Picturesque countryside, rolling hills, chalky soils, and a cool climate where the grapes are on the very edge of where they can ripen. If that sounds like a description of Champagne, it is. It is also a very accurate description of Southern England.
Those chalky soils are part of Champagne’s secret. Buried in the soil, a remnant of history when oceans covered the land. Sea creatures lived and died beneath the waters, and their remains sank to the ocean floor. There they formed a chalky layer. As the masses shifted and the ocean made way for land, these rose up to become Northern France, running from Chablis in Burgundy through Champagne.
The same seam continues further north, and appears breathtakingly from the English Channel as the famous White Cliffs of Dover. It runs further north still into Sussex, Kent and Surrey.
This is all to Britain’s advantage. The chalky limestone is highly porous, providing a reservoir of water for the vine – but it has to work to get it. By stressing the vine in this way, it puts its effort into the grapes rather than foliage.
Global warming may be a challenge to warmer climates, but to the UK’s wine industry it is a boon. Temperatures in Southern England today are broadly similar to Champagne during the 1980s. This is reflected in Champagne now, where there used to be perhaps 3 declared vintages in a decade, now perhaps 7 or 8 can be declared worthy of a vintage release.
English Sparkling wines have been gaining a reputation for quality, and it is well deserved. The best English fizz now stands toe-to-toe with champagne, scoring highly in (and occasionally winning) international competitions. A blind tasting organised by Noble Rot magazine recently scored 4 English sparkling wines amongst 8 champagnes – Nyetimber’s 2010 Classic Cuvee came out ahead of all the champagnes, just nudging ahead of Pol Roger NV and Taittinger NV.
It stands to reason that the top three grape varieties planted in the UK, the top two are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. In fact, around two-thirds of all wines produced in the UK are sparkling. While we can certainly make still wines, it’s sparkling where we truly excel.
It’s fitting for our climate – the reason champagne works is because it’s too cool to guarantee ripe enough grapes to make palatable still wines. Sparkling wine needs high acidity, even in its driest forms.
English sparkling wine looks set to have an exciting future. There are now 470 vineyards in the UK, with that number set to grow, if modestly. Rumour has it Champagne producers are turning their eye to English vineyards for their next investment, and many English estates have hired champagne cellar-masters to help them master their techniques.
Taste: Full-on toasty nose of brioche and fresh pastry, crisply fresh with lemon, apple peel, honey and almond. Incredibly fine bubbles – an immensely elegant wine.
Enjoy With: Good friends. Very good friends.
Dinner Party Nugget: Nyetimber is presently the largest single estate in the UK. The estate was first recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086, and almost exactly 900 years later the first vines were planted.
Taste: Light on its feet, crisp, refreshing and zesty with citrus, apple and a touch of Danish Pastry.
Enjoy With: A Patriotic party. This is Last Night Of the Proms celebration-style wine.
Dinner Party Nugget: Chapel Down first began making fizz from non-champagne varieties. This wine has an echo of that tradition, with some Pinot Blanc alongside classic Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier.
Taste: Use words like poised, elegant and taut when describing to wine buffs. Freshly peeled cooking apples, white pepper and thyme with dazzling citrus fruit.
Enjoy With: Fried food. Especially if battered.
Dinner Party Nugget: Hush Heath is a young estate, planted only in 2002, with a state-of-the-art winery opened in 2010.
You can browse our range of sparkling wines – English or otherwise – online here.
Edited 13/11/15 for a factual correction. Original article stated 470 wineries, it is in fact over 470 vineyards.