Saturday 20 August 2011

The Queen’s bubblies

England is known for its ale and bitter, but English wine? Many will probably dismiss it or even scorn it – but not so fast: England may not be the right place for a bold alcoholic Shiraz but its terroir and climate are perfect for sparkling wine. England was part of the continent millions of years ago and the geology of the South Downs limestone ridge is in fact an extension of the Champagne region just 88 miles away. There are at least a dozen wineries in Southern England, mainly in Sussex, making some fabulous sparkling wine.

I studied for my winemaking diploma at Plumpton College, Sussex so I had a chance to witness first hand the growth of the sparkling wine industry. People thought it was a joke at first, until English sparkling wines began to beat champagnes in various blind tastings.

When I returned to Hong Kong in 2010, I brought a few cases of English sparkling with me because I knew I wouldn’t be able to buy it here. So I am glad that Berry Bros & Rudd is finally bringing in Ridgeview, one of the top sparkling wine producers in England if not the best. At a recent tasting with Simon Roberts, second generation winemaker at Ridgeview, we discussed the challenges of viticulture in England, most notably spring frost and high humidity. Chardonnay is particularly prone to disease because of its thin skin. Although organic viticulture is therefore not a very realistic option, Ridgeview still adopts sustainable practices wherever possible. It was the first English vineyard to use a tunnel-spraying machine in which stray droplets of chemicals bounce back off the tunnel wall and are collected and reused. The saving in chemicals is about 60%.

We tasted four Ridgeview wines: Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs (2006 and 07), and Fitzrovia Rose. All Ridgeview’s wines undergo some kind of oak treatment, be it barrel fermentation or ageing, but they only use second hand barrels bought from the Loire so the oak is not obvious but adds a subtle complexity. Like most English sparkling wines, all Ridgeview's are vintage although Bloomsbury is in a non-vintage style. I suppose this is because the industry is young and there is not yet enough reserve wine to make a true NV.

I like the Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs for its complexity and finesse and the Fitzrovia for its firm palate and creamy mouthfeel. By the way, Grosvenor was served at the Queen’s 80th birthday and Fitzrovia at a state dinner for President Obama.

With the growing reputation of English sparkling wine, the industry is campaigning to come up with a generic posh name, just like Cava for Spain. Ridgeview is proposing Merret, in honour of Englishman Christopher Merret, who was the first to document the making of traditional sparkling wine 30 years earlier than Dom Perignon. Another option is Britagne (pronounced as Britannia). As might be expected, there is no consensus yet.  We probably have to wait a few years before there is an agreed term for English bubblies. In the meantime, enjoy them while you can.

Bloomsbury 2008: Non-vintage style, predominantly Chardonnay. Fresh and citrusy with a hint of toasty notes and a crisp palate.

Cavendish 2008: 1/3 each of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. More soft and round on the palate because of the Pinots—Pinot Meunier adds body and Pinot Noir softness.

Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2007: Brioche and yeasty nose with a fresh citrusy palate. A perfect combination of lees ageing and the finesse of Chardonnay.

Grovesnor Blanc de Blancs 2006: More developed honey and almond on palate.

Fitzrovia Rose 2004: 65% Chardonnay and equal Pinot Noir and Meunier. A fuller-bodied wine with red fruits, spices and herbs on the nose. The firmer palate is probably from the tannins of the Pinots.

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