Roger C. Bohmrich, Master of Wine
July 3, 2020
In the first part of our conversation about up-and-coming or overlooked winemakers, we considered a select few from Bordeaux and the Rhône. In the second chapter, Burgundy was our focus. Now, in this third installment, England is under the lens, specifically that country’s sparkling wine labels. We are still not yet traveling as freely as before, so this remains a vicarious experience until we are fully mobile. This series of articles is hardly meant to be all-inclusive. Instead, the names represent a highly abridged collection with a definite personal slant. Rising stars may be born in scarcely known regions as is the case with the English wines profiled here. Why not set the stage for this topic with a provocative question: Is England the new Champagne?
This series is the perfect platform to speak of one of the most exciting – and, for many, unlikely – areas of inspired projects in the wine world. As of 2018, there were 1,924 hectares (4,752 acres) in production planted to wine grapes in the U.K. (Wine Standards Board/englishwine.com). It may come as a surprise that there is a place called the Wine Garden of England in the county of Kent, southeast of London, with a coastline along the Channel. Every reader has no doubt heard of the white cliffs of Dover where the chalky soils of Champagne, roughly 200 miles distant, come to the surface once more. The Wine Garden is also clever branding for an association of seven wineries including two we are profiling (Fig. 1). In fact, there are many others nearby and to the west in the chalky landscape of South Downs.
The three leading Champagne grapes already account for two-thirds of English vineyards (Johnson & Robinson, 2019). A changing climate is propelling English winegrowing forward, led by those that sparkle. England is one of the high-latitude locations with Sweden and Denmark showing promising results and attracting investors (Nesbitt et al., 2018). Even with warming there is no lack of acidity, a formative component of the finest traditional method fizz. Conditions may be irregular, but summer temperatures have generally increased. Still, even Riesling remains difficult to ripen.
A comparison of conditions in Champagne and Kent may help tell the story. Much has been made of the soil: the two have chalk in common, mostly as a subsoil except for outcrops (e.g., the Côte des Blancs). But just as there are other forms of limestone in Champagne along with marls, clays and sands, Kent’s vineyards may be planted on clays and loams. In terms of latitude, they are roughly similar: The Champagne region is spread from approximately 48° N to 49° 5 N while Kent lies across the 51st parallel. Kent’s climate is maritime while that of Champagne blends Atlantic or oceanic elements with continental influences of the European mainland. Both are considered to be at the theoretical northern limit for growing Vitis vinifera grapes successfully, especially for still wine, though this long-held dictum may give way as warming continues. Champagne has long been plagued with frosts and the southeast of England may also fall victim. Both areas now have to endure heat waves as well.
The growing season in the Wine Garden district averages 14° C/57° F compared to about 15° C/59° F at Reims. Precipitation at Canterbury (home to the renowned UNESCO World Heritage Cathedral) amounts to 614 mm or 24 inches and there is rain monthly (climate-data.org). At Reims, the pattern is analogous, with every-month rainfall totaling 620 mm over the year. All told, the two areas resemble each other in climatic patterns as well as soil. The Champagne region has also warmed by 1.2° C (2.2° F) over the past three decades (Comité Champagne). Flowering and harvest dates have been advanced by roughly two weeks. This has boosted the grape maturity index and lessened the dosage (or shipping syrup) required to achieve a balanced taste. The temperature impact is mostly benign at this stage but has raised concerns that the delicate equilibrium integral to fine Champagne may be threatened in the years ahead if the trend continues. Enter England…
In search of conditions which imitate its home territory, Taittinger, the distinguished Champagne house, has partnered with their U.K. agent in a new English property, Domaine Evremond (another member of the Wine Garden). Vines were planted in 2017, and the first sparkling wine is due in a few years (domaineevremond.com). This move might be considered an insurance policy to prepare for unwanted climatic disruptions in the Champagne region. Another French house, Vranken-Pommery, launched their new label, Louis Pommery England, in 2018 in conjunction with Hattingley Valley. This story would be incomplete, however, without mention of Nyetimber, pioneer of fine English sparkling wine from Champagne grapes, whose first releases came in the early 1990s. This writer immediately thought of the similarities with its French counterpart after his first taste of Nyetimber two decades ago. The winery continues to innovate, launching a luxury-priced “1086” range in 2018 (Fig. 2).
The very first sparkler from Gusbourne was released in 2010, and they quickly gained attention and awards in the U.K. For all but a handful of U.S. consumers, Gusbourne is still hidden from view, like a pearl in an oyster shell. Their streamlined range comes solely from their own estate, not far from the coast. All the sparkling wines carry a vintage. Initial fermentation is primarily in steel augmented by a small portion in seasoned oak barrels. Aging on the yeast is for at least 28 months. Consumers will easily recognize the styles: Brut Reserve, Rosé, Blanc de Noirs and a Blanc de Blancs (Fig. 3) which deserves special attention. The vintage tasted for this article, 2014, is emblematic of how conditions are changing in England, yielding wines of higher ripeness and greater dimension of flavor. Here are this taster’s notes for the 2014 Blanc de Blancs:
Pale straw with bright gold highlights, an active mousse of very fine bubbles.
Perfectly clean to the nose with delicate inflections of green apple, citrus and Asian pear and a suggestion of cold unsalted butter.
The palate is expressive for a Blanc de Blancs as well as transparent and precise. Long and elegantly calibrated in all respects, concluding with vibrant acidity and a mouthwatering saline note. A really super expression of the style.
This Blanc de Blancs is entirely Chardonnay which passes fully through malolactic. A small portion sees seasoned oak during the first fermentation. It is aged 42 months on the yeast. The numbers help explain the wine’s electric effect on the palate: a dosage of 7 g/l, 7.6 g/l of acidity and a pH of 3.08. Word to the wise: take the next opportunity to try a bottle of Gusbourne.
Chapel Down is rightly seen as a linchpin of modern English wine. They were set up in 1992, moving to Tenterden – the name displayed on the main label – in 1995 with the acquisition of a winery and vineyard set up by Stephen Skelton in 1977. (Skelton is the ultimate authority on English viticulture. He became an MW in 2003.) Chapel Down is diversified and offers many products including still wines, beer and cider. They source fruit from Kent and also other areas. This is a multifaceted and up-to-the-minute operation. All reports indicate the firm is the leading seller of English wines. Although they make multiple alcoholic beverages, the sparkling portfolio is very much central to their identity. Chapel Down offers a basic Brut non-vintage and rosé, but a few labels steal the show. Kit’s Coty Blanc de Blancs (Fig. 4) and Coeur de Cuvée from the eponymous vineyard have won top medals at competitions. Look for this label to arrive in the U.S. in the near future.
Our focus here is on Three Graces (Fig. 5). The 2014 benefitted from an extended growing season, both warm and dry. The wine relies on Chardonnay in the main (60%) filled out with Pinot Noir (31%) and is completed by a small portion of Pinot Meunier (9%). It is modeled after a vintage Champagne, except perhaps for the inclusion of Meunier which is less common in French vintages. Three Graces incorporates reserve wines (13% in the 2014) held in both tank and wood and sees no less than three years on the yeast, giving this cuvée depth and dimension. Sugars are 8.5 g/l, comfortably in the brut range. Here are this writer’s tasting notes for the 2014 Three Graces:
Light yellow gold, pinpoint bubbles.
Generous aroma of ripe golden apple and peach, a delicate vanilla accent and the enhancement of time on the yeast.
Three Graces surprises with its fullness, exhibiting flavors of macadamia nut and buttery fruit tart. The older reserve wines have enriched the ensemble. Round and fleshy yet balanced by a backbone of acidity surfacing at the end.
Has the authority to complement many foods and styles of preparation, coquilles Saint-Jacques in a cream sauce among them. Tasted 30 May 2020.
Three Graces is retailing in the U.S. for about $60 per bottle. Chapel Down is a beverage maker who seems to do many things skillfully and with aplomb. Their sparkling wines will surprise many drinkers.
England’s sparkling wines, improbable to many wine drinkers in other countries, are waiting to be noticed. This being said, Champagne has not lost its magic, and England is not yet the new Champagne. The taste profile of many English sparklers inevitably draws comparison with the French paradigm. Prices overlap those of a good non-vintage Champagne – or some vintages – raising the question of whether they deserve the same money. Champagne has had centuries to build its enviable reputation. Should England expect the same price as the global benchmark? The answer depends upon our individual perceptions and judgments. Still, English vintners wishing to cultivate an international clientele would be wise to pump the brakes on pricing, knowing that there are high-quality examples from numerous regions competing for the same consumer. Commercial policies notwithstanding, in this taster’s opinion England already delivers numerous praiseworthy sparkling wines, and the smart money says they will only get better.
The author has no business or financial connection with any of the producers cited in the series of Rising Stars & Hidden Talents articles. They are selected for their intrinsic merit, interest and relevance.
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