‘Come and taste this,’ said my wine course tutor, ‘it’s pretty rare.’
I was at the 1990 English Wine Festival and the air in the marquee was warm with the aromas of the latest vintages. I came out from behind the stall I’d been assisting on and followed my tutor along a row of producers proffering samples of Muller Thurgau, Reichensteiner, Madeleine Angevine, Schonburger and Ortega, the favoured grapes of English winemakers back then. Grown for their suitability to marginal climates, rather than for their olfactory properties, these grapes were, and still are, second tier in world terms. ‘Gently floral with hints of hedgerow,’ had been the theme of my tasting notes that morning.
We arrived at a stall festooned with bunting that sold the concept of England rather than extolled the virtues of the wine; very much the marketing stance back then: you should drink English… well, because it’s not foreign. Many producers’ livelihoods depended on one-off purchases from visitors at the end of a winery tour, the wine bought in lieu of a ticket price, rather than for the experience in the bottle.
The stallholder poured me a sample and watched expectantly as I nosed the glass. My tutor looked on. The word ‘attack’ is occasionally employed within tasting terms, and in most cases it over-dramatises, but here the verb seemed too weak. After inhalation, the first sensation was one of my nostril hairs wilting, before the aromas, whose dark purpose soon became apparent, as a lightning bolt hit me between the temples. I recoiled, exhaling with effort, a reaction that didn’t seem to perturb the stallholder. I considered how best to describe this ‘attack’, or rather what tasted like the aftermath of a battle, some days past. I forced a smile as I penned a note. Thankfully my scrawl allowed me to say ‘very nice,’ rather than ‘week-old dead rodent, marinated in vinegar’.
‘So what did you think?’ said my tutor with a grin as we walked away. ‘Not bad to get Brettanomyces (a spoiler yeast giving a mousy smell), volatile acidity (vinegar taint caused by acetic acid) and oxidation (excessive exposure to the air, giving rancid characters) in one wine. A trifecta!’
And so a theme developed that afternoon, my tutor was able to have me experience all of the wine fault theory we’d covered on his course, such was the state of much of the winemaking then.
That afternoon was a turning point for me. It was the day I decided I didn’t, after all, want to work in English wine. Having come from an agency importing Bollinger, I had probably become a snob. Instead, I started Taste of the Vine with Pam. Had that afternoon been a few years later, my future might have turned out differently.
In the mid nineties Nyetimber Estate released the first English sparkling wine crafted exclusively from the Champagne varietals: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Whether it was by design or a happy accident will likely remain conjecture, but the then owners, Stuart and Sandy Moss, had hit upon the winning combination: plant these ‘noble’ varieties (not crossings or hybrids bred for tolerance to adverse conditions) on a warm, well-drained site, and they’ll do well. For sparkling wine, that is, a style that requires more modest levels of grape ripeness.
With hindsight, it’s hard to understand why the formula hadn’t been cracked before. After all, average temperatures in some parts of southern England are the same as those in the Champagne region, and the downland chalk is the same seam (though many of our finest new plantings are on equally suitable greensand). Maybe we just lacked confidence? Some cite global warming as the reason for the success of English sparkling wine, but a glance at localised temperatures doesn’t support this theory. Some of our best vintages in the last ten years have been cooler than average. Whatever the reason, the good news is that English sparkling wine has become more than a novelty, regularly winning highly regarded awards.
Having made comparisons between Champagne and English sparkling wine at Taste of the Vine tastings for some years, we are now regularly asked to host events comprising exclusively English sparkling wine. And, such is the stream of new wines to market, that I have the pleasure of being able to add a new producer into the selection each time.
Among our favourites are, Bolney Estate, Breaky Bottom, Gusbourne, Henners, Hambledon, Hattingley Valley, an expanded Nyetimber, Ridgeview and Tinwood. This is a non-exhaustive list, biased by proximity to our offices, but you can rest assured that if you do buy English sparkling, you are likely to find, pound-for-pound, the equivalent quality to Champagne. I made a comparison last week between Bond’s beloved Bollinger and Sugrue Pierre, a niche bottling from Dermot Sugrue at Wiston Estate. To me, 007’s choice now seems as incongruous as if Q had given him a Citroen to drive instead of an Aston Martin.