The British are coming. The British are coming. And this time, they’re not bearing arms but bottles of ever-improving sparkling wine.
Yes, British wine, once little more than a punch line, is now a serious topic of discussion among wine connoisseurs, wine journalists and winemakers.
“British Fizz is really about a 20-year-old phenomenon. It was only then sparkling winemakers began to realize that the terroir of Champagne was similar to that in southern England. That’s when the potential of British wine began to take shape,” Red Johnson, the leading exporter of British sparkling wine, told me. “There’s a sense that there’s something really exciting going on.”
Johnson is the son of prominent British wine writer Hugh Johnson. I had the pleasure of sitting down with him at Stock Hill restaurant prior to a seminar on British Fizz he hosted featuring a number of sparklers from his British Bottle Company portfolio.
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Johnson credits several contributing factors to the boom in British bubbly: the aforementioned similarities in soil conditions and temperatures to those in Champagne, better winemaking talent, techniques and equipment, and considerable monetary investment.
For example, the French Champagne house Taittinger, among others, now has property in southern England. Global warming has also been cited as a factor, but Johnson prefers to take a wait-and-see approach on that front.
“The truth is nobody really knows. There’s definitely been a trend toward warmer vintages, but these things have to be measured out over a long period of time. I think the kind of short hand is that climate change is the English winemaker’s friend,” Johnson said.
While the jury may still be out on how much climate change will lend a hand to the British sparking wine industry, there can be no doubt British bubbles are on the rise.
Johnson points out that two-thirds of all British wine produced is sparkling. It should be noted that British wine production in general, 5 million bottles annually, is tiny, but British Fizz is soaring with some estates doubling their production every three years!
The primary area for sparkling wine in England are the southern counties of Sussex, Hampshire, Kent and Cornwall. While this is the warmest area of England, it’s still considered a cool climate for grape growing and wine production.
The four counties offer different soil conditions, and therefore, different expressions of grapes and wines. I tasted six different sparklers from Johnson’s portfolio at the seminar and a few others on my own. They weren’t all my cup of tea, but I can safely say anyone who enjoys bubbles could easily find something in Johnson’s book to suit their palate.
My first exposure to British Fizz was a bottle of Digby Fine English Vintage 2010. Digby’s name comes from Sir Kenelm Digby, whom many credit with creating the modern wine bottle able to hold sparkling wine.
I found Digby’s 2010 vintage bubbly to be full-bodied and complex with a definite yeasty character. If you’re a fan of older vintage Champagne, this Digby bottling is right up your alley.
I love rosé wines, still or sparkling, so it came as no surprise my two favorite English bubblies were rosés: the Balfour 2011 Brut Rosé and the Camel Valley Vineyards 2013 Rosé.
With 37 acres planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in Kent, Balfour produces its rosé in the style of many of the great Champagne houses, by adding a small amount of still red wine to the fermenting grapes.
The delicate pink color created is delightful as is the wine itself. The Balfour Rosé is a standout.
The 2013 Camel Valley Vineyards Rosé came with the greatest accolade of all the wines I sampled, defeating Champagnes from both Bollinger and Louis Roederer to win the title of Best International Traditional Method Sparkling Wine at the World Sparkling Wine Championships in Italy.
That stunning victory is akin to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon outscoring the famous chateaus of Bordeaux and Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay besting world-famous Grand Crus from Burgundy in late 1970s competitions in Paris. I can’t, and won’t, say that Camel Valley’s Rosé is better than Bollinger or Roederer, but it is very, very good.
The last wine I want to mention is the Bolney 2010 Blanc de Blancs. With its first commercial vineyards planted back in 1972, Bolney is one of the most established British wineries.
From its initial three acres, Boleny now has 39 acres under vine and is known for high quality sparkling and still wines. The Blanc de Blancs is a particular strength, showing the heights Chardonnay can achieve in the sandy loam and clay soils of Sussex South Downs.
In the end, the British Bubbles I tasted was all good, very good, or excellent, and I will be following the progression of British bubbly with great enthusiasm.
“There is a finesse to English sparkling wine. There is a freshness, a kind of vibrancy. At their best, they are delightful and refreshing,” Johnson concluded. I concur. English sparkling wine — what a revelation!
Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.