English Sparkling Wine
At sparkling wine tastings I hold (where wines are tasted blind) participants vote for their favourite wine of the evening andvery often English Sparkling Wine comse out on top, pushing aside certain well-known and reputable vintage and non-vintage champagne brands (not stocked by Wines With Attitude!). This might come as a surprise to you as it does to most of those participants but the fact is that English wine in general and English sparkling wine in particular just keeps getting better and better.
The main reason English sparkling wine is proving to be such a hit? Essentially because it is Champagne by another name - here are some of the main similarities between the two.
Six reasons English sparkling wine competes with champagne
The ridge of chalk known as the Kimmeridgian Chain upon which the Champagne region lies extends up via the White Cliffs of Dover through the vineyards of Southern England. These limestone chalky soils not only create good drainage (useful in a rainy environment) but also contribute to the minerality in Champagne and English Sparkling Wine.
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the three main grapes permitted in Champagne, account for 50% of total grape plantings in England & Wales. Other grape varieties are permitted in the two regions but both generally prefer to stick to the three classic sparkling wine varieties.
You might think that the English weather would not be conducive to growing grapes for fine wine but moderate temperatures lead to high acidity in grapes and this is essential for good sparkling wines. Also of benefit in creating aromatic flavours are the long daylight hours, in the South of England especially, and the wide range of temperatures during the day.
Nevertheless a little sunshine also helps the grapes reach ripeness and with global warming England has benefited whilst Champagne has "suffered" with some recent vintages such as 2009 which were considered simply too hot.
It is also argued that the differences year-on-year in Great Britain's weather makes the concept of vintage English Sparkling Wine more interesting than vintage Champagne where the climate is more consistent.
English Sparkling Wines are made by the "traditional method" also known as the "champagne method‟ which means that after the wine's first fermentation in a tank, a second fermentation is encouraged in the bottle to develop the bubbles.
Like champagne the English wine also spends at least nine months on the lees (essentially the dead yeasts left over after the fermentation in bottle) to develop the body and lovely bready or biscuity characteristics. After second fermentation both wines are treated similarly: they are separated from the lees by disgorgement - freezing the sediment in the neck of the bottle and popping the crown cap on the bottle to discharge it. Dosage - further wine to top up the bottle and sugar to balance the acidity - may be added and the wine is aged further before release. You may see the terms “bottle-fermented”, “traditional method”, “bottle fermented by the traditional method” or simply "Traditional” on the label of English Sparkling Wines.
There are just over 500 vineyards in England & Wales and 133 wineries many of which offer tours and tastings if you want to learn more.
Aromas & Flavours
The great news is that because of all above similarities, English Sparkling Wine tastes and smells on the whole like Champagne. There are the distinct bready and nutty flavours that come from the secondary fermentation and ageing plus the citrus, apple and marzipan flavours from the similar grape mix, the low-ish alcohol levels and the high acidity which make it a crisp and refreshing tipple.
Price - ££
English sparkling wine does not tend to be much cheaper than Champagne largely due to the differing economies of scale. In sparkling wine terms England & Wales produce only about 1% of Champagne's 310 million bottles per annum (66% of English and Welsh c. 5 million bottle production is sparkling wine). There is potential, especially given climate change, and the aim for the UK to extend its vineyards increase production hugely.
There is great debate in the industry as to whether this level of pricing for English Sparkling Wine can be sustained. But if the quality is as good (in many cases) as Champagne and the wine more scarce, then it could be argued that it should be priced at least as high as Champagne.
One thing distinctly in English Sparkling Wine's favour going forward is that for UK buyers prices will not be affected by foreign exchange rates!
The downside of English Sparkling Wine...
One of the main disadvantages in my view - apart from the youth of the industry and the vines in England and Wales - is that the term English Sparkling Wine is just not as catchy as Champagne; attempts a few years ago to rename English Sparkling Wine "Britagne" have fallen as flat as a three day old glass of Champagne!
The French in favour of English Sparkling Wine?
At a blind tasting in France in April 2016, reminiscent of the 1976 infamous Judgement of Paris tasting, participants voted the English Sparkling Wine better than Champagne in two out of three categories and in the third it was a draw so even the French are buying into the idea - and putting their money where their mouths are by buying up vineyards in England.
With thanks to English Wine Producers for some of the facts and figures used in this blog.
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