All that fizzes is not champagne

Peter Hall of Breaky Bottom, Sussex

A look at just a slice of what English winemakers are up to. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

English Wine Week begins today. It has taken quite a while for the British to embrace their native ferments but English sparkling wine is definitely now fully respectable. The sommelier at The Dorchester, one of London’s grandest hotels, chose Rathfinny’s 2015 fizz, grown near Brighton, to precede a special dinner recently. Those attending the pre-season private view of The Marriage of Figaro at Opera Holland Park were treated to Gusbourne’s 2016 before the overture. Only last March the Financial Times’s Rich People’s Problems columnist James Max suggested it was time to ‘ditch champagne for English fizz’.

A recent blind tasting of far too many English sparkling wines with three champagnes inserted into it for comparative purposes served to prove just how competent are those who make wine sparkle in England. There was no aggressively frothy mousse, and in the great majority of wines the balance of the various elements was superb. Yet the wines were also delightfully varied.

The teams responsible for the celebrated top champagnes Dom Pérignon and Krug limit the number of champagnes they taste in a single session to an absolute maximum of 15 and 10 respectively. But my English tasting was organised by an obsessive. I knew Nick Baker, of online retailer The Finest Bubble, had an inexhaustible thirst for champagne but it seems that this applies to any good sparkling wine too.

He invited me and my fellow Master of Wine Richard Bampfield, crowned European Champagne Ambassador in 2009, to help him assess a total of about 90 English sparkling wines because he wants to expand his range of them. They have been divided into three sessions and this first one, he assured us, was the most ambitious. We tasted 23 vintage-dated blancs de blancs followed by 18 vintage-dated rosés – from noon, with only Carr’s water biscuits and some oatcakes to blot them up. And at the end, as I beat a hasty retreat, he suggested opening more bottles.

Because of the number of wines, I’ll confine myself to describing the blancs de blancs, tasted when my taste buds were at their sharpest. I find quite a lot of people are confused by the term ‘blanc de blancs’, which simply means a white wine made from pale-skinned grapes, so it could, strictly, be applied to almost all white wines, sparkling or not. But in a sparkling context it is used to distinguish such wines from ‘blancs de noirs’, or white wines made from dark-skinned grapes, whereby the grape skins are kept in contact with the juice for as short a time as possible.

In practice a blanc de blancs from Champagne or Britain is most likely to be made from Chardonnay, the dominant pale-skinned grape in both places. Fox & Fox’s Inspiration 2014 is actually based on Pinot Gris with a bit of its relative Chardonnay, but the biggest surprise was how well one exception to this rule performed in our tasting. Three of the wines were made by veteran English winemaker Peter Hall (seen leaving his winery, in the picture above by Axel Hesslenberg), who planted Seyval Blanc vines in his Breaky Bottom vineyard on the Sussex Downs near Lewes back in 1974. Back then, the imperative was to have grapes that would ripen in what were much cooler English summers. Seyval Blanc is a hybrid grape specifically bred to ripen early and at one time was the most-planted grape variety in England until the craze for producing sparkling wines in the image of champagne saw it overtaken by Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Seyval table wine can be pretty neutral but Hall conjures effervescent magic from his vines, perhaps helped by their great age. Each of his cuvées is named in memory of a particular friend or relative and the star of our tasting was that named after his great-great uncle Koizumi Yakumo (1850–1904), better known as 19th-century travel writer Lafcadio Hearn, who gave the West early glimpses of Japan.

This was admittedly the second-oldest wine of the tasting, a 2010, and was one of my two favourites. I wrote about it, not knowing what the wine was, ‘Definitely not trying to taste like champagne but like a superior English fizz. Lots of energy. Bracing mouthwash.’ Our sample had recently been disgorged, or separated from the lees on which it had been aged for so many years, and had obviously gained terrific complexity from that extended lees contact.

The magnum of Ridgeview, Limited Release 2009 was also excellent, even if it seemed absolutely ready to drink, whereas the Breaky Bottom, Cuvée Koizumi Yakumo 2010 tasted as though it still had many years ahead of it. Equally good, and more delicate than the Ridgeview magnum, was another obviously quite evolved wine, Blanc de Blancs 2013 from the pioneer of English champagne taste-alikes Nyetimber, whose very competent fizz I first tasted in the 1990s.

Two of these vintage-dated blancs de blancs were as young as 2017. The extensive Rathfinny estate was first planted only in 2012 so the first crop will have been in 2015 and the owners, Sarah and Mark Driver, have not had time to build up the stocks of reserve wines that are used by many champagne blenders to add depth to wines from the most recent vintage. This is a common problem for British wine producers. Since there have been so many new entrants in the sparkling-wine business in the last few years, vintage-dated wines are most common but it is notable that the talented winemakers at Nyetimber, for instance, were particularly keen to launch non-vintage blends once they had built up reserves of older wines for blending purposes. The first release of their non-vintage Classic Cuvée, based on 2011 blended with ingredients from older vintages, was launched in 2016.

It will be interesting to compare the quality of the vintage-dated wines tasted in this first session with the 17 non-vintage blends that are lined up for our second session (along with seven non-vintage rosés).

The lone blanc de blancs champagne in our blind tasting, a 2012 from grower Yann Alexandre, didn’t stand out as being very obviously different from all the English wines, and indeed seemed a bit tart and was rather less persistent than many of them. As Bampfield reminded us, average crop levels are much lower in English vineyards than in Champagne, where yields have long been notoriously high. The UK’s lower yields may well result in more flavourful wines capable of ageing longer. Certainly one feature of British sparkling wine is its longevity – perhaps boosted by relatively high levels of acidity.

The UK’s cool climate has traditionally resulted in such tart base wines that winemakers routinely encouraged the conversion of harsh malic acid into softer lactic acid, a common winemaking technique in regions other than the warmest. But one notable symptom of Britain’s warmer summers is that in recent especially balmy years, this so-called malolactic conversion is often being deliberately avoided since there’s no longer a need for it.

What is abundantly clear from the decidedly partial collection of wines that I tasted (there are scores more of note) is that the UK’s sparkling winemakers have nothing whatsoever to be ashamed of. The significant takeaway is: it doesn’t have to be champagne, folks!

Recommended English blanc de blancs vintage fizz

Like champagne, all of these wines are around 12 or 12.5% alcohol. I scored all of them at least 17 out of 20. High praise.

Balfour, Victoria Ash 2012/2013 (two-vintage blend) Kent

Breaky Bottom, Cuvée Koizumi Yakumo Seyval Blanc 2010 Sussex

Chapel Down, Kit’s Coty 2014 Kent

Fox & Fox, Inspiration 2014 Sussex

Jenkyn Place 2015 Hampshire

Nyetimber 2013 West Sussex and Hampshire

Ridgeview, Limited Release 2009 Sussex (magnum)

Squerryes 2014 Kent

Sugrue, Cuvée Boz 2015 Hampshire

See English Wine Week – fizz to discover, inter alia, how the vintage-dated English rosés fared. These wines are generally sold directly by the wineries via their websites but may list some retailers.