English Wines: Why Our Sparkling Wines are Way Ahead of the Stills
Wayne De Nicolo heads for WineGB’s annual trade and press tasting and finds that English sparkling wines can rival some of the best champagnes, but our still wines still have a way to go
Words: Wayne de Nicolo
Lead image: Nyetimber Manor
I’m returning to the subject of English wines in the wake of WineGB’s recent annual trade and press tasting in London. To say this was well attended would be an understatement – packed would sum it up more accurately.
This is a reflection of how much interest there is now – both in the trade and among wine writers – in English wines, due in turn to the considerable improvement in quality over the last couple of decades. That progress in what is still, in international terms, a fairly youthful industry is set to continue into the future.
Some put this improvement down to the rise in temperatures in southern England due to global warming. Whilst that must be a factor, a lot has to do with improvements in site selection, viticulture and the skills of winemakers.
‘Where do English wines stand relative to those from other countries? The answer needs to be qualified first by whether the wines in question are still or sparkling’
So, where do English wines stand relative to those from other countries? The answer needs to be qualified first by whether the wines in question are still or sparkling, secondly by consideration of value for money.
My experience of still wines made here is that few offer a match with their similarly priced competitors from abroad, especially those from the New World.
Many of the sparkling wines are quite pricey too, with a lot of them costing between £35 and £50 and a few considerably more. There is some serious competition from champagnes in that price range. Of course they don’t give you the satisfaction of knowing that what you are drinking was made in good old England!
In many cases English still wines suffer from lack of fruit ripeness and complexity. Usually the cause is weather related. While temperatures have been rising, most vineyards still do not have long enough growing seasons to ripen the grapes sufficiently required for the level of ripeness and sugar to translate into wines with good depth of flavour, complexity and moderate acid levels.
There is nonetheless some real quality to be found among the available still wines, especially those made in warm sunny years. The award winning Chapel Down Kit’s Coty Chardonnay 2016 is an excellent example; a rounded medium-bodied wine with attractive peach and melon flavours. It retails for a not inexpensive £29.99 a bottle from grapebritannia.co.uk.
As I mentioned in an earlier article, the story changes considerably where sparkling wines are concerned. Here the winemaker can manipulate flavours with the blending of differing harvests and there is normally at least a three year maturation period during which the wine is left in contact with yeast cells in the bottle, thereby imparting complexity of smell and taste, and a secondary fermentation producing the bubbles.
Also, there are other tricks of the trade, such as dosage – the addition of sugar – and stripping out of excessive acid which afflicts many English sparkling wines too.
‘Being long established is not a pre-requisite for quality’
Nyetimber is one of the country’s best known wineries and has been around for a long time. Its first vines were planted in 1988. Today it is a substantial operation with 160 hectares of vines and a winery. They have several open days during each year and will be hosting a lunch by well known chef Ollie Dabbous on 28 September 2019. This is a sign of how English wineries are evolving by providing “experiences” beyond just tours and tastings. Some now even offer accommodation.
But being long established is not a pre-requisite for quality. Jacob Leadley, who I talked to at the tasting, is a relative newcomer to the winemaking scene who has quickly made his mark with two high quality sparkling wines.
Having left investment banking he worked in vineyards in New Zealand, Champagne and Hattingley Valley in Hampshire before setting up his own operation, Black Chalk Wines. He uses grapes grown within a 10 mile radius of Winchester on land noted for its chalky soils, something it of course shares with Champagne.
His first harvest was in 2015 so he is now only on his second vintage. He has recently arranged investment to enable him to create a winery near Stockbridge with tasting facilities. It is expected to be ready by summer 2020, and I, for one, am looking forward to tasting it.
England’s Best Sparkling Wines
Wayne De Nicolo picks his top English sparkling wines from WineGB
Breaky Bottom Cuvée Oliver Minkley 2011: This is made on the Sussex Downs and benefits from significant bottle age which has bestowed on it a mature, complex palate with depth and restrained acid (£37 from Corney & Barrow)
Hambeldon Première Cuvée NV: This shows real quality with brioche on the nose and palate; reminiscent of decent champagne (£45 from Waitrose & Berry Bros & Rudd)
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée NV: I tasted an earlier incarnation of this wine from West Sussex about 12 years ago and was particularly impressed. It rose to the occasion this time too – my favourite among the wines I tried. A smooth, rounded wine with a lovely biscuity aroma and a classy taste, which align it with good champagne. (£37 from Majestic Wine & Waitrose). I also liked its sister wine, Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2013 (£46), made from 100% chardonnay.
Black Chalk Classic 2015: This is very impressive for a first vintage, showing the purity of fruit flavours which is his objective, considerable depth of flavour and well controlled acid. This is achieved this naturally, without stripping acid out tom maintain important flavour components. Black Chalk Wild Rose 2016 (£40) has similar quality but shows more restraint. Both will develop more comlexity and charm with further bottle age (priced £35 & £40 respectively from thegoodwineshop.co.uk & thewhiskeyexchange.com)