Sparkling becomes popular in the weeks prior to Christmas. English wine is an option this Yuletide season. For publication in week of 7 November 2016.
Court Garden have won a slew of awards in recent years as their vines, planted in 2005, begin to mature. The vineyard nestles in East Sussex in southern England near the village of Ditchling, with the South Downs national park as a backdrop.
It is a family-run estate with 17 hectares of vines planted to traditional Champagne grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Owner Howard Corney said that in 2008 the estate added Pinot Gris, Ortega, Dornfelder and Rondo to make still wines.
Growing grapes in England remains a daunting task because of changing weather patterns. When buds begin to burst in May the danger of frost is ever present. Vineyard workers monitor temperatures that month and at Court Garden the vines are warmed by candles if the temperature falls below zero. In June staff employ an unusual technique called bud rubbing. to remove unwanted shoots from the trunks of the vines.”We often use a giant toothbrush,” Corney said.
The estate employs kestrels and uses paper kites designed to look like hawks to scare away birds that threaten to eat ripening grapes. Sheep roam the vineyards eating grass and generally keeping the site tidy.
The Court Garden 2013 Classic Cuvee is a tidy blend of 40 per cent Chardonnay and 30 per cent of both Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. It would be delightful with a range of seafoods or as an aperitif. The 2013 Blanc de Blancs, as the name suggests, is 100 per cent Chardonnay and a zingy delight, like eating slices of green apples. It won two gold medals at last year’s International Wine Challenge plus trophies for best English sparkling and best English vintage sparkling.
A feature of the 2010 Blanc de Noirs (made traditionally from 100 per cent pinot Noir) is the decision not to give the wine any oak treatment. The wine is delicate yet well defined, with delightful aromas of lemongrass mingling with red fruits. The 2010 Ditchling Reserve uses the same grapes but these spend nine months in oak, giving the wine more finesse and a rounder mouthfeel. The reserve is only made in exceptional years.
Production at Court Garden is relatively small at 27,000 bottles a year. Wines can be ordered from the company’s web site.
Fox & Fox is a neighbour in East Sussex, and makes about 20,000 bottles a year. They have had similar success in recent competitions, including an outstanding 96 points out of 100 from Decanter magazine, the UK wine Bible, for the 2011 Essence Pure Chardonnay Brut. The wine sold out soon after.
Gerard and Jonica Fox planted vines in 2005 and again in 2010-11. The Mayfield 2013 Inspiration is a blend of Pinot Gris with Chardonnay and has a distinct ginger note from the Pinot Gris that works well with the zing of the Chardonnay. The wine is from the Lakestreet Vineyard in its first productive year. Monica Fox said this wine was “developing into a white fizz with real promise”. It is a perfect wine for long summer evenings as the sun sets, or with a range of Asian foods like dumplings that would show off those ginger notes.
The 2013 Tradition Blanc de Noirs is mostly Pinot Noir with a touch of Pinot Meunier. It offers aromas of mushrooms and red fruits, and has a soft texture and good length. Monica Fox said that if 2011 was a great year for Chardonnay, 2013 was great for Pinot. “Long and slow ripening delivered mouth-watering flavours in the grapes,” she said.
Fox pointed out that the estate did not pick any grapes in 2012. “They weren’t up to our exacting standards after particularly tricky weather that year. No grapes so no wine. We still believe it was the right decision.”
One of the estate’s most attractive wines is the 2010 Expression Saignee Rose Brut. It offers zesty redcurrants and raspberries on the nose and in the mouth, held together by a pleasant structure and a long dry finish. Saignee means bleeding in French and is one of the ways to make rosé wines, by allowing brief contact with skins to leech out colour and flavour. The other way is through blending white and red wine, which is how rosé Champagne is made.
One of the least pleasant sparkling wines encountered at the Glass of Bubbly autumn tasting was the Halfpenny Green 2013 sparkling red. It was like tasting fizzy Ribena, or sweet blackcurrant juice.
By contrast, the Wiston range of sparkling wines, also from East Sussex, were a delight to taste with their searing acidity, bright fruit and elegance. The 2010 Wiston Cuvee is a marvellous wine that has won several gold medals and trophies. Richard Goring, general manager at Wiston Estate, said the wine was aged in the cellars for almost three years. “It is made up of 33 per cent Chardonnay, 45 per cent Pinot Noir and 22 per cent Pinot Meunier and is given a very low dosage at disgorging, to enable the clarity of the fruit to shine through.”
The UK’s first sparkling rose made entirely from Pinot Meunier, the Exton Park non-vintage, was released earlier this year and has already won a gold medal at the international Wine Challenge. Eton Park is also in East Sussex near the South Downs with its chalky soils similar to those of the Champagne region. Wines are made under the guidance of French winemaker Corinne Seely, backed by local businessman Malcolm Isaac, who purchased the vineyard in 2009. The aim is to produce up to 60,000 bottles a year of mostly non-vintage sparkling wine from the 22 hectares of vines.
Treat yourself to some English sparkling and note the differences between these wines and Champagne. You will learn much from the experience.