Bet you didn’t see that one coming.
The growing of grapes and the making of wine have returned to Southern England with a vengeance and the wines being made are better than ever. Improvement really isn’t too difficult or unexpected because the hay-day of viticulture in England ended in the 1600s and has only recently begun to pick up steam (think heat) in the last twenty years utilizing the most modern of methods.
The Domesday Book of 1085-86 A.D., shows that vineyards were a prominent agricultural holding in that time period. Grape vines were introduced to these nothern reaches during the expansion of the Roman empire and they grew!!. During that time and beyond, grapes were cultivated 300 miles further north than the most northern vineyards of France and Germany today. Those northern vineyards encompassed northern France, Germany, and southern England. When Henry VIII ascended to the throne in 1509, records reflect vineyards held by the Crown, Nobility and, of course, the Church.
What led to the decline and disappearance of these northern vineyards? Most likely the cooling temperatures of the mini-ice age that held Europe in its frigid grip for over a several hundred years starting in the 1400’s and lasting until the latter 1800’s. The growing period in England was reduced to just two months for many of those years and soil parasites thrived in the damp earth. The vines (along with wheat and other basic consumable produce) could not survive the cold winters and wet summers. These times were difficult with famine, starvation, ravaging influenza and social unrest. Additionally, as Henry VIII sought to make himself the head of the Church in England in the 1500’s, monasteries were closed and history shows that monks were prodigious tenders of the vines grown on their landholdings.
Fast forward. England is seeing warmer temperatures this century and for the last twenty-five years viticultural entrepreneurs are back to planting vines and making wine on a larger scale. And you ask, “What varietals perform well in southern England near Kent and Somerset? What grapes thrive in that chalky soil near the cliffs of Dover?” Why, the same varietals that grow in the Champagne region of France. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier being the heavy hitters. This is a perfect ray of sunshine for the Brits, because Brits LOVE Champagne and have been huge consumers of French Bubbles since Bubbles were born. Now they have Sparkling Wine being produced in their own back yard, made in the same Traditional Methode as Champagne, with essentially the same grapes. God Save the Queen! This should be interesting!!
Bear Dalton, Fine Wine Buyer at Specs Liquor stores and respected wine educator, hosted this tasting. He has had the privilege of tasting all the English Sparkling Wine available in our market, but he had yet to taste all of them in one line up for comparison. I really appreciate Bear Dalton as an educator because he has the knowlege, the organizational skills, and the sense of humor to pull all the information together in an enjoyaabe format, but he doesn’t bloviate or totally geek out the message. A wide range of tasters, with different levels of wine knowlege, can appreciate Bear’s approachable style. If someone needs more specifics, Bear answers their questions without putting the rest of his audience to sleep.
The following are all Sparkling wines made in the traditional method, which means a second fermentation takes place in the very same bottle you purchase at the store. A traditional method refresher: The different grape varietals are fermented the same way any wine is fermented — in stainless steel or casks until the wine quits bubbling and all those bubbles (CO2) dissipate into the air. The wine is tended in the manner the winemaker prefers and is eventually blended and placed in a bottle with the addition of a little more wine, sugar, yeast and clarifying agent and capped. This second fermentation starts the bubbling process all over again, but this time the bubbles are kept in the bottle. After the all sugar becomes alcohol, the yeast is used up and has passed away, the bottles undergo a process of turning and tilting to cause the yeast remains to slide down into the neck of the bottle. Once this is accomplished, the neck of the bottle is frozen, trapping the yeast in an ice coffin. The bottles are then opened and the pressure ejects the ice with an explosive force. The bottles are quickly topped off with more wine and re-crowned with the cork and wire cage you see when purchasing quality Champagne or sparkling wine.
Chapel Down wine estate is located in Tenterden in Kent. They make an array of sparkling and still wines, beer and cider and aged Brandy. I think they sum up the positive aspects of England being a “new” wine region– they are able to use the most modern wine making and viticultureal techniques without the baggage of so many rules to govern their product.
Chapel Down NV Brut — this was one of the lower priced sparklers from England and I liked it — but I’ve always been a cheap date. Nice red apples, strawberries and lemon with classic baked bread. Retail $40.
