British Bubbly is On The Rise: A Guide to English Sparkling Wine
Historically, England is not a wine-producing country. If we compare the UK to its French and Spanish neighbors, it’s clear who the winners are when it comes to the art of making wine. However, in more recent years, sparkling wine from England has been gaining popularity. There are now over 700 individual vineyards in the British Isles, which produced a record 15.6 million bottles of wine last year. These figures show that English wine is on the rise, from complete obscurity to international renown.
Sparkling wines made in the UK are gaining particular attention, made in the same traditional method of the famous French Champagne. Although of course, no English vineyard could stake claim to the name “Champagne”, due to the Champenois’ take-no-prisoners attitude when it comes to defending their brand, certain similarities have been drawn between the bottles.
There’s still no part of England regarded as a high-status wine region, but perceptions of English wine are steadily changing for the better. The rate at which English sparkling wine has become one of our new favorites shows that we might be drinking a whole lot more in the future.
A brief history of English winemaking
The first-ever English commercial vineyard was planted in 1952, in Hampshire, a county on the southern coast. Back then, wine hybrids such as Seyval Blanc, and German crosses like Muller-Thurgau were the most popular produced in England. These wines were acidic, flat, and largely unsuccessful.
In 1988, it was noticed that the chalky soil in southern England was very similar to that across the Channel in Champagne, and so the same grapes were planted. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier were the first grapevines planted at the Nyetimber estate in Sussex, which is now the largest in the country. Nyetimber intended to use these grapes in the traditional method, to brew sparkling wine similar to Champagne.
By the 1990s, Nyetimber had started winning awards for their bubbly, and others in the UK were starting to notice. New wineries were established in the south, and general production shifted from still to sparkling wines. Farmers and fruit growers started cultivating more grapes, as the English winemaking business was rapidly expanding.
As of 2018, there were 164 wineries in the UK, with different strategies and methods. Some estates such as Nyetimber and Gusbourne use only fruit grown on-site, whereas others purchase fruit from outside sources. Most English winemakers use a combination of the two grape sources, as unreliable weather presents a risk, so they can supplement their crop with purchased grapes.
Where is English sparkling wine made?
English fizz is produced in the south of the country in Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset, and Cornwall. Here, the climate is warm, sunny, and dry, ideal for ripening grapes when the weather permits. The conditions in these southern counties are the best England has to offer to winemakers, the weather is agreeable, the soil chalky and full of minerality, with the right altitude for growing.
Overall, the conditions in southern England lend themselves beautifully to the production of sparkling wine, that it, when growers are lucky with the weather. Although the vast majority of English wines are made in the south of England, there are a few wineries to the north as well, such as the Yorkshire Heart Vineyard.
Unlike in most wine-producing countries, the UK isn’t split into different regions for the classification of wine. Contrary to the numerous and highly complicated winemaking regions of France, all of England is classed as a single area. You won’t find geographical differences anywhere near as much as from more established and traditional wine sources, partly because most wine in England is grown in a similar environment anyway.
Take a look at Burgundy wine; different vintages are classified according to the location of their vineyard, but this complicated system means you might pay more than double for a bottle produced only meters away from cheaper alternatives. The English system is much simpler, instead of being labeled geographically the bottles are simply rated on quality. You can buy English bubbly as a table wine, regional wine, or quality wine.
Unfortunately, English weather is notorious for being unpredictable, which leads to a huge variation in vintages. In 2012, a cold and wet summer meant almost all producers in the country struggled to produce any number of bottles, and the entire years’ wine production was disappointing, to say the least. On the other hand, 2018 was the best year yet for wine producers in the UK, there a long and hot summer meant most wineries were overflowing with grapes. This abundance meant English winemakers could produce absolutely fantastic wines, meaning 2018 is one vintage you definitely need to try in English sparkling wine.
Global warming has led to rising temperatures in England, and although it’s not great for our planet, this development is highly beneficial to both wine lovers and winemakers. Temperatures in southern England where the countries wineries are located now reach the equal of in Champagne 30 years ago. The chalky soil which grows classic Champagne grapes so well is actually the very same soil found in the south of England; there’s a continuous vein of this terrain that runs from the Champagne region, through the north of France and up to southern England.
This wonderful white wine-producing ground is the same we see on the iconic Cliffs of Dover. Combining more agreeable temperatures with a growing market and the ideal soil conditions, and English sparkling wine is becoming more popular than ever.
What you need to know about English sparkling wine
Because winemaking is a fairly recent development in England, producers are free to experiment and explore without the constraints of tradition. Over in Champagne, France, winemakers are rigorously policed by hundreds of years of winemaking traditions, meaning their process is admittedly highly effective but doesn’t include many variations. With no time-honored rules to follow in the UK, British winemakers are free to experiment and produce new and exciting wines.
Luckily, the Champagne (or traditional) method is largely designed to vinify grapes which are immature, so it works well for English producers. You’ll need to watch out for the acidity levels in English wine, as this is the most common hurdle that winemakers must tackle. The level of sweetness in English wines is listed on the bottle using French terms; Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra-Sec, Sec, Demi-Sec, and Doux. Most English sparkling wines sit on the drier end of the scale, however, some tasty sweeter bottles of wine are available, ideal for pairing with food. Although sweet wines are admittedly out of fashion now, the right sweetness does go wonderfully with English acidity.
Most vineyards in England are very small, with only around 30 operating on a commercial level. About 70% of all wine produced in England is sparkling wine, mostly white or rose, with a very select few producers making red sparkling wine. More than 100 million bottles of bubbly are sold in the UK each year, but only 1% of them are English wines.
The vast majority are still the popular sparkling wine giants; Spanish Cava, Italian Prosecco, and of course, French Champagne. Prosecco is the most popular amongst English consumers, no doubt because of its cheerful bubbles and affordable price, so this Italian sparkling wine can be expected to hold the top spot for some time. English bubbly is the fifth most popular in its home country, with about 4m bottles sold in 2017.
The best English sparkling wines
We certainly couldn’t create a guide to English sparkling wine without introducing you to some of the very best. From the biggest in the English wine industry, down to tiny wineries with only a handful of vines, let’s jump in and discover the very best bottles of bubbly that Great Britain has to offer.
Leckford Estate Brut 2014
This excellent sparkling white is made from a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grape varieties, grown on the Leckford Estate in Hampshire. Crafