If you’re old enough to recall life before global warming, you’d remember English wine as a joke. Although wine production in the U.K. was a dream for most of recorded history, climate—not lack of desire—made the industry impossible. It wasn’t until the late twentieth century, when temperatures in the south of England began to climb, that the dream became reality.
No one is laughing anymore. Over 100 wineries in Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, and Surrey are turning out sparkling wine that has caught the fancy of critics and consumers alike. The soil and topography of southern England bears a close resemblance to the Champagne region across the Channel, with a few unique advantages: the cost of land is a mere fraction, and the restrictions on planting grape varieties are looser. Even the house of Taittinger has planted vines in Kent, with the first vintage expected next year.
Despite the relaxed restrictions on grape varieties, most of the top English sparkling wine producers use the classic French trifecta of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier; the majority employ the time-consuming méthode Champenoise. And while the best English sparklers compare favorably to mass-market Champagne, the real analogy would be to grower Champagne. English estates tend to be small, family operated and quality-oriented operations, and many of the wines display a vibrancy and freshness that commercial Champagne lacks.
Kent’s largest producer, Chapel Down, thumbs its nose at its French counterpart by stating that “We operate without the confines of 350 years’ worth of rules and traditions.” Their Classic Brut NV ($50) is brash and forward on entry, but it fleshes out in the mid palate to reveal flavors of vanilla, citrus, custard, and candied fruit; all the flavors linger on a subtle finish. This charming wine is finding its way onto the shelves of both boutique retailers and big box stores.
Gusbourne, with vineyards in both Kent and West Sussex, is imported into the U.S. by Broadbent Selections and is readily available around the country. The Estate Brut Reserve 2016 ($55) usually contains equal parts Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier; it’s remarkably well-balanced, with a creamy texture and classic Chardonnay flavors of citrus, melon, apple, and pear. It’s also an excellent value in a vintage-dated Brut.
Balfour was founded by Richard and Leslie Balfour-Lynn and released its first harvest in 2004. The estate gained recognition when its Brut Rosé ($60) won a Gold Medal at the 2007 International Wine Challenge; made in small quantities every year, it’s Balfour’s flagship and worth seeking out. Straddling the divide between Brut and Demi-Sec, Leslie’s Reserve Gold NV ($45) is filled with tart green apple flavors and good acidity—a nice match with seafood, and a lovely wine on a summer’s day.
Established in 1995 in the South Downs of Sussex by Mike and Christine Roberts, Ridgeview remains a family winery today. They produce NV Brut (Cavendish and Bloomsbury), Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, and several bottlings of rosé. Pale salmon in color, Fitzrovia Rosé NV ($60) blends a profusion of wild berry flavors with earthy, savory notes. It was deemed good enough to serve to President Obama by Queen Elizabeth at a Buckingham Palace state dinner.
Simon Robertson gave up the practice of law to become a vintner and founded Hattingley Valley in 2008. With the help of winemaker Emma Rice, he transformed this rural Hampshire property into an eco-friendly, state-of-the-art vineyard and winery. Classic Reserve ($45), Hattingley’s non-vintage Brut, contains nearly equal parts Chardonnay and black grapes. The clean, fresh texture combines vivid lemon flavors with hints of yeast and brioche.
Other English sparkling wines worth investigating are Denbies, Kingscote, Langham, Camel Valley, Nyetimber, Furleigh Estate, Breaky Bottom, Harrow & Hope, Court Garden and Greyfriars. Distribution is increasing among both boutique retailers and big box stores, as well as online sellers such as wine.com.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, has been re-released on Amazon in print, e-book and audio book formats. Has America’s greatest chef cut a deal with Satan for fame and fortune?