Last night we celebrated English Wine Week with a tasting of English sparkling wine at Corks Out in Timperley, appropriately under the gaze of the statue of Frank Sidebottom, a great but sadly late English eccentric.
Some English wine facts to get you started:
England now has about 110 wineries (there are 14 more in Wales) producing about 2.5 million bottles a year, of which about 60% (and I think it’s fair to say the most successful) is sparkling.
While the French Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon is often credited with inventing sparkling wine, there is documentary evidence that in 1662 the Englishman Christopher Merrett presented the snappily-titled paper “Some Observations concerning the Ordering of Wines” in which he described the process of adding sugar to wine to make it sparkle. Although it seems that the French did play their part: wine was transported from France in casks for bottling in England. Sometimes it contained some remaining yeast which, when the wine warmed up, would start a second fermentation.
While the early days of Champagne production were hampered by exploding bottles, England led the way in glassmaking. In 1615, Sir Robert Mansell, an admiral in the Royal Navy, obtained a monopoly on a new method of glass production using sea coal rather than charcoal. The story goes that James I banned the use of charcoal in order to save trees to make ships for the Navy. Sir Robert’s other claim to fame was that he cut off the hand of Sir Christopher Heyden in a duel. The mummified hand is now on display in Norwich Castle Museum. If that’s not a reason to visit the UK, I don’t know what is.
Our tasting commenced with a dégustation of the French stuff: Ayala Brut Majeur NV (45% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Meunier). This was very fruity, with lots of green apple flavour. However, it did make me realise that I’m developing a bit of a Goldilocks complex in relation to sparkling wine, specifically the fruit/toast balance. I recently slated a Franciacorta for being too toasty; last night I was criticising a Champagne for being all fruit and no toast. I’m looking for one that’s just right.
After mocking the French for the absence of pain grillé, we returned to home territory with Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2009. Gusbourne Estate is in Kent, which has the same chalky soil as Champagne, enabling it to grow grapes and make wine in the same style. This is also green appley, but moving in the right direction with the toast.
My favourite of the night was Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009 (55% Chardonnay, 26% Pinot Noir and 19% Pinot Meunier). This was more complex and balanced than the preceding wines, combining red fruit flavours with biscuity briochey flavours. Excellent and the winner of the night’s smiley face. (The Renen-Utet alternative to Parker Points. It’s the way forward.) It’s also just won a Gold Medal in the International Wine Challenge.
Next up was Henners Brut Vintage 2009 (33% of each of the usual suspects). While this was perfectly good, I think that it suffered from following the Nyetimber, which was too tough an act for it to follow. It was an interesting contrast, as it had a pronounced mineral flavour, with high acidity and citrus flavours. If you prefer minerals to fruit, you’d love it. I’d also be happy to give it another go, just not straight after Nyetimber, to see if that improves it.
The next wine was what I’d describe as the oddball of the evening: Coates and Seely Brut Rosé (65% Pinot Noir and 35% Pinot Meunier). Coates and Seely sell their wines (all sparkling) under the name “Britagne” (ie British Champagne). I’m not sure that it will catch on – what do you think? This wine stood out in so many ways, starting with its colour, which was a pale golden peach, rather than pink. I’d describe its aromas and flavours as the essence of English eccentricity: strawberries at Wimbledon, Lancashire cheese and a hint of the farmyard. The Vivienne Westwood of wine. I gave it a quizzical smiley face.
The last sparkler was Bolney Cuvée Noir (100% Dornfelder from Sussex). I was apprehensive about this, because I’ve tasted a number of Aussie sparkling reds with an open mind, only to find something resembling sparkling Ribena. However, this could actually convert me to sparkling red. It was pleasingly dry, with a pronounced sour cherry flavour. It’s extremely drinkable and I think that it would make a great original opening number for a barbecue.
We finished with a still wine: Stophan Estate Rosé 2013 (another 100% Dornfelder from Sussex). This was good fun; off dry with lots of strawberries with a touch of cream. It had a very pronounced fruit flavour, but was let down a little by a short finish.
I think that our evening showed that when it works, English sparkling wines can be great. Bear in mind that our southerly vineyards are only 80 miles from Champagne and share the same geology, so why shouldn’t they be just as good? However, our winemakers are at the mercy of the unpredictable climate; in 2012 Nyetimber had to scrap its harvest, which had failed to ripen properly due to poor weather, including the wettest June since records began. The attendant difficulties of winemaking and low volumes mean that prices are high at present, which probably puts people off. The silver lining in the cloud that is global warming is helping, but its future impact is uncertain. I will certainly be keeping my eye and tastebuds on English wine, and I recommend that you do the same.