English sparkling wines take their place in the world of quality fizz.
Makers of champagne should be afraid. Very afraid. England has been mastering the art of making beautiful sparkling wines and is casting a covetous eye on the crown that has traditionally been worn by the Champagne region. Bold English vintners are making sparkling wines that are proving themselves as contenders, even up against the great houses of France.
So, when did this happen? Because 30 years ago, these wines didn’t exist. Although England has always dabbled in winemaking, off and on for centuries, they only produced so-so table wines from old varieties of grapes, like Rondo. Have you tried many wines that are crafted from the Rondo grape? Me neither. Only in the last 10-20 years have winemakers sharpened their focus. Hobbyists have stepped aside for serious professionals, and incredibly, we now have a brand-new wine region to explore and enjoy. Wine lovers might give real consideration to visiting Southern England, just 75 miles outside of London, where wine production is growing exponentially.
So HOW did this happen? Believe it or not, global warming has played a part. Warmer September weather has benefited viticulture and made the growing and ripening of grapes possible. Just an upward degree or two of change in temperature can make all of the difference. England remains what we in the industry call a “cold climate”, and focuses on grapes that are high in acid just like other regions with a similar climate; but this tiny uptick now allows those grapes to ripen fully where previously they rarely could.
Additionally, the chalky soil in this portion of England is identical to the long-heralded and unique soils in Champagne. Those white cliffs of Dover? They’re comprised of chalky soil. The same seam of chalk runs under the English Channel and is shared by both regions. In the 1990’s, a few brave English pioneers decided to plant the grapes that are the basis of the Champagne blend (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier) and were rewarded with viable crops. Add the use of modern technology in viticulture, improved winemaking methods, and a supportive government giving grants to grape growers to boost production, and we’re looking at a bubbly British Invasion.
All of this equals great news for those who enjoy a pop and a fizz. English producers with previously unknown names like Camel Road, Nyetimber, Ridgeview, Exxon Park, and Chapel Down are now capturing awards and enjoying international acclaim. The Queen of England stocks Ridgeview in her cellar and has served it proudly at 2 different state dinners. Blind tasters with experienced palates have more and more often failed to distinguish English sparklers from champagne in competitions. The noble house of Taittinger has crossed the English Channel and planted a vineyard in Kent.
Even better news regarding these wines is that you can now procure your own, as more and more English sparklers are being distributed to the United States. Get thee to your favorite wine seller and make a purchase. The Queen approves.