English sparkling wine (and Welsh fizz too) is improving in quality year by year and much is now on par with good (if not the best) Champagne. Both are made the same way, the so-called traditional method which, in the context of the history of sparkling wine, is actually a quite recent development, but never mind. The main point here is that this method provides several opportunities to produce a rounded, complex wine from fruit that has had limited opportunity to ripen and develop flavour, on account of the northern latitude and cool climate, both in Champagne and Britain.
Among the options are varying the mix of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, blending across vintages so that lean years may be improved with richer wines, malolactic conversion, extended time on the lees prior to disgorgement, autolysis of the yeast, and including a little sugar in the liqueur d’expedition, the final topping up.
This was confirmed by a tasting yesterday, over dinner, of three white and two rosé English sparklers, at the Central London Wine Society. All were at least good, my favourite being the award-winning Castle Brook Classic Cuvée Brut 2009. The fruit is from the Wye Valley, on the site of an ancient Roman vineyard. Yes, Herefordshire, not the usual Dorset, Sussex, Kent or Hampshire. The cépage is 51% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir and the rest Pinot Meunier, a typical Champagne blend. It’s made at Ridgeview Estate in Sussex, and spent more than four years on its lees, displaying the lovely gingerbread characteristics that this promotes.
After the sparkling wines we progressed to five whites and three reds. This is where my assessments dropped a bit though there were a couple of good bottles. The whites were from various grapes: Huxelrebe, Pinot Gris, Bacchus and Chardonnay. The last two are England’s most planted varieties for still white wine. Bacchus is aromatic and something like Sauvignon Blanc and we had two examples. But for me the Pinot Gris was easily the best, the 2016 from Stopham Estate in West Sussex, made just off-dry with 6 g/L of residual sugar. Good wines always seem to have an interesting back story too, and in this case it’s that the winemaker, Simon Woodhead, is one of a quite a handful of ex-F1 engineers now involved with English wine. As for the other whites, the crosses Huxelrebe and Bacchus were unappealing; I think artificial crosses rarely achieve the plain deliciousness of natural varietals, while the Chardonnay was just unripe, a victim of the poor 2014 vintage.
The reds included a Rondo, a Dornfelder and a Pinot Noir. Hybrids such as Rondo are not normally permitted for winemaking in the EU, but wine from Rondo could pass as a Vitis Vinifera in character and has been granted an exemption. The winner, however, was the Dornfelder, the most successful of the red German crosses. This was the 2015 from Winbirri Vineyards in yet another fledgling wine county, Norfolk. (During the evening we also has a Staffordshire and a Lincolnshire.) Winbirri is just outside Norwich on the right bank of the River Yare at a rule-breaking 52.6°N. Climate change is the harbinger of doom, but humanity will drown not sadly in rising oceans but merrily in a sea of new wines.
We finished with a dessert wine and glorious it was: Denbies Noble Harvest from the perfect 2016 vintage. Made in the same way as Sauternes from rotten grapes, it differs by being based on Ortega, another German cross, rather than Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. A wonderful wine to finish, a viscous glassful of peaches and cream, oranges, toffee apple and blue cheese, all of which it would go with rather well. Wine of the night by popular acclaim.
PS All these wines are available from Waitrose.