14 July 2016 To complement all our articles about sparkling wines and champagnes this week, and as a rather cheekily English celebration of Bastille Day, we are publishing this tasting report from last October free for all as part of our Throwback Thursday series, with a few added links to more recent relevant restaurant reviews by Nick. See also An awfully big English adventure.
29 October 2015 We are publishing this article, scheduled for tomorrow, because the Daily Telegraph website staff have jumped the gun and published Victoria Moore's report of the tasting results already.
On Monday 28 September my morning newspaper was full of lurid pictures of an anarchist group throwing red paint and abuse at an outfit they had decided exemplified the wicked gentrification of East London. I would have thought estate agents' offices a more suitable target than the crowd-funded Cereal Killer Café set up in Brick Lane by the affable-looking (and of course bearded) Keery twins, but I did feel a twinge of concern as I was due to spend the morning in The Marksman gastropub in the deepest East End blind tasting champagne – and benchmarking English sparkling wine against it.
As it happens, there was indeed a bombshell at the tasting, but it was metaphorical. English fizz won.
I have been sworn to secrecy about the results of this tasting until now because it was organised by Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew of the estimable new(ish) Noble Rot magazine, a deserved winner at the recent Louis Roederer international wine writers awards, and they wanted to be able to report on the event themselves without being scooped weeks before.
The blind tasters were not just us three (The Marksman staff kept track of what was what) but three more potential embargo-breakers – Jamie Goode of wineanorak.com, Neal Martin of erobertparker.com and Kate Spicer of The Sunday Times – as well as eminent tasters from the food and restaurant world: French sommeliers Raphael Rodriguez of Fera, Xavier Rousset ex 28-50 (now Blandford Comptoir) and Fred Sirieix of Galvin; Ruth Spivey of Wine Car Boot fame; chefs Stephen Harris of The Sportsman (who is advising on Noble Rot's wine bar in Lamb's Conduit Street) and Mikael Jonsson of Hedone; and cheese expert Patricia Michaelson.
We tasters certainly hadn't been chosen for our partiality for English wine and, unbeknown to all of us except the Noble Rot duo, the odds were stacked in favour of champagne because of the dozen wines presented to us, eight were some of their favourite champagnes and only four had been grown in England's pleasant land, four of their favourites. There turned out to be three big champagne brands and five growers' champagnes and I was told beforehand that all the wines, champagne and English sparkling, sold in the same price bracket, roughly £30-40 a bottle retail.
Before we were served four flights of three wines each, in completely random order as you will see, we were told by the Noble Rot team, 'we're not looking for identification, just quality assessment', but of course it was very difficult not to try to work out the provenance of each wine. I had assumed there would be six of each but was a bit surprised not to find six likely English candidates among the wines served, in Zalto Universal glasses. I found four, of which three seemed to me to be very good and possibly English (they were). Our bottle of Berèche was so odd that I meanly wondered whether it could be English. But what thrilled me was that the best English wines were (a) so good and (b) pretty obviously English.
The best English sparkling wines have always been very well made, and have always been very fresh and clean. What they have for long seemed to lack in general is complexity, but the two favourite wines of the group were both English and were very fine by any measure.
My favourite two wines overall were this particular cuvée of Veuve Clicquot NV (not popular with most tasters) and Wiston Estate with 17.5 points each. But I gave 17 points, my next highest score, to the other three English wines, including the overall winner Hambledon, from the first English vineyard of the current era and the first one I ever visited, back in 1976, as well as bottlings from Gusbourne and Nyetimber. This was a sterling performance by the small English corps (which could have been chosen from many more top-notch contenders), and a rather disappointing one by some of the champagnes.
Here are the group totals, winning wine at the top:
|Hambledon, Classic Cuvée NV England||178.5 points|
|Nyetimber, Classic Cuvée Brut 2010 England||175 points|
|Pol Roger, Réserve Brut NV Champagne||173.5 points|
|Taittinger, Réserve Brut NV Champagne||173 points|
|Bérèche & Fils, Réserve Brut NV Champagne||167 points|
|Wiston, Estate Cuvée Brut 2010 England||166 points|
|Frerejean Frères, Brut NV Champagne||165.5 points|
|Marguet Père et Fils, Extra Brut Premier Cru NV Champagne||164 points|
|Gusbourne, Réserve Brut 2010 England||160.1 points|
|Chartogne-Taillet, Ste-Anne Brut NV Champagne||160 points|
|Veuve Clicquot, Yellow Label Brut NV Champagne||159 points|
|Savart & Fils, L'Ouverture Brut NV Champagne||150.5 points|
The 12 wines are listed below in the order and the flights that they were tasted in.
Tasted blind. Came 10th out of the 12 wines in the tasting. Greenish gold. Steady bead. Light nose – not much autolysis. Masses of acidity and quite youthful and almost lemonade-like. Very well made. Clean and a tad green. Super fresh. Not much finish.
Tasted blind. Judges' fifth favourite out of 12. Pale coppery pink. Frothy. Strange nose more reminiscent of Edinburgh rock than wine. Attractive, non-aggressive frothiness. Green acidity on the end. Odd nose and colour put me off. English?
Tasted blind. Came eighth out of 12 in the tasting. Deep pinkish gold. Savoury nose suggests champagne. Mouthfilling mousse and lots of Chardonnay crispness but the breadth on the palate is really satisfying.
Tasted blind. Came 11th out of 12 in the tasting. Pale straw gold. Light, complex nose. Good savour. Some smokiness. Really neat and tight. Lots of potential. Some appley acidity and really clean on the end. Very complex on the end. Full of vitality. One of the most youthful wines in this dozen. Delicate bead.
Tasted blind. Overall the judges' third favourite out of the 12 wines. Pale greenish gold. Not much nose. Off-dry start. Then some evident acidity. A bit sweet and sour. Well made and assertive in terms of structure. Clean and neutral. A tad stolid. But good length. Quite a sturdy champagne. Just a bit sweet and sour.
Tasted blind. Came ninth out of 12 wines. Pale pinkish gold. Lots of froth. Very light nose. But very delicate structure and well built and blended. An edge of elderflowers - may mean English - if so, it’s an excellent one. Extremely flirtatious Extra Brut style. English?
Tasted blind. Scored overall highest of the 12 wines in the line-up by 3.5 points. Pale straw gold with a tiny bead. Lots of savour and even a hint of oak. Dense and tense. Really tart but impressive. This could be a very good English with all that acidity. It has masses of fruit and the start of some complexity. Is this Nyetimber’s top bottling? Bracing! Like a seaside walk. Could be a very good English.
£120 per case of 6 ib Atlas Fine Wines 17
Tasted blind. Lowest overall score of the 12 wines in the blind tasting. Pinkish deep straw. Very tiny bead. Malic nose. Very demanding. Not much interest. A bit coarse in texture. English?
Tasted blind. Overall score placed it sixth out of 12 wines in the tasting. Tiny bead and a fair degree of froth. Light, floral nose with a hint of putty. Layers of interest. Clean and green but with an undertow of seriousness. Very racy. Very youthful. Quite sophisticated. Could be a very good English.
Tasted blind. Overall the judges' second-favourite wine. Pale straw gold. Mid-sized bead. Rather broad and friendly on the nose. Golden on the palate. So easy to like! The acid seems much less evident than on most of them. Open and ready. This was the most evolved wine and least tart wine of the lot, so not obviously English!
Tasted blind. Came seven out of 12 wines. Mid coppery gold. Rather beery, even old nose, hugely developed. Less appetising than most of these. Round and burnished. Slightly burnt finish. Good balance but rather timid. A bit heavy.
Tasted blind. Overall score placed it fourth out of 12 wines. Light straw. Sweetish nose – one of the few! Candied violets on the nose. Light and off dry. Quite chunky, lime-marmalade impression. Not much undertow. Good texture and refreshment value on the finish. A little chew on the end. Lots of acidity underneath.