Why Choose English Sparkling Wines?
This article is intended as a guide to English Sparkling Wines both for those that aren’t so familiar with these terms (explanations are provided) and for those who are seeking out some of the brightest stars of each style to be found amongst the English Sparkling Wine range.
English Sparkling Wine has achieved international acclaim in recent years, often beating Champagne and other sparkling wines in blind-tasting competitions. The quality of sparkling wine from English wine producers is now truly world-class.
But like many areas of wine, there are several sub-divisions of style, each with different flavour profiles, and the meaning of the terminology on the wines’ labels can sometimes be less than obvious.
The term Champagne, to describe a sparkling wine, is limited to sparkling wines made from that geographic region of France. The Champenois have been ruthlessly successful at protecting the Champagne brand. Their trade body, the CIVC, seems from the outside to be primarily staffed by lawyers pursuing litigation around the world against those that dare to use words connected with Champagne. Only mighty America has managed to carve out a pass for certain long-established producers to classify their fizz as “Champagne”.
It’s not limited simply to not calling your sparkling wine Champagne – you can’t even say that it was made by the “methode champenois” – too close for their comfort. It has to be the “methode traditionelle”, or “traditional method”.
English Sparkling Wine may not trip off the tongue as well as Champagne or sound quite so romantic, but alternatives (e.g. Merret, Bubbly) have never gained consensus and momentum in the English wine industry. WineGB, the trade body for English wine producers, is promoting the terminology “The Great British Classic Method“.
Given this limitation on the use of the word “Champagne”, it seems slightly ironic that, on the whole, English Sparkling Wine producers ape the terminology of their counterparts in Epernay etc., with their Classic Cuvées, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs and Demi-Secs. I assume that they assume that these are well-known terms amongst their potential customer base and want to associate themselves with the Champagne quality connotations. In fact, it probably isn’t mere assumption on their part – no doubt they have done their market research, so I am not going to pick a fight on this.
The first step in our guide to English sparkling wine is the question of sweetness. In the EU, the terminology is regulated and the table below shows the French terms and corresponding sugar levels:
French term Residual sugar (g/l)
- Brut Nature 0-2
- Extra Brut 0-6
- Brut <12
- Extra-Sec 12-17
- Sec 17-32
- Demi-Sec 32-50
- Doux >50
One of my personal hobbyhorses is the under-appreciation of the sweeter styles. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Brut Nature (if it has sufficient fruit), but Demi-Secs are such food-friendly, versatile wines.
When I have raised this with some English wine producers who firmly stick to the drier end of the scale, I have seen some curled lips and comments to the effect that sugar is used to mask faults. And of course, it could be, but it is not cause and effect.
Take an excellent sparkling wine with the right level of acidity to balance the sweetness (and in England, that really shouldn’t be too hard), and you can produce an absolute stunner. Demi-secs often win the “hands up” vote at the end of an evening’s English Sparkling Wine tasting event, in my experience. And why not an actual Doux?
Some of the world’s great still wines are sweet wines – think of the best examples of Sauterne, Tokaji, Rutherglen Muscat – and the same could be true of sparkling wines, it is just currently (and for some time now, to be fair) unfashionable. But the one sure thing that you can say about fashions is that they change like the seasons, and, to mix my metaphors, the pendulum will swing back to the sweet side one day.
In terms of Demi-Secs, my standout is Nyetimber’s Cuvée Cherie NV.
It has light golden hues and a slight silver undertone, which seems to illuminate this delicately effervescent wine. Aromas of pure lemon, salinity, honey tones and a hint of tangerine fill the nose. The palate has a sweet, succulent lemon start offset by crisp acidity and a very clean, pure structure, with a smooth, long finish.
For Extra-Dry, my choice would be Balfour Hush Heath Estate’s Leslie’s Reserve Gold NV.
This is absolutely in the Balfour “house-style”: fruit-forward, elegant, with a vibrant acidity. Their Extra Dry is from selected Cuvées, blended for a young, fresh style predominately from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Cool stainless-steel fermentations ensure clean varietal fruit character and expressive primary fruit aromas.
Secondary fermentation in bottle is followed by eighteen months lees ageing. The wine is bright gold with attractive pink highlights and a fine sustained bead. On the nose it is fresh and clean with hints of brioche and red apple, while the palate has beautifully balanced crisp acidity and a touch of sweetness. There are refreshing flavours of lime and redcurrant.
Brut is the most widely produced style, and there are so many excellent examples that it seems almost egregious to pick only a couple out. However, the two that I will go for are wines that offer superb value for money at their price points: Davenport Vineyards Limney Estate 2015 and Raimes Classic 2015.
