Many people believe that a monk called Dom Perignon invented the method of producing sparkling wines in Champagne. However historical evidence shows the technique was actually invented in England. Some 30+ years before sparkling wine even appears in French history, English scholar Christopher Merret presented a paper on the topic to the Royal Society in 1662. That was 8 years before Dom Perignon travelled to Champagne, 20 years before the French made their first Sparkling wine and 60+ years before the first Champagne House was created.
In fact English playwrights of the era were including references about the popularity of these wines in London decades before the word for sparkling wines (Mousseux) was even used in the French language. The English also possessed the skills to create superior strength glass than the French thanks to their coal-fired kilns. This allowed them to contain the high pressures created during bottle fermentation. Another factor essential to the deliberate bottling of sparkling wines is that the English re-discovered the cork earlier than the French after the Romans use of cork was lost in the Dark Ages.
Anyway, history aside, the point I am making is that expertise in bubbles is nothing new for the English. However, estate grown English wines are now finally being taken seriously by the wine world. They have been wining international awards and regularly beating their French counterparts in blind tastings similar to those victories achieved by California wines in the fabled Judgement of Paris in 1976. This is not surprising really when you consider that the vines grow in a very similar climate a mere 200 miles from the heart Champagne. Many of the soils share the same deep chalk vein that colors the white cliffs of Dover and gives Champagnes their distinctive flavor. This chalk soil lends the wines of England a vibrant minerality similar to thier French cousins.
During my last visit to England with the help of my good friend and budding English viticulturalist Ed Mitcham, I contacted many of the most highly regarded estates in the country and compiled a grand tasting of dozens of wines. This was perhaps one of the most comprehensive tastings of English wines ever assembled. Together with other friends in various aspects of the the wine industry and plenty of willing wine enthusiasts, the great English taste off went down! After thoroughly assesing the field we eventually narrowed it down to four wines that I believe show the very best of what England has to offer. These are all very serious wines made with extremely careful fruit selection, traditional methods and extended lees ageing. All of the wines are truly world class and deserve your attention.
Owned by the Goring Family since 1743 this magnificent country house has established a tiny 16 acre estate situated on a steep chalk escarpment in the South Downs of West Sussex. The estate is planted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, and is entirely hand tended. The winemaker Dermot Sugrue uses only the finest handpicked clusters pressed in a traditional Coquard Press (one of only three outside of Champagne). The wines are pure, powerful and focused.
45% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay, 22% Pinot Meunier. Rested in top quality Burgundian French Oak barrels before 2 ½ years on the lees, only and very small 4g/l dosage. This is an incredible wine with powerful, chalky minerality and very focused, linear intensity. The minimal dosgae and high acidity means this is more in the Extra Brut camp for those that like very crisp dry Champagnes. The wine has rich flavor concentration of crunchy orchard fruit and crushed pears that zips across the palate. I think this is quite reminiscent of Krug with its barrel-fermented qualities showing through adding another layer of textural quality and toasty flavors. A unique expression of English sparkling from perhaps the most focused producer that we came across. If it matters to you, (and sometimes with “Champagne” it does) these guys also got the packaging right, a very stylish and eye catching bottle, enough to land them on the Forbes Magazine list for coolest wine labels of 2013! The label is designed around the Family crest and the ornate plaster moldings in the estates spectacular 15th century manor house in the photo above. A wine that is truly proud to be English.
A nother standout wine from Wiston Estate. This magnificent rosé is all about purity and elegance. A fresh nose of rose petals and spice with hints of Strawberry carries through on to the wonderfully soft, fine textured palate with Alpine Strawberries and fresh cream on brioche. A vibrant underpinning minerality draws the wine out immeasurably long on the palate. A perfect expression of Rosé for me. Lovely focus and precision with a softness and elegance that is very hard to achieve. Top notch stuff. 8g/l dosage.
Situated right on England’s south coast on the Appledore escaprment in Kent, deep sandy loam soils are the base of this remarkable estate. Making only a small amount of truly artisanal wine, everything here is about quality. Sustainably farmed vineyards and a very hands-on attentive team in the cellar are on a constant and uncompromising pursuit to make sure these wines reflect the uniqueness of their site.
Winner of the International Wine and Spirits Challenge (IWSC) Trophy for Best for Sparkling wine in 2013. Gold Medal and Trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards.
Of our tasting this wine was the one that appealed to people that enjoyed the more savory, yeasty flavored side of sparkling wines. It's a rich and toasty style thanks to an extended 4 yrs on the lees. The wine shows lots fresh bread and warm apple pie. It has a lovely weight on the palate with super fine bubbles and baked orchard fruits taking center stage with a hazelnut and slightly saline finish. Some hints of bottle development add another layer of intrigue to this wine with its long persistence and impeccable balance on the palate.
Situated south west of London in Surrey, Denbies Estate is one of the major players in England’s Sparkling wine resurgence with more contiguous acres planted than anyone else. Their estate is based on sites that have been historically planted to vines since the Roman times. This estate enjoys perfect south facing aspects and deep, free draining chalk soils. They have recognized the potential here for producing great wines and have committed "all in" to the English Sparkling wine market. There are hundreds if not thousands of acres are being purchased all over southern England for vineyard plantings. Many of these purchases are being made by Champagne houses and other French sparkling producers who are also recognizing the potential that England holds. Denbies, a long time champion of English wines, are ahead of the game with this excellent estate!
A big, rich powerful wine made largely from estate grown Pinot Noir. Excellent weight on the palate with a crowd pleasing creamy style and toasty Brioche notes. A softer and higher dosage style than our other English bottlings. This is perfect for those looking for a big bold “Champagne” style to serve with or without food. The pure, rich, red fruited pinot character is well balanced by the zesty acidity and toasted grain notes. A dense and powerful wine with subtle mineral tones present on the finish. Thanks to the quality of their site, this is a bold powerful Pinot Noir based wine that few others in England can achieve.
I really hope people will enjoy exploring these wines. They really do offer exceptional quality and are a must try for lovers of Champagne or sparkling wines from anywhere in the world. The quanitities we have of these wines are very limited, often just a few cases. Let me know what you think, many of our staff were very surprised by the serious focus and quality of these wines.
- Ryan Woodhouse, New Zealand / Australia / South Africa (and ENGLISH) Wine Buyer