English Wine Week is being held in the last week of May, so this seems an appropriate time to consider some of the best English sparkling wines.
A tasting earlier this month at the splendid headquarters of the Institute of Civil Engineers in London revealed much about these wines.
Cherie Spriggs is the winemaker at Nyetimber in West Sussex near England’s south coast. She joined the company in 2007 after studying at the Wine Research Center in Canada and Adelaide University in Australia.
Spriggs has been attending the annual tasting of English wine for the past seven years and noted that the event had “grown and grown”. “Seven years ago there were six or seven stands and now look,” she said, gesturing towards the 26 stands around the room, as well as a table in the centre of the room where almost 100 wines were available for self-poured assessment.
Nyetimber’s aim, Spriggs said, was to make sparklings to rival the best champagne. She has succeeded. Her 2009 Nyetimber classic cuvée won the trophy for best English sparkling wine at this year’s International Wine Challenge, announced in mid May.
This is a wonderful wine. Aromas of fresh lemon, brioche, melon and a hint of vanilla leap from the glass. The flavours balance superbly with zingy acid, and the finish lingers. The bubbles from the base of the glass, known as the bead, are fine and subtly textured, like a gentle kiss.
A feature of all Nyetimber sparklings is the amount of time the flavours stay in one’s mouth.
The cuvee is still a young wine yet it has sufficient balance and structure to age for many years. Spriggs described 2009 as one of the best vintages of the past decade. “I just needed to get out of the way to let the grapes do their thing.”
That was not the case in 2012. The weather was so bad that many vineyards, including Nyetimber, did not make any wine. Other estates produced only tiny amounts, which explains why so few 2012 wines were available for the London tasting. Most ranged from 2008 to 2011.
A feature of English sparkling is the high levels of acidity and that could be used as a general descriptor for them. Some of the wines tasted were simply too acidic for my taste. After a few glasses I began to feel sorry for anyone with a mouth ulcer or cut in their mouth.
Some of the best, aside from the Nyetimber, included the 2010 Hush Heath blanc de blancs. All blanc de blancs are made entirely from chardonnay. The Hush Heath has a very fine bead with sizzling acid and rich textures, combined with aromas of strawberries. The taste lingers for some minutes and the mousse, that explosive feeling in one’s mouth at the first sip, is sumptuous.
Also excellent were the 2009 blanc de blancs from Bolney and Gusbourne. The former has a delicate strawberry nose, zingy acid and a rich and full texture. It conjured images in my mind’s eye of shimmering vistas of blue skies and green fields. The aftertaste is long and concentrated. This is an intense wine that I would tend to drink in the evening because it is too rich for morning consumption.
The Gusbourne also has sumptuous texture, and a sense of clarity and linearity that would make an excellent mid morning reward for getting up early. It finishes clean and elegant, and the acidity sparkles rather than zings on the palate.
A highlight of the tasting was the fact I could find few duds. Almost all were well made.
With the wines that adopted the classic cuvee tradition of the Champagne region – that is, blending chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier – it was nice to see the high proportion of pinot meunier, which adds weight to the blend. The 2009 Nyetimber Classic Cuvée, for example, has 19 per cent meunier combined with 55 per cent chardonnay and 26 per cent pinot noir.
Other fine sparklings included the non-vintage Coates & Seely brut reserve, which tasted like sherbet and had a lingering finish, and the 2009 Wyfold, a blend of 54 per cent chardonnay 28 per cent pinot noir and 18 per cent pinot meunier. It had a fun, funky nose with a soft mousse and lower acidity, plus savoury sensations from time on lees.
The non-vintage Coates & Seely rose was one of the best pink sparklers, with a mushroom nose combined with acid zing and sour cherry flavours. It is made in the “methode britagne” (pronounced “Britannia”) style. Owner Christian Seely believes English sparkling should have a generic descriptor like this to reflect its prestige and high standing.
After the tasting it was easy to appreciate Seely’s thoughts on English sparkling wine.
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