This should have been English Wine Week – the annual celebration of our local product; a week when wine producers open their doors to visitors and wine merchants lay on special tastings to promote one or more of the over 500 vineyards now making wines commercially in England and Wales. But not this year. The restrictions arising from the coronavirus outbreak mean that the date has had to be postponed and we will have to wait another month – until the (possibly optimistic?) revised timeframe of 20 – 28 June – before we can sample the latest home-grown award winners.
But we, and 2 local wine-loving friends of ours, decided not to wait. Our garden is (just about) big enough for appropriate social distancing for 4 people and, with a little planning and each couple contributing a bottle, a most enjoyable and informative comparative tasting of English fizz took place, accompanied, of course, by our usual attempts to solve most of the world’s problems!
Wines from the Chapel Down Estate in Kent are widely available in most larger supermarkets with a number of different bottlings, both sparkling and still, to choose from. But, it’s, perhaps, their Sparkling Bacchus (around £15 – £18) that most says ‘English fizz’ to me. Bacchus is rapidly becoming one of England’s most important grape varieties and this crisp, fresh example has lovely hints of pineapple and fragrant elderflower.
Just a short drive from Chapel Down is the Hush Heath Estate, who make wines under the Balfour label. Their non-vintage Leslie’s Reserve (Marks and Spencer, £25, Waitrose, £28 or direct from the vineyard) contrasted well with the Bacchus. Bottle-fermented in what we must now call the ‘Traditional Method’ (the people of Champagne say we mustn’t use the term ‘Champagne Method’), this is a typical blend of the major Champagne varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, given 18 months on its lees to add a slight biscuity or brioche character to the lemony fruit.
So, 2 very different English sparklers, both attractive in their own way and showing just how far English Sparkling wine has come in only a couple of decades.
Let me begin by wishing you all a very Happy and Peaceful New Year. But, it’s not just a new year – it’s the start of a new decade; time, perhaps, to ponder on where the wine world will be at the end of the 2020s.
I’ve got no special talent as a forecaster – I’ve been mistakenly predicting the widespread availability of wines from China for several years! – so my thoughts are based on a continuation of what has happened in recent years. And that, inevitably means climate change.
Global warming – in some cases combined with increasing drought – has resulted in the dreadful wildfires in Australia and California that I’ve blogged about recently. But it has also meant that some areas that were previously too cool to ripen grapes reliably are now thriving – the picture above was taken at Three Choirs Vineyard in Gloucestershire, England. Even Champagne producers are buying land in southern England as an insurance against their home region becoming too warm for sparkling wine production. And, more widely, many growers are reporting that they are harvesting ripe grapes weeks earlier than their predecessors – mixed news for wine lovers as grapes that have ripened too quickly have had less time to gather nutrients from the soil and pick up flavour.
Linked to this has been another important trend this century: the increasing number of growers switching to organic – or at least more sustainable – growing methods. Viticulture has had a poor reputation for overuse of pesticides and other harmful chemicals and any reduction of these can only be good for the environment. And, on the same lines, it would be good if certain producers stopped using such ridiculously heavy wine bottles – I recently found one that weighed over 800gms empty!
But, perhaps most worrying for the wine industry in the 2020s is the fact that statistics show fewer young people are choosing to drink wine, preferring beer, spirits or even no alcohol at all. If demand falls, then less wine will be produced and that means less choice for all of us wine lovers.
It’s that time of year again! So, if you’re going to have some friends around over the holiday season, what better choice to welcome them than with a glass of something sparkling?
‘It’s Christmas so it must be Champagne’ will be the view of many but, as regular readers to this Blog will know, English Sparkling wines are consistently beating the Champenois at their own game and, for me, a bottle of something from Nyetimber, RidgeView or one of the many other accomplished English sparkling wine producers is a better choice – as well as a good talking point. You’ll find them at many wine merchants and Waitrose supermarkets for £20 – £30 – the same sort of price you’d pay for a reasonable Champagne.
But, if your budget won’t stretch that far, there are many excellent value alternatives. French wines made outside the Champagne region but using the same production method are called ‘Crémants’ and bottles from Alsace or the Loire can often be found in supermarkets and are frequently very good buys.
From Spain and Italy respectively, both Cava and Prosecco have become increasingly popular in recent years – and for good reason; but do avoid the ultra-cheapies: sparkling wine making is a complex process when done properly and bottles selling for around £6 or £7 are likely to be pretty basic and uninteresting. Prefer something around £10 and, if you’re going for a Prosecco, look for the letters DOCG rather than just DOC on the label – the ‘G’ is important and will be on all the best examples.
But that’s just Europe. If you normally prefer still wines from the New World, why not sparkling wine from there, too? New Zealand has an ideal climate and Pelorus (Majestic, £17.99) and Lindauer (same supplier, £10.99) are favourites of mine, while Champagne producer Moët and Chandon have set up in Argentina and clearly know what they’re doing – their Brut and Rosé are each £12.99 (Majestic, again).
So, there you are. My quick guide to some sparkling wines for a sparkling holiday season.