England in sparkling form

The Nyetimber vineyards (Photo: Nyetimber Wines)

England is emerging as a fine wine country, thanks in part to global warming, partly to the interest of the market, and partly to increasing expertise.

A recent tasting I attended underlined what has been apparent for some years: that the south of England is capable of producing superb sparkling wine from the classic Champagne varieties, which are not outclassed when compared to the world’s best.

Champagne Taittinger announced in 2015 it would be growing vines and making bubbly in England, adding gravitas to the emerging industry.

According to a Decanter report, England has about 1,800 hectares of land under vines, more than 450 vineyards and produces just over three million bottles a year.

The warmer counties south of London are, predictably, the best suited to winegrowing at this stage, although wine is being made successfully in Norfolk and Suffolk, and a glance at the wine map of England and Wales shows there are vineyards in almost every county in the southern half of England. The counties with the most vineyards are Hampshire, Sussex, Surrey, Kent, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall.

We tasted very smart sparkling wines from Nyetimber, Ridgeview and Wiston Estate (all in West Sussex), Hambledon (Hampshire) and Charles Palmer (East Sussex). I’ve also recently tasted fine sparklers from Coates & Seely and Hattingley Valley (both in Hampshire). The wines are refined and complex, and if anything their acidity tends to be on the high side.

Nyetimber has been imported on and off, but most wines are not generally distributed here. Hattingley Valley wines are currently imported by CellarHand. Its 2013s, a Rosé Brut and a Classic Cuvée Brut, are both excellent and are priced at $90 and $80 respectively. So, as you see, they’re taking their lead from Champagne re-pricing.

All of the wines I’ve seen are from the three Champagne grapes, pinot noir, chardonnay and meunier, but most of the English table wines are made from hybrid varieties that are unknown to Australians. These varieties, such as bacchus, angevine and rondo, were bred to ripen early, especially for cold climate conditions. On the whole, the table wines are a few notches below the sparklings, but some of the bacchus wines were attractively aromatic, while very light and high in acid. Pinot noir is yielding mixed results as a stand-alone table wine: a 2016 Bolney Foxhole Pinot Noir from Sussex (surprisingly young to be released) was the best: very pretty, fragrant and crisp.

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