Davenport’s premium English Sparkling Wine, Limney Estate 2015, made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. This wine has been matured on lees in the bottle for 48 months (minimum) and has the biscuity complex aromas expected in the best sparkling wines. The flavours are citrus and apple with a dry balance and great length of flavour. In 1991 Will Davenport planted 5 acres of vines at Horsmonden in Kent, while simultaneously working for a Hampshire vineyard and, unintentionally, this became the beginning of a life-long business as a wine producer. Over 25 years later the vineyards now make up 24 acres, grown on 5 parcels of land, 9 grape varieties and a multitude of soil types and micro-climates. The vineyards are mostly at Horsmonden in Kent, with a smaller vineyard next to the winery at Rotherfield, East Sussex. Will was always a keen supporter of organic farming and in 2000 he made the decision to convert all the vines and winery to organic systems, certified by the Soil Association. At the time this was a huge risk, but ultimately the vines are in great shape, the fruit quality is second to none, and the wines show a depth of character that Davenport believe could not be achieved with the use of chemicals in the vineyard and winery.
A similarly fortuitous combination of geology and aspect applies at Raimes. The Raimes family believe that the elegance of their English Sparkling Wines is bound up with the south-facing slopes of their Hampshire vineyard.
Here the chalk substratum lends a particular minerality that helps to achieve a delicate balance of ripeness, acidity and berry aroma.
The 2015 Classic is a blend of the three classic varieties: 51% Chardonnay, 29% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier, bottle-fermented in the traditional method. The wine is partially fermented and aged in barrels, helping to produce a soft, fine mousse.
It has great minerality, fresh citrus characteristics and a hint of stone fruits filling out the profile, with a super-long finish.
The next section in our English Sparkling wine guide is focused on the grapes. English Sparkling Wines can incorporate any grape (not that you’d want to make sparkling wine from some varieties), but Quality English Sparkling Wines can only contain:
- Pinot Noir
- Pinot Noir Précoce
- Pinot Meunier
- Pinot Blanc
- Pinot Gris
For historic reasons, there are some sparkling wines made from the Germanic hybrids, including Seyval Blanc.
This is a grape that caused some issues between the UK and EU regulators as the latter did not recognise it as a wine grape due to the level of American vines in its parentage. However, there are some genuinely interesting and high-quality English Sparkling Wines made from, or containing, Seyval Blanc.
Two particularly notable examples are Bluebell Vineyard’s Hindleap Seyval Blanc 2015 and Saffron Grange’s Seyval Blanc 2017.
Dairy aromas can sometimes be detected in traditional-method sparkling wines. I find with Seyval Blanc that this is particularly prominent, with cream cheese clearly identifiable in both these examples – trust me, this is actually very pleasant in combination with the fruit and toast aromas!
The majority of English Sparkling Wines are made in classic Champagne mould from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Minot Meunier, in varying proportions, sometimes with Pinot Noir Precocé in the mix, and occasionally a dash of Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris.
Where only the white grapes – normally Chardonnay, but in theory Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris too – are used to make the English Sparkling Wine, producers tend to call this “Blanc de Blancs” after the French style. If it is just the black grapes – Pinot Noir, Pinot Noir Precocé and Pinot Meunier – then it would be a “Blanc de Noirs”. Camel Valley is one producer which doesn’t employ this terminology, simply calling their wine a “White Pinot Noir”.
When made from Chardonnay, a Blanc de Blancs is generally the leanest and lightest of Champagne style wines, but this does not mean they have to be austere, especially as the wine ages, when they often develop a toasty richness and intensity of fruit, together with nutty aromas.
Blanc de Noirs, on the other hand, usually have an abundance of fruit right from the start, often with an autumnal profile of ripe apples and spices, and can sometimes miss the finesse and structure brought by Chardonnay, although the best examples have elegance and will age well too.
For Blanc de Blancs, my picks would be the Court Garden Blanc de Blancs 2015 and the Chapel Down Kit’s Coty Blanc de Blancs 2015.
Court Garden is a family-run, single-estate vineyard and winery in East Sussex, set on a beautiful south-facing slope with the South Downs as a backdrop. Their Blanc de Blancs has superb minerality complemented by crisp green apples and gala melon.
The ripeness of the fruit is balanced by a seam of integrated acidity. Like other vineyards in the area (it is only a mile down the road from Ridgeview) it shares similar geology to north-east France – the chalk of the South Downs runs beneath the Channel into the Champagne region.
Chapel Down’s second Blanc de Blancs comes from their Kit’s Coty vineyard on the North Downs of Kent. This wine shows typical aromas of cool climate Blanc de Blancs; green apple and freshly baked bread. It has a savoury finish with fine, persistent bubbles. The palate is showing development from maturation on lees and a toasty character from partial barrel fermentation. The grapes were harvested by hand in October. This refined sparkling wine has undergone malolactic fermentation and 15% of the blend is matured in barrel before being left to age on its lees for four years before release. Kit’s Coty vineyard is a 95 acre vineyard on the North Downs of Kent. The southerly aspect ensures the vines capture the sunshine all year long while the warm, free-draining chalk soils provide the perfect terroir for producing well balanced, intensely flavoured fruit. Restricting yields and maintaining vine balance allow vines to fulfil their potential, producing fruit that truly express their identity and the unique qualities of the soil.
Out of the Blanc de Noirs, Harrow and Hope’s Blanc de Noirs 2015 and Ridgeview’s Blanc de Noirs 2014 are outstanding candidates.
