Ahead of his new book, Henry Jeffreys heralds the energy that’s reinventing English sparkling wine
Before I started researching my book, Vines in a Cold Climate, I had a view that English sparkling wines were usually well made but rarely thrilling. Now, having come to the end of a year immersed in the subject, I am pleased to say that I could not have been more wrong.
There are people all over England doing distinctive and delicious things with traditional method sparkling wine. Langham Wine Estate exemplifies this spirit of restless creativity.
The Dorset winery has been a breeding ground for some of the country’s most innovative talents. First there was former National Hunt jockey-turned-winemaker Liam Idzikowski, who later moved on to Lyme Bay and is now making wines at Danbury Ridge in Essex. He was followed by Daniel Ham, who persuaded owner Justin Langham to go for wild yeast fermentation. When Ham left to found the appropriately named Offbeat Wines in Wiltshire, his assistant Tommy Grimshaw took over.
Grimshaw’s philosophy is inspired by cult producers of grower Champagnes such as Franck Pascal, starting in the vineyard with very ripe grapes. Most years he doesn’t chaptalise, there’s minimal sulphur use and the juice is allowed to brown before fermentation in oak barrels.
You can taste the dedication in the wines: they’re rich and full of flavour, miles away from the lean, leafy English wine cliché. The most distinctive is a 100% Pinot Meunier that changes in the glass, showing notes of hazelnut and palo cortado sherry. There are others making similarly bold wines.
Last year, Westwell Wines in Kent released a Wicken Foy sparkling wine which had a tangy, cider-like – but not funky – edge to it. In Wales, Ancre Hill’s Blanc de Noirs has a similar carefully controlled wild streak to it.
If you really want to try something outrageous, next year Danbury Ridge will release its first sparkling wine, Solstice, which is sweetened with what Idzikowski calls Essex PX – barrel-aged sweet Chardonnay.
But it’s not just the small producers who are being braver with their winemaking. Giants such as Hambledon and Hattingley Valley have invested in oak barrels, adding texture and complexity with a proportion of cask-fermented wine. Riper grapes and richer wines mean less sugar is needed.
There are even a few brave producers, such as Sugrue South Downs and Domaine Hugo – whose wine is made by Daniel Ham – experimenting with zero dosage.
There’s been a lot of talk about regional identity in English wine since Mark Driver at Rathfinny Wine Estate was successful in obtaining a Sussex PDO, but the consensus seems to be that it’s far too early to discern any specific county style. Instead, the real interest is in terroir-specific wines.
Nyetimber was a pioneer with its Tillington single vineyard wine. The first vintage was in 2009 and it’s always one of England’s best wines.
Last year, rival Gusbourne released four single vineyard wines highlighting its two soil types: Kent clay and Sussex chalk, the former producing grapes that are riper and fuller and the latter fruit that’s steely and intense.
FOLLOWING THE VINTAGE
At Hundred Hills in Oxfordshire, the labels have a beautiful line-cut illustration showing which part of the property each parcel of grapes comes from. The aim is to make different cuvées each year based on what the vintage brings, and the wines are surprisingly affordable.
That’s not something you could say about Gusbourne’s 51˚N 2014, which was released last year at £195 a bottle. There was much muttering in the trade about the over-ambitious price but it’s hard to argue with the quality.
Gusbourne is not the only one moving into Krug or Cristal territory. Nyetimber has its prestigious 1086 wine, Hattingley has Kings Cuvée, and Chapel Down has been producing Kit’s Coty Coeur de Cuvée for a number of vintages now.
At the other end of the scale, non-vintages from producers such as Harrow & Hope in Buckinghamshire and Coates & Seely in Hampshire are coming on a treat.
Producers now have strength in depth, something that was apparent when I tasted the solera of reserve wines at Westwell. It was so intense and nutty, you could almost bottle it and sell it as a still wine. With years such as 2021 always a possibility, it makes sense for producers to have a good NV in their portfolio.
Rosé is another English strength, ranging from the pale elegance of Balfour Brut Rosé to the full-on saignée wines made by bleeding a tank of red grapes at Everflyht, a new producer worth watching.
But it’s hard to beat the thrilling purity of English Chardonnay. When the royal household wanted a wine to serve at the King’s first state banquet, for South African president Cyril Ramaphosa in 2022, it picked a Ridgeview single-estate blanc de blancs to serve alongside a Chassagne-Montrachet, Sauternes from Château Rieussec and Taylor’s vintage port. Not bad company to be in.
Vines in a Cold Climate: the People behind the English Wine Revolution, will be published by Atlantic in August.