Chapel Down Three Graces Brut 2011 – This vintage sparkler is 58% Chardonnay, 34% Pinot Noir and 8% Pinot Menier. Fifteen percent comes from Reserve wine. This allowance of Reserve Wine in a vintage dated wine is unique. French Champagne law insists that ALL of the wine must come from the dated vintage year. England allows for a small portion of reserve wines (older wines that give richness and complexity) in their vintage sparklers. Works for me. This cuvee has more of the classic yeasty notes expected in a fine Champagne/Sparkler Retail $53
Chapel Down Brut Rosé – a fresh Rosé with a lot of red wine character. The 100% Pinot Noir wine was fermented in stainless steel and underwent full malolactic fermentation. Nice amount of red fruit flavors. Retail $46 which is a very nice price for a quality Rosé Sparkler.
Ridgeview is located in East Sussex and has one of Englands only underground sparkling wine cellars. Their vines were planted in 1995 and are nestled at the base of the South Downs. Ridgeview produces about 250,000 bottles a year using sustainable practices. The founder, Mike Roberts, believed in producing wines with “as little interference as possible and make the wine as pure as possible.” His children are carrying on with that vision today.
Ridgeview Bloosbury 2014 – Another classic blend. This wine knitted together well and seems to have a universal appeal. Peaches and citrus. Aged 12 months in the bottle. 1.6% residual sugar makes it very easy to drink. Listed as the offical wine served for Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee. Retail $45 puts it on par with plenty of other well known Champagne houses that have similarly priced bottles.
Ridgeview Blanc de Noir 2013 – I would go buy this one today. A white sparkler made with black grapes. In this case 55% Pinot Menier and 45% Pinot Noir. Having an American palate, I rather like my sparklers with a little more cherry red fruit flavor balanced with toast, brioche, or in this case, graham flour biscuits. These black grapes give the fruit flavors to this blend but there is all the richness expected from a traditional method sparkling wine. The residual sugar is less than 1%, so fruit does not equal sweet. Again, I would pick this up today (but it means driving downtown… so maybe this weekend). Retail $53
Ridgeview Fitzrovia Rosé 2014 – a pale rosé of 50% Chardonnay, 36% Pinot Noir and 27% Pinot Menier. A three day cold soak pulled out beautiful color and flavors of rasperry and lemony citrus from the grape skins. Retail $50.
Hattingly Valley was established in 2008 with its first vines planted that same year. Their modern winery was completed in 2010 and was the first in England to incorporate solar power. It has 60 acres under cultivation and specializes in sparkling wine production.
Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvee Blend of 48% Chard 33% Pinot Noir 17% Pinot Menier and 2% Pinot Gris. (Pinot Gris may not be a classic Champagne grape, but it is allowed in Champagne along with a few others.) These vineyards are known for their chalky, Champagne-like soils. A 25% portion of the blend is fermented in 2-3 year old Burgundy casks which add additional character. The cuvee is aged in bottles for 21 months and contains less than 1% residual sugar. Retail $41.50
Hattingly Valley Rosé 2014 – A light and elegant Rosé. Again, 25% of the wine was aged in old Burgundy barrels. A blend of all black grapes, 59% Pinot Noir, 36% Pinot Menier and 5% Pinot Precose (Fruhburgunder- like a Pinot Noir, but ripens earlier) all aged 18 months on the lees. Delicious. Another favorite. Retail $58
To keep these wines in perspective, they were tasted in a group that included Perelada Brut Cava, Roederer Estate Brut from Mendicino, Piper Heidscieck Brut Champagne, JP Marniquet Brut Vintage Champagne 2005, Mercat Brut Rosé Cava, and Jose Dhondt Saignee Rosé Brut NV.
English wineries have thrown their door open to offer wine tasting and hospitality. Definitely worth a look!! Brits buy up a large portion of the production. Of course, they are proud of the results!! There is a great amount of interest in English Sparkling Wine. Taittinger, of Champagne and also a partner in Domaine Carneros, has purchased land and has planted. Their wines will be coming to our market soon, as will others. Cheers!
So, if you were all down in the dumps about global warming, take heart, English sparkling wines are one bright spot on the warm horizon.