The Harrow & Hope team say that from the moment they blended the wine back in early 2016, they knew it was going to be something special. That’s why they made sure the 2015 Blanc de Noirs got the three full years’ ageing on lees and an extra 6 months post disgorgement.
There’s a lot going on in this wine already, with a lot more to come as it matures further. Harrow & Hope’s single-vineyard sits on an ancient Thames gravel terrace. Being quite central and away from the coast the vineyard experiences high summer day temperatures with cooler nights that preserve precious acidity.
This wine expresses everything that is great about Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier on their site, with pure fruit character, concentration, freshness and a lovely balanced texture.
Ridgeview has been at the forefront of the evolution of English sparkling wine production with one of England’s only underground cellars and a state-of-the-art winery.
Their wines are exported around the world and served at many prestigious occasions. Their Blanc de Noirs 2014 is an attractive light gold in colour.
Black cherry and liquorice aromas on the nose are joined by apricot fruit and gentle toasted characters on the palate. It is a complex wine with hints of aromatic spice indicative of the vintage. The bubbles bring a rounded texture and full body with a harmonious, very long finish.
The final traditional method style to explore is rosé. These are made by blending white and red still base wines before the secondary fermentation in bottle. They can be the perfect drink to accompany canapés and charcuterie. My favourite pair of this style are the Gusbourne Rosé 2015 and the Camel Valley Pinot Noir Rosé Brut 2016.
The Gusbourne Rosé 2015 is delicate pink in appearance, with aromas of cherry, wild strawberry and cranberry combine with more developed brioche and fresh pastry notes. The palate balances soft summer pudding fruits, a vibrant citrus streak and a long, rounded finish.
Gusbourne has 60 hectares at Gusbourne Estate in Kent and 30 hectares in West Sussex that are planted with the three classic varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
The distinct terroir and exceptionally mild microclimates of the surroundings add their own depth and complexity to the wines. Gusbourne aims to allow the blend of site, soil and hard work in the vines to reflect in every bottle, and this rosé is an exceptional example of what this combination can produce.
The Simpsons Wine Estate Canterbury Rose 2018 is a genuinely unique rosé English Sparkling Wine. The intensity of the cherry aromas and flavours is captivating, with a lush dark fruit backdrop. If this sounds too heavy for a rosé, don’t worry, the acidity gives it a magical freshness and moreishness. Aged for 15 months on lees, the Canterbury Rose is delicately pink with a fine mousse and a soft bouquet of rose petal and strawberry sorbet. The Simpsons’ vineyards occupy glorious positions on the sunny, sheltered slopes of the North Downs of Kent, protected from the whimsy of the English climate by ancient woodland and anchored in the iconic chalky soils so highly revered in the world of both still and sparkling wine. On their French wine estate, the award-winning Domaine Sainte Rose in the Languedoc region, the Simpsons have always pursued the cleaner, truer flavours of the grape, and are now bringing this savoir-faire to their English vineyards. With rootstock meticulously matched to the soil and a new world-class winery just minutes from the vines, quality is the watchword.
Non Traditional Methods
Finally, mention should be made of some interesting and delicious English Sparkling Wines that are not made by the traditional method.
Flint Vineyard’s Charmat Rosé 2020 is made by the Prosecco method, but this is a much more serious wine than most Proseccos.
Charmat is the name of the French man who optimised and patented the method used in the production of Prosecco. This method involves a secondary fermentation in tank rather than bottle. By fermenting in tank rather than bottle and releasing the wine earlier, a more fruit-driven style of wine is produced.
This is the first English Charmat method wine to have been put into fermentation in England. A beautiful pink colour, the wine is full of forest fruits with a hint of minerality. The residual sugar balances the crisp acidity and the palate has a balanced texture and long finish.
Based in the sunny and sheltered Waveney Valley in South Norfolk, overlooking the villages of Earsham and Bungay, Flint Vineyard’s winemaker Ben Witchell crafts wines using a blend of innovation and a respect for tradition. The vineyard site was selected as one of the driest and sunniest regions in England and the south-east facing vines are planted on free-draining gravel and flint soil.
Then there is Chapel Down’s Sparkling Bacchus, which they produce by carbonating their still Bacchus wines. Chapel Down Sparkling Bacchus 2020 is characterised by aromas of pineapple, grapefruit and elderflower.
The palate is tropical and floral with a crisp texture and a refreshing finish. The fruit is sourced from vineyards in Kent, Sussex and Essex and cool fermentation in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation helps to retain the freshness of this style.
Our last example is Nutbourne’s Nutty Wild NV, a natural yeast ferment only, without dosage, which reaches just 10% alcohol by the time the wild yeasts are done.
It has a delicate perfume of wild strawberries and a fine mousse. There is something wonderfully fresh and moreish about this wine.
We hope our English Sparkling Wine Guide has helped spark your imagination with new tastes to try, and maybe find some new favourite.
With over 80 English Sparkling Wines in stock, we have many more examples of the traditional method wines available for you to choose from.
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