Wine column for week of 16 September 2013

English sparkling wine has seized the imagination of the wine world in recent years.
It all started in 2007 when Theale Vineyard’s 2003 sparkling chardonnay beat some of the best champagnes and European sparkling wines to be classified in the world’s best 10 sparkling wines at the world’s only dedicated sparkling wine competition, the French-based Effervescents du Monde (sparkling wines of the world) that year.
Events like the 2012 London Olympics and Queen Elizabeth’s 60th anniversary as a monarch that same year boosted sales of sparkling English wine.
A tasting of some English sparkles this week suggests that while the industry still has a way to go, the best wines are very fine indeed, while the rest can be quite ordinary, along a wide continuum. Much like the wine industry everywhere in the world.
For many years the English wine industry was perceived as struggling because grapes could not ripen in such a cold climate. In recent years warmer summers have boosted hopes. Some people speculate that this is because of global warming. In the past 30 years in Sussex, one of the counties on England’s southern coast, average temperatures have risen almost 2 degree Celsius.
The 2008 Breaky Bottom sparkling brut is made from seyval blanc, the most widely-planted grape variety in England, according to Jancis Robinson in her Oxford Companion to Wine. Seyval blanc is the result of crossing two hybrids of seibel. It ripens early, which makes it ideal for a cool-climate countries like England where grape production occurs at the very limit of what is possible — much like in the Chablis and Champagne regions of France.
The Breaky Bottom has a fresh and zingy citrus taste and a relatively long finish. It’s like a squeeze of lemon on a plate of oysters — highly acidic, yet without the creamy texture of champagne. The mousse is subdued. This is probably the biggest difference between champagne and English sparkling. The former typically has a thick mousse — that explosion of bubbles in the mouth when first tasted — and aromas of toast and freshly-baked bread combined with a creamy texture.
The most significant characteristic of English sparkling is the acid zing, often described as a “knife-edge” of acidity. Some critics use phrases like “delicate floral” to evoke the aromas of English hedgerow.
The December 2011 edition of Decanter, one of the world’s best-known wine magazines, featured rose champagne. Author Tom Stevenson awarded three champagnes 19.5/20 and gave another five 19/20 (including Dom Perignon). In a sidebar on English sparkling rose he also gave 19/20 to Nyetimber Rose 2007. His tasting note talked of “delicate soft and orchard fruit” and a “knife-edge of pure English acidity.”
The 2008 Breaky Bottom received a bronze medal at last year’s Decanter World Wine Awards and a silver at this year’s International Wine Challenge in London.
Winemaker Peter Hall chose seyval blanc as the main variety at his vineyard for several reasons. It has high acidity, essential for long bottle ageing. Hall believes seyval gives a cleaner taste, yet with a touch of fruit. His wines resemble the classics of the Loire, which he admires.
Hall planted his vineyard at Breaky Bottom in 1974 at a time when there were only a dozen or so growers in the whole country. Now he is reaping the rewards of his innovation and forward thinking.
Plumpton College in East Sussex is the only higher education institution in Europe and England to offer undergraduate degrees in wine in the English language. The Plumpton Estate non-vintage sparkling, called The Dean, is made from grapes grown on the estate that students craft into wine, under the supervision of wine-making professionals.
The grapes are not mentioned on the label but are also probably seyval blanc. Again the wine has piercing acidity and a zingy mouthfeel. It would be an ideal companion to fresh shellfish like oysters. Or a delightful way to start the day. Some sparkling wines are just perfect for this, like an early-morning kiss from one’s beloved.
The final sparkling tasted was the 2009 Bluebell Vineyards Hindleap. It is made from the classic champagne grapes of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier, and has an ethereal quality. It is this lightness of touch in the mouth that is typical of English sparkles.
The high acidity is also there, like the slightly sour taste of green apples with the skins removed. The wine also has slightly salty tang, the result of the limestone soil upon which many English vineyards on the southern coast rest. Indeed, the same soils that give Chablis its characteristic flavours extend into much of the south coast of England.
* Published 23 September 2013. Find a link here.

Categories: Not home, wine

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