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ENGLISH SPARKLING WINE:
Ready to take on the world?
by Stephen Spurrier / Stephen Skelton;
published in Decanter
Click to download scan in PDF format
11th March 2008
Leading wine writers' comment on English Sparkling Wine
Almost without exception, the best English wines are fizzes made from the champagne grapes pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier. They also share the same techniques and even soils with the world's most famous sparkling wine region. Little wonder that a number of major Champagne houses are considering buying land on this side of the Channel.
Top-quality English sparkling wine only emerged at the end of the 1990s. But the success of producers such as Nyetimber, Ridgeview, Hush Heath, Denbies, Chapel Down and Camel Valley is transforming the English wine scene and encouraging more people to plant vineyards. These are projected to double in size over the next decade to around 2,500 hectares. More significantly, the percentage of that trio of champagne grapes will increase from its current 40% to around 70% as new plantings come on stream.
Does English sparkling wine stack up? I think it does. The idea of spending more on a bubbly from Kent, Sussex or Cornwall than on a medium-quality Champagne may seem laughable to some, but again and again in international competitions, the best English wines win gold medals. If you don't believe me, buy a bottle of each and taste them blind against each other. You could be surprised by which one you prefer.
"I have followed English wines with great interest since 1984, when whites produced in this country took top awards in the first ever International Wine Challenge. In those days, English sparkling wines of any quality were beyond any of our imaginings. But, over the last decade, a growing band of bottles from Nyetimber, Camel Valley, Chapel Down, Denbies and RidgeView have convinced me that this is where the future of English wine lies - at least until the climate changes a little further. These wines genuinely compete on level terms with Champagne, but like the best sparklers from other countries, they have a character that is truly their own. And that's what I look forward to seeing develop further. Not sparkling wine that's good enough to be mistaken for a French role model, but fine, rich, refreshing, gently fizzy stuff that will carry the reputation of English vineyards across the globe."
"The rise in the quality of English sparkling wines has been sensational, and very fast. After the discovery that the trio of grapes used in Champagne did well here too, producers have experimented successfully with other varieties such as Seyval Blanc and Bacchus. And the demand for the best wines outstrips supply – at the moment. We must be careful not to plant too many vines, and kill demand! For the time being, I am proud to serve English sparkling wines – particularly to French visitors!"
"Since the surprising, but totally justifiable, success of Nyetimber’s Blanc de Blancs at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in the early 1990s, English Sparkling Wine grown in stature and reputation, with the result that my wife and I have planted just over 3 hectares out of a probable 10 of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir on our chalky soils in south Dorset. There seems to be a lot of optimism around the future for English Sparkling Wine, but I think it will tougher than we first thought. My reasons are vineyard treatments, grape ripening and yields.
Vines in Europe seem to look after themselves. They do not, of course, but England, particularly Dorset, has a cooler Spring and a higher humidity. Late bud burst will protect us from frost, but flowering will not be before mid-late June, putting the harvest into October, even for the low sugars necessary for sparkling wine. We have just bought the most modern sprayer and have been told that it will be in constant use during the ripening season. Even if the vines are healthy, will the grapes ripen? 2009 was a good vintage, but 2008 was so poor in Dorset that our neighbour picked his Chardonnay in November with an acidity so high that the malo-lactic never happened. A generation ago, the Champenois could only declare a vintage three or four times a decade, now it is almost every year. Climate-wise, we are a generation behind. As for yields, I am told to expect one bottle of wine per vine, which will show me 4,100 bottles a hectare. The Champenois plant at 10,000 vines/hectare and still get a bottle a vine, sometimes more.
So growing grapes to make sparkling wine is not a bowl of cherries, not will the wine making, nor the selling, but even in their second year, the vines look beautiful in their serried ranks and we will plant more because, like all our colleagues, there is everything to aim for. "