Cork out, pinky up: English bubbly makes a pop
By Stephen Quinn, Special to the China PostEnglish sparkling wine has seized the imagination of the wine world in recent years.
September 20, 2013, 12:21 am TWN
It all started in 2007 when Theale Vineyard's 2003 sparkling chardonnay beat some of the best champagnes and European sparkling wines to win its place in the top 10 at the world's only dedicated sparkling wine competition, the French-based Effervescents du Monde (“sparkling wines of the world”).
Events such as the 2012 London Olympics as well as Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee that same year helped to further boost sales of sparkling English wine.
A tasting of some English sparkles this week suggests that while the industry still has a way to go, the best wines are very fine indeed, while the rest can be quite ordinary, along a wide continuum — much like the wine industry everywhere in the world.
For many years the English wine industry struggled because grapes could not ripen in such a cold climate. In recent years warmer summers have boosted hopes, with some speculating that global warming may be responsible. In the past 30 years average temperatures in Sussex, one of the counties on England's southern coast, have risen almost 2 degrees Celsius.
The 2008 Breaky Bottom sparkling brut is made from seyval blanc, the most widely-planted grape variety in England, according to Jancis Robinson in her Oxford Companion to Wine. Seyval blanc is the result of crossing two hybrids of seibel. It ripens early, which makes it ideal for cool climates such as that of England, where grape production occurs at the very limit of what is possible — just as in the Chablis and Champagne regions of France.
The Breaky Bottom has a fresh and zingy citrus taste and a relatively long finish. It's like a squeeze of lemon on a plate of oysters — highly acidic, yet without the creamy texture of champagne. The mousse is subdued. This is probably the biggest difference between champagne and English sparkling. The former typically has a thick mousse — that explosion of bubbles in the mouth when first tasted — and aromas of toast and freshly-baked bread combine with a creamy texture.
The most significant characteristic of English sparkling is the acid zing, often described as a “knife-edge” of acidity. Some critics use phrases like “delicate floral” to evoke the aromas of English hedgerow.
The December 2011 edition of Decanter, one of the world's best-known wine magazines, featured rose champagne. Author Tom Stevenson awarded three champagnes 19.5/20 and gave another five 19/20 (including Dom Perignon). In a sidebar on English sparkling rose he also gave 19/20 to Nyetimber Rose 2007. His tasting note talked of “delicate soft and orchard fruit” and a “knife-edge of pure English acidity.”
The 2008 Breaky Bottom received a bronze medal at last year's Decanter World Wine Awards and a silver at this year's International Wine Challenge in London.
Winemaker Peter Hall chose seyval blanc as the main variety at his vineyard for several reasons. It has high acidity, essential for long bottle aging. Hall believes seyval gives a cleaner taste, yet with a touch of fruit. His wines resemble the classics of the Loire, which he admires.
Hall planted his vineyard at Breaky Bottom in 1974 at a time when there were only a dozen or so growers in the whole country. Now he is reaping the rewards of his innovation and forward thinking.