The UK is home to the Masters of Wine Institute, the Court of Master Sommeliers and the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, and for a long time, it was known more from educating about wine appreciation and for consuming plenty of wine than from making wine. This was due, mostly to its northerly location, with most of the UK located at above 50º latitude north, it was extremely difficult to grow grapes and most importantly to get them to ripen in such a cool and marginal climate.
However, the English didn’t give up, and have tried making wines for some time, focusing at the beginning on early ripening varieties, mostly crossings/hybrids such as Bacchus and Seyval Blanc. Yet, most of the wine produced was not that great, and this is why for centuries the UK imported and consumed wines from all over the world, and was key for impulsing some of the most well known wine regions in the world, including Bordeaux, Port, Madeira or Sherry. This changed with global warming, all of the sudden, conditions were in place to make viticulture feasible, even in the English chilly to temperate climate. Since I’m a lover of cool climate wines that show zippy acidity, I decided to explore this a bit further.
According to the Wines of Great Britain Institute (WINEGB), there are about 3,800 hectares of vineyards in the UK, so it's a tiny region, though planting is increasing, growing 194% in the last 10 years alone. About 164 wineries make wines, most of them sparkling (69% of the total wine production), some of these sparklers have received awards and praise from the press, who assures they could easily compete with the best of Champagnes. The remaining 31% are still wines. Most of these wines are sold domestically and only 8% is exported. The US is by far their favorite destination, which includes states such as CA, NY, TX and FL.
Their favorite grapes are those suited for cool climates: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, Bacchus (crossing of Silvaner, Riesling and Muller Thurgau) Seyval Blanc (French Hybrid) and Pinot Gris.
Site selection is very important here, with 76% of all vineyards located in the South East of the Island, where it is warmer, sunnier and drier. Important districts are Sussex (East and West), Surrey and Kent (known also as the garden of England). All of them, located to the South of London, ½ to 2 hours away at most. Besides these, there are some vineyards in the South West (13%), in East Anglia (4%) and Wales (1%). We can see the list of regions clearly in the map below, courtesy of WINEGB.
Here, some of the best sparkling wines are produced, not only do they have the cool climate needed to keep acidity and elegance in bubbly production, but they also share the same type of soil as in Champagne, limestone chalky soils, rich in ancient marine fossils. Plus, low yields (good for fruit concentration), the average in the UK is 19 hl/ha, much lower than in Champagne (65 hl/ha). The minimum aging on lees is 9 months by law, though producers can age for longer as you will see in my recommended samples below. Of course, the longer the aging on its lees, the creamier the wine will be and the finer and more elegant the mousse.
In the early 2000s, these optimal conditions caught the attention of the French who started investing here, firms such as Pommery acquired land in Surrey and Tattinger in Kent. I’m sure, in the future, we will see more French houses investing in the UK, as they once did in California.
Stylistically, most of the English sparkling wines produced are vintage dated, yet some are non vintage and similarly to Champagne, English wineries make also Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay) and Blanc de Noirs (100% Pinot Noir), Rosé, as well as the typical champagne blend of equal parts Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. British wineries use the Traditional method with second fermentation inside the bottle, and renamed it the “Great British Classic Method”.
Sparkling Recommended Producers: not every single winery imports to the US, and most sell their complete production domestically, hopefully, this will change soon. Some of the most awarded producers (listed alphabetically) are: Chapel Down, Gusbourne, Hambledon, Harrow & Hope, Hattingley Valley, NyeTimber, Ridgeview and Winston State.
My recommendations include samples from two of these renown producers. Many thanks to Broadbent Wines and to Abck Corporation for these! My conclusion, after tasting them, is that English sparklers have the same quality and elegance of French Champagne and I look forward to see more brands in the US market.
Chapel Down Brut NV, $44.99
A blend of 48% Chardonnay, 42% Pinot Noir, 5% Pinot Meunier and
5% Pinot Blanc, sourced from Kent, Essex, East Sussex and Dorset counties. This wine was aged for 18 months on its lees. Simply delicious showing pear, and candy lemon notes with a smoky/ toasty finish.
Chapel Down Rosé NV,$54.99
100 % Pinot Noir grown in Kent, Sussex and Essex counties. It was aged for 18 months on its lees. Seductive bubbly offers strawberry, red currants and ginger notes and a touch of minerality.
Chapel Down Three Graces, NV $64.99
It's a blend of 60% Chardonnay with 31% Pinot Noir and 9% Pinot Meunier grapes sourced from Kent and Sussex counties. This wine
is usually aged for a minimum of 3 years on its lees. Outstanding and refined! It showcases grapefruit zest, baked apple and toasted almond notes and a layerful finish. The best of all 3 samples received from this producer.
Gusborne Brut Reserve 2016, $64.99
A blend of 53% Pinot Noir, 7% Pinot Meunier and 40% Chardonnay.
This wine was aged for a minimum of 36 months on its lees. Elegant and classy, it offers green apple and nectarine notes, very creamy on the finish.
Gusborne Brut Rosé Reserva 2015, $84.99
A blend of 52% Pinot Noir,32%, Pinot Meunier and 14% Chardonnay,
this wine was aged for a minimum of 26 months on its lees. Extraordinary bubbly, invites you to keep drinking! Showing pomegranate, raspberry and red cherry notes. This was the first bottle I opened and it became my favorite.
Gusborne Blanc de Blancs 2016, $89.99
Made from 100% Chardonnay grapes, and aged for a minimum of
42 months on its lees. Complex and superb with delicious lemon preserve, hazelnut and briochy notes. Impressive!
So, isn't it time to think outside the box and try a different kind of sparkling this holiday season? Try these and you won't be disappointed! Happy Holidays to all of my readers! Cheers, Silvina
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