class sparkling wine which not only mimicked Champagne, but expressed its own source of origin.

One key player in the success story of English fizz was Nyetimber. Established in 1988 by American couple, the Mosses, it was the first English wine estate to concentrate on the Champagne grapes. The Sussex estate originally imported winemaking talent from Champagne and, with an almost obsessive focus on detail and quality, set out to make a truly world class wine. By the late Nineties Nyetimber had gained an excellent reputation within the trade but was still only being drunk by those in the know.

The real breakthrough moment came in January 2010 at the World Sparkling Wine Championship in Verona. All wines were tasted blind, with Nyetimber Classic Cuvee coming out on top beating the likes of Louis Roederer and Bollinger along the way. English fizz had truly arrived. 

Though the estate has changed ownership twice since the late Eighties, it has always been a pioneer and its success inspired a host of other quality focused estates such as Chapel Down, Hambledon and Gusbourne. Along with Ridgeview – said to be Her Majesty’s favourite fizz – this group of producers has firmly established the quality credentials of English sparkling wine and sales have gone from strength to strength. Waitrose reported a 40 per cent increase in sales of English fizz compared to the previous year. Exports are also flying, now accounting for 20 per cent of the market, with places like the US, Japan and Finland lapping up our bubbles.

Fires in vineyard

Vineyard workers light candles in an attempt to ward of damaging spring frosts.

However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for English producers with the marginal climate posing its own difficulties. In early May winemakers warned that ‘catastrophic’ frost had wiped out nearly half of this year’s harvest. While a cool climate is desirable to retain acidity in grapes destined for sparkling wine, spring frosts are a nightmare for growers; a problem vignerons in Champagne and burgundy have battled for years. In an attempt to ward off the frost vineyard workers lit candles, spectacularly lighting up the vineyards in the night sky.  Although the damage was lessened, the 2017 harvest promises to be small, causing difficulties particularly for less established producers.

Despite the perennial problems with the British weather the outlook is still extremely bright for English wine, and you don’t have to venture to the southern counties to take a look at what’s happening. Our region has a number of fantastic vineyards to visit.

The award-winning Halfpenny Green in Bobbington is one of the country’s largest vineyards and offers wine tasting and dining. Buzzard’s Valley in Tamworth also welcomes visitors to eat and drink in its picturesque setting.

So this summer, put down the Prosecco, ditch the Champagne and raise a glass of English Sparkling Wine and toast a great British success story.

Wine bottles

Nyetimber Classic Cuvee; Chapel Down NV; and Wiston Brut Rose.

Seek out: Nyetimber Classic Cuvee (Waitrose), Chapel Down NV (Majestic Wine), and Wiston Brut Rose (Loki Wine).

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