English Wine Week: Forever blowing bubbles

In today’s installment in his series to mark English Wine Week, Peter Ranscombe examines the style for which England is best known – sparkling wine.

COMPARISONS between Champagne and English sparkling wine are inevitable – the same basin of chalk-rich soil that runs through the Champagne region pokes its head up again along England’s south coast.

England’s ripening conditions have also been likened to those in Champagne 20 years ago, before climate change took hold.

Further comparisons – not always favourable – are also drawn when it comes to cost, with the common refrain that “I could buy Champagne for that price” echoing in many producers’ ears.

Although it’s growing, England’s wine industry is still tiny in comparison with Champagne, so prices won’t be falling any time soon.

Yet writing off English fizz as an imitation of France’s most famous bubbles is missing the point.

English sparkling wine is a category in its own right – thanks to its climate, its soils and its winemakers – as its diversity of styles shows…

Pinks to make us Scots wink

Hambledon Vineyards Classic Cuvee Brut Rosé (£36, Virgin Wines)
Hambledon is one of the benchmark names in English fizz – alongside the likes of Nyetimber, Chapel Down and Wiston – and its pink sparkler shows exactly why that’s the case, with its rich red cherry and red plum and fresher raspberry and cranberry aromas, with plenty of concentrated fruit flavours to balance its high acidity. Check out its munchy box-matching prowess in my article about wines to match takeaways too.

Wiston Estate Rosé 2014 (£36.50 or £185 for six bottles during English Wine Week, wistonestate.com)
The most exciting sparkling wine I’ve tried this year – from anywhere, let alone England. There’s something distinctly Mediterranean about the nose, with pomegranate and garrigue-like herbs. On the palate, it’s got a beautiful tang, like Schweppes bitter lemon, with plenty of red fruit flavours to balance its refreshing acidity.

Jenkyn Place Brut Rosé 2014 (£35, jenkynplace.com)
We met the 2010 Jenkyn Place Blanc de Noir in Saturday’s article about Scots – and adopted Scots – making wine in England, and today it’s the turn of the Hampshire vineyard’s pink fizz. Really expressive and inviting floral notes on the nose, plus strawberry jam spread over Victoria sponge cake. The acidity makes for a very fresh mouthfull, but it’s balanced by the red apple, strawberry and spun sugar flavours.

Selborne Rosé Brut (£24.99, Majestic Wine)
Made for Majestic by Hambledon, there are plenty of attractive strawberry and raspberry aromas on the nose, along with a toasty note too. There’s a bit of off-dry sweetness to balance the high acidity, but with a new clean finish too. Ripe raspberry, red cherry, strawberry jam and spun sugar flavours round off the show.

2015 Oastbrook Sparkling Rosé (£38, oastbrook.com)
Made on a former Guinness hop farm in East Sussex, the second vintage of Oastbrook’s sparkling rosé spent 40 months on its lees – the dead yeast cells left over from the secondary bubble-creating fermentation – and that was clearly time well spent. There’s an excellent concentration of ripe raspberry, red cherry and strawberry jam flavours to balance its acidity. It’s such a lively wine, with a really effervescent mousse.

2017 Camel Valley Pinot Noir Rosé Brut (£29.99, Waitrose)
Waitrose has a fantastic selection of English fizz to explore but my tip is to head to Cornwall’s Camel Valley for a gorgeously-ripe nose full of raspberry, red plum, spun sugar and strawberry jam. The palate is much more savoury, with red apple, lemon rind and raspberry, all wrapped up in high acidity, and already developing some bready notes.

Seeing the whites of their eyes

Louis Pommery English Brut (£34.99, Majestic Wine)
Vranken-Pommery became the first major Champagne house to release an English sparkling wine when it teamed up with Hampshire-based producer Hattingley Valley to create this wine, made from a blend of fruit bought from Hampshire, Essex and Sussex. It was the surprise package for me during my tastings; I was really impressed with its exciting and very grown-up mix of red and green apples, lemon rind, brown sugar and spun sugar on the nose, with red apple, apricot and peach on the palate, plus a return to more savoury lemon rind on the finish, with an excellent balance against its crisp acidity. The first grapes from Pommery’s own vineyard in Hampshire will be harvested this autumn.

Hattingley Classic Reserve Brut (£29, Tesco)
Hattingley Valley also produces wines under its own label, including its classic reserve brut, which impressed me with its bright and attractive aromas of lemon, lemon curd and confectioners’ custard. On the palate, it’s packed full of baked apple, custard, cinnamon, spun sugar and green apple compote to balance its lively acidity.

2016 Black Chalk Classic (£35, blackchalkwine.co.uk)
Former Hattingley Valley winemaker Jacob Leadley set up his own label, Black Chalk, in 2018 and last year selected the site to build his own winery. His 2016 classic blend of chardonnay and pinots noir and meunier was made at Hattingley, with the base wine spending some time in oak barrels. The acidity is still racy, and I can’t wait to see how this wine will age once it quietens down a touch. In the meantime, the flavours of red and green apple and fresh lemon juice make for a refreshing combination.

2016 Rathfinny Blanc de Blanc Brut (£36.95, Lea & Sandeman)
Never judge a wine by its label… but Rathfinny does have some of the most elegant packaging on the market. Fortunately, it’s backed-up by the quality of the liquid inside the bottle too, especially in its sparkling chardonnay, which features confectioners’ custard and red apple on its attractive nose, alongside apricot and brown sugar. The fruit flavours are joined by brown bread on the palate, with a touch of brioche starting to develop already too.

2014 Marksman Blanc de Blanc (Marks & Spencer)
Made for Markies by Ridgeview in Sussex, Marksman has been a benchmark for supermarket English fizz for years. The 2014 is one of my favourite incarnations, with its high acidity balanced by complex flavours ranging from red apple and lemon rind through brown sugar to confectioners’ custard. There’s a wee touch of brioche starting to develop already on the nose too.

The Best English Sparkling Brut (£20, Morrisons)
It may carry the same confused flags as the 2010 grand vintage example from yesterday’s supermarket sweep – the word “English” should maybe be a clue that two union flags weren’t the way to go on the label – but the liquid inside stands up to scrutiny. Aromas of red apple, brown sugar, wholemeal toast and lemon curd lead into strawberry, pear and more red apple and castor sugar on the palate. I suspect there’s a healthy kick of residual sugar in there to balance the acidity, but the whole package works nicely.

Tomorrow – find out why sparkling wines aren’t the only game in town as we take a look at England’s still wines.

Plus, take a look at which bottles are available on supermarket shelves and in independent bottle shops north of the Border.

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