It would have seemed laughable a decade ago, but England’s sparkling wines are now challenging champagne for quality, and commanding prices to match.
In the summer of 2018, this column finds itself once again in England’s green and pleasant land, and keen to catch up on the burgeoning (if not quite brand new) phenomenon of English Wine. Or rather, New English wine. Nothing to do with the U.S. State of New England and her recent attempts to ruin yet another British beverage (IPA). This is the resurgence of high-quality whites, rosé wines and sparklers at high-end prices and carrying high expectations.
Of course, England has been growing wine for centuries (millennia, in fact). But things are a-changin’ in recent times. Up until a few years ago the grapes thought suitable for the English climate were rather déclassé German varieties more commonly associated with Queen Victoria’s favorite Hock. Hybrid varieties of M?ller, Reichenstiener and Seyval grapes were planted in Wiltshire, Hampshire and other areas stretching from Sussex and Kent to the Midlands.
The idea was that of course, the UK could never produce wines that would rival French Champagne or Chablis, but the English could, in their plodding steady way, create “drinkable” wines which would compete with Liebfraumilch, Blue Nun and other unmentionables. Of course, in the background to all this, the specter of Global Warming was becoming ever more apparent. While most of us cringed and wrung our hands, some dastardly entrepreneurs spotted the upside and began plotting. The fruits of their opportunism are impressive.
The old hands across the narrow sea are obviously impressed—or concerned. Champagne stalwart Taittinger is among those who have bought land in the English south-east with a view to producing a Cuvée Anglais.
In fact, they represent a revolution in English wine-making that few foresaw and fewer believed when the projections became evident: English sparklers, in particular, were set to compete with the very best France had to offer.
Besides the benefits brought by the increase in temperature, another factor played a key part. That was the realization that the rolling hills and meadows of the beautiful south (Sussex, Kent) were set on chalky soil which is ideal for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier—the three varieties found in Champagne, far more prestigious than the Germanic varieties which preceded them (and, to be fair, are still found widely planted in English vineyards).
There are downsides to the new English wine culture, the most obvious of which is cost. Everything seems to cost a lot more in what has been dubbed “rip-off Britain” since the 1990’s when Englishmen first started grumbling about the higher premiums attached to everything from petrol (gas, buddy) to designer goods, compared with geographically close countries like France and culturally closer ones such as the USA.
English sparkling wine is not a bargain, nor even an option really, at any but the highest bracket. Another consideration is the weather. In keeping with the old cliché about British conversational habits, the climate truly is unpredictable. Every decade brings two really good years for English wine; four middling years, and four terrible ones. With versatile production techniques, including cross-variety multi-regional blending, as well as non-vintage labels, this could be overcome. But those who buy the higher-end, prestige wines tend to be nonplussed by such measures, preferring to drink single-vineyard vintage wines, so mid-market easy-drinking sluggers are unlikely to become part of the English portfolio anytime soon.
However, the old hands across the narrow sea are obviously impressed—or concerned. Champagne stalwart Taittinger is among those who have bought land in the English south-east with a view to producing a Cuvée Anglais.
What to look out for in 2018? In Dongguan, you’re unlikely to bump into any English fizz this summer, but many of us to-and-fro to Hong Kong and further afield. If you or your friends are crossing the border or heading intercontinental in the next few weeks, look out for Camel Valley Pinot Noir (Cornwall) 2015, Henners East Sussex Reserve Brut (2010) and Digby Fine English Hampshire Brut. All scored 97 points (outstanding) at Decanter’s own tastings.
Alec Forsyth started selling wine in France over twenty years ago, and is a proud holder of the Wines and Spirits Educations Trust (WSET) Higher Certificate in Wines and Spirits. He has been the head buyer for a local Dongguan wine merchant since 2011, and has been selling imported wines to the Dongguan cognoscenti for several years.