Adding More Sparkle
The English wine industry is growing in popularity, with new vineyards, tastings and tours springing up almost every few months. It’s no longer just a regional curiosity but a world-renowned product, especially when it comes to our sparkling wine.
Over the last 20 years or so, English sparkling wines have gained an international reputation with many winning prestigious international awards, including Gusbourne, Chapel Down, Simpsons and Ridgeview to name just a few, with some sparkling wines being rated more highly than Champagne in blind tastings.
There are more than 400 wineries in England, mostly located in the south-east, including Nyetimber, Bolney, Denbies and Greyfriars. Even the French are getting in on the act, with Taittinger buying a plot of land near the Kent village of Chilham, the first Grand Marque Champagne house to do so in the UK with the first bottles due to be released later this year. Exciting times indeed!
Differences between English sparkling wine and Champagne
While many of the top English wine producers use the same three grape varieties as in Champagne for their top cuvees – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier – there are no specific rules to say they must use those or all three. Some use just Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. On the other hand, Champagne can only be made from these three varieties for it to be called Champagne (unless it’s a Blanc de Noirs made from only the black grapes of Pinot Noir and/or Meunier, or a Blanc de Blancs made from Chardonnay).
Many English wineries make sparkling wine from other varieties: for example, Biddenden make theirs from a number of German grapes such as Reichensteiner, Scheurebe and Ortega, which are particularly suited to our cooler climate. These are all labelled sparkling wines regardless of the grape varieties, where the grapes are planted, or where the wine is produced.
In France, Champagne must come from the Champagne region to have that name whereas English sparkling wine can be made (in theory) anywhere in the country and be labelled as the producer requires.
Soil and Climate
The French term ‘terroir’ means the environment in which the vines grow and mature – that is, the soil, climate, aspect of the vines and the height at which they are planted above sea level. All these factors have a bearing on how the grapes ripen and develop their flavour.
There are many similarities in the soil around the south-east of England and the Champagne area, as both regions consist mainly of chalk which not only absorbs rain but also provides good drainage. Although both areas have a cool climate (Champagne is slightly warmer) this is ideal for sparkling wine production because the grapes need to be high in acidity when picked, as they need to go through two fermentations in the winemaking process.
It is also worth noting that The Weald, the area between the North and South Downs, is slightly protected from the worst of the British cool winds and these south-east facing vineyards are in prime position to absorb the sun’s rays. This is where many of our top English vineyards are located and one of the reasons why the sparkling wine that we make is so good!
Method of Production
Often called the Champagne method or the traditional method, English sparkling wine is made in exactly this way, with the second fermentation in the bottle as opposed to a tank.
After the grapes are harvested (usually by hand) they are pressed and the base wine is made. Grape varieties are usually fermented separately and then the all-important blending takes place. This is a highly skilled process, and the winemaker will carefully choose the proportion of each base wine for the final style desired. In Champagne, reserve wines from other vintages are often blended to achieve a house style, and this is an increasing practice in a number of English wineries, too.
The key difference between the traditional method and the tank method, which is used for Prosecco production, is that the second fermentation takes place in the bottle. As a bottle is smaller than a tank, the concentration of flavour is increased and when the second fermentation is finished the wine will lay on the ‘lees’ (dead yeast cells) for anything between nine months and five years or longer (known as autolysis). Lees ageing adds not only complexity but that characteristic bready, yeasty, brioche aroma which is present in most Champagne and in many of the top English sparkling wines as well.
The bottles then need to be inverted – a process known as ‘riddling’ which is done by a machine called a ‘Gyropalette’. The dead yeast cells are frozen and expelled (‘disgorgement’).
The wine is then topped up to fill the space left by the dead cells and to adjust sugar levels (‘dosage’) and the wine is ready for sale.
Can English sparkling wine compete with the prestige of Champagne?
For the Royal coronation many English wineries produced celebration bottles, with Camel Valley in Cornwall having been the first to receive a royal warrant in 2018 meaning they are an official supplier to the Royal family – prestige indeed!
Club World passengers on BA now have a selection of four new English wines to choose from: Digby Fine English Brut, Balfour Rose de Noirs, Simpsons Chalklands Cuvee Brut NV, and Wiston Estate Brut NV, as well as the established Hattingley Brut NV. This puts English sparkling wine on a par with Champagne in terms of choice and exposes it to many more people outside the UK who fly BA.
The most significant differences between the two are the fact that Champagne production has a longer history, beginning hundreds of years before English sparkling wine and although they taste similar, English wines are known for a fresh, apple-like crunchiness and slightly higher acidity than Champagne.
Ultimately it really depends on your personal preference, but either beverage works just fine for making a celebratory toast such as for the Royal coronation, ushering in a new year, or as a bubbly refreshment at your next social event.
Rowena Hawtin (DipWSET)