WITH ESW ….. AND, IT’S JUST DOWN THE ROAD.
English Sparkling Wine is taking our shelves, newspaper columns and wine enthusiasts by storm. So much so that this summer I’ve accompanied two of my corporate clients into our beautiful Surrey and Hampshire vineyards; in previous years they’d insisted on a visit to Champagne. It’s not difficult to see why ‘ESW’ is so popular, for a start it’s regularly beating Champagne at international tasting competitions, much to the annoyance of the Champenois!
Champagne may still be the bubble to beat but England is similar to the king of sparklers in so many ways. England’s chilly, northerly climate is similar to the Champagne region in north-east France and, what’s more, Champagne’s famous chalk soils slide under Paris, dip under the Channel and emerge in the south of England …… the white cliffs of Dover and all that?
It doesn’t stop there. The grape varieties are the same. The ‘Champagne’ grapes of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier now account for over fifty per cent (and growing) of all English vineyard plantings and, as English bubbly is made in exactly the same way as Champagne, you can see why for me, English Sparkling Wine is the ultimate Champagne lookalike.
To get the best out of a day’s event in the English vineyards you need to get an early start. We started with a hearty breakfast at the Anchor Inn in Lower Froyle after which my “Become a Wine Expert in 30 minutes” chat prepared the group for all the ‘wine lingo’ the day would present. It always amazes me how we wine types spout on about acidity, balance, tannins, finish, oak etc. without any explanation. ‘Just crazy.
We then popped around the corner to Jenkyn Place vineyard; a few sparklers under a blue sky in their tasting gazebo (Rose NV, £35) was a great start to the day. Back on the luxury coach, we set off for Hambledon Vineyard in Hampshire; the countryside through the Meon Valley en route was stunning. Hambledon’s owner, an ex. City man, has invested millions into the vineyard and the shiny new winery; the tasting went down a storm. Their Classic Cuvee (£30, www.waitrosecellar) is one of my favourites.
The group were by now very excited about ESW and were about to bubble over at the impressive 55 acre Exton Park Estate where we were greeted by winemaker Corinne Seely and vineyard manager Fred Langdale. The weather was hot and sunny so they organised the tasting amongst the vines. What a success, the guy’s are still talking about it! My favourite? Blanc de Blancs 2011 (£37.50 at www.butlers-winecellar.co.uk); the clue’s in the name – it’s made with 100% Chardonnay.
Corinne explained that Champagne and English Sparkling are made in the same way with a second fermentation in the bottle. Here a pinch of sugar and a touch of yeast is added to a dry, still white wine before the bottle is sealed. The yeast reacts with the sugar to give a little more alcohol and carbon dioxide gas – the fizz. This gas builds up in the sealed bottle and as it can’t escape becomes an integral part of the wine. Hey presto – we have English Sparkling!
After an exhilarating, sun and wine-filled morning (and early afternoon) we were now ready for a late lunch. A short drive into the ancient town of Winchester saw us in the private ‘Ruinart’ dining room at Hotel du Vin. A Champagne reception, followed by a selection of wines from around the world with each delicious course made for a brilliant, relaxing afternoon with client and guests as one by 4.30.
Many in the Wine Trade are convinced that English Sparkling will overtake Champagne in the future. With Champagne Taittinger buying a large slice of Kent and Pommery collaborating with Hattingley vineyard (near Alresford) there’s definitely something in the air. Where do I stand? I’m the world’s no. 1 fan.