English wines have been hitting the headlines, with some even comparing the latest sparkling wines to champagne.
Firstly, let’s just get things into perspective. England does now boast 470 vineyards with 135 wineries, but sizewise it is still dwarfed by Champagne – with 1,884 hectares across the UK compared to the French Champagne appellation’s 34,500 hectares.
However, vineyards are increasing at a rate of 11 per cent in England annually and will remain relatively static in Champagne.
Secondly, there is the small issue of our British weather. Brad Greatrix of Nyetimber estate believes that the longer growing cycle in England allows grapes to develop extra flavour compounds compared to champagne. “English wine is capable of extra elegance and more finesse than champagne,” he says.
A long growing cycle is all very well, but you need sun in the cycle to ripen grapes – and the growing season can be a nail-biting time. 2012 was a difficult wet vintage (Nyetimber and Coates & Seely made no wine at all that year). Yet this year, in 2015, after a dreary, overcast summer the surprisingly warm, sunny autumn enabled sugar levels to develop enough, with 2015 proclaimed as a record-sized harvest with better quality than 2010 and 2013.
Lastly, the taste. English fizz is typically much paler and youthful, with high marked acidity (in some cases searingly high), floral blossomy scents, with less fruit ripeness and complexity than good champagne.
Some 70 per cent of English wine is now sparkling, so it formed the main focus of our tasting but we also tried ten still wines, which were an extremely mixed bag. I found a couple of still wine highlights, with the clear winner in our tasting from Litmus Wines made by John Worontschak, who incidentally has just signed a deal with Richard Branson to make wine at his new South African estate in Franschhoek.
Still white under £10
Waitrose English The Limes Selection
This scored highest amongst the supermarket still English wines, with floral blossomy aromas, limey flavours, tangy, simple, moderate alcohol, and not a particularly lengthy finish. Quaffable.
Still white over £10
Litmus ‘Element 20’ 2012
This intriguing blend of chardonnay (48 per cent), bacchus (48 per cent) and pinot gris (4 per cent) stole the show. Hints of pearskins, crunchy green apples with a hint of vanilla from short oak ageing, combined with a soft, silky texture with medium length to give by far the most impressive still English wine I have tasted to date. The wine’s name refers to the level of calcium, the 20th element, in the chalky vineyards of the North Downs. More, please.
£16.99, Waitrose, www.waitrosecellar.com; £20, www.litmuswines.com; £22, Harvey Nichols, Edinburgh; WoodWinters, Bridge of Allan/Edinburgh
Gusbourne Blanc De Blancs 2010
Zippy and zesty with buttery, baked apple flavours, this was very charming, but some found it too dry with piquant acidity. This is the flagship blend of this ambitious new Kent venture backed by financier Lord Ashcroft. I liked the nuttiness and gentle brioche notes of this chardonnay cuvée which has benefited from three years ageing on lees. A worthy winner of the IWSC Gold Outstanding Award.
£36.95-£38.50, Lockett Bros, N Berwick; Drinkmonger, Pitlochry/
Edinburgh; WoodWinters; St Andrews Wine Co
Wyfold Brut 2010
Tasters liked the zesty elegance of this fizz, remarking on its dry mineral notes. This three grape blend (chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier) is made by Barbara, wife of founder Tony Laithwaite, who planted a two hectare estate in South Oxfordshire back in 2003 with Cherry Thompson. Now their sons Henry and Ben tend the 4,000 vines and the fizz is made by the Roberts family at Ridgeview.
£29.99 bt or £26.99 each in mixed case of 12 bts, www.laithwaites.co.uk
Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2013
Plenty of youthful exuberance here with biscuity aromas and slight creaminess on the palate, but still a bit too dry with austere acid and moderate length. Another new venture set up by ex-lawyer Simon Robinson with Emma Rice as winemaker. Shows promise.
£29.99, Fine Wine Co, Musselburgh; St Andrews Wine Co
Coates & Seely La Perfide Blanc De Blancs 2009
This new Blanc de Blancs vintage is a real delight. A biscuity nose, rich, lemony, toasty palate with beautifully defined mousse, plus plentiful acidity means that unlike other English fizz there is no tartness, just real elegance. Made from the ripe 2009 vintage, this Hampshire-based enterprise, owned by Axa’s wineman Christian Seely and ex-banker pal Nicholas Coates, set aside the best grapes in their first vintage for this special cuvée – and the lengthy lees ageing here has paid off. Very classy indeed. The best English fizz made to date (but pricey!)
£49.95, Lea & Sandeman, www.leaandsandeman.co.uk;
Ridgeview Grosvenor Blanc De Blancs 2011
This got the OK vote from tasters, although I have had much better cuvées from Ridgeview. Grosvenor is light and delicate with a dry, green apple core and hints of minerality, but not as rich and powerful as other fizz in the tasting.
£29.95, Berry Bros & Rudd
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée Brut 2010
A very high scorer in our tasting. No surprise there perhaps as Nyetimber was the original fizz pioneer (established 1988) and still one of the best with consistently good blends. Our tasters remarked on its creaminess and spicy undertones. I liked the brioche aromas, balanced acid and depth of fruit of this three grape blend.
£27.50, The Wine Society; £31.99, Waitrose; £26.98 each for 6 or £35.99 bt, Majestic Wine
Bolney Bubbly Brut NV
About as far from champagne in style as you can get – more like fizzy elderflower – and no wonder as it is made with müller-thurgau (with chardonnay). Pale, with floral scents, it lacks a depth of fruit with marked piquant acidity and a short finish.
£22.99, Craigie’s Farm Shop, Edinburgh
Hambledon Classic Cuvée NV
A high scorer. Our tasters enjoyed biscuity and red berry aromas, the savoury palate, mouthwateringly high acid, and focused fruits with quince undertones. The cuvée is predominantly chardonnay (70 per cent) with the remainder pinot meunier and pinot noir – and the zesty citric fruits from chardonnay are very obvious throughout.
£28.50-£29.95, Berry Bros & Rudd, www.bbr.com
Wiston Estate Rosé 2011
Our highest scoring rosé fizz. Tasters praised its “delicious creamy texture”, “beautiful balance”, “bruised ripe apple notes” and “soft smooth mousse”. I loved its toasty notes which winemaker Dermot Sugrue says are coming through from 33 per cent chardonnay in the blend; the remainder is predominantly pinot noir with a little pinot meunier.
£35.95, Corney & Barrow, Ayr & Pathhead; Wiston Estate, www.wistonestate.com
Herbert Hall Brut Rosé 2013
This is a pale, delicate and well-made cuvée from the old hopfields of Kent. Like Herbert Hall’s delicious brut, their rosé is beautifully balanced with a creamy mid-palate and good finish. Acidity is still a little too prominent, it needs a little more time to mellow.
£27, Great Grog, Edinburgh; Harvey Nichols
Camel Valley Pinot Noir Rosé 2012
Another popular fizz. Described as “pale and pretty” by some, others loved its wild strawberry fruit nose. Acidity is definitely very prominent, but it makes it all the more refreshing. A winner of four gold medals and three trophies.
£28.99, Waitrose www.waitrosecellar.com; £26.95, www.camelvalley.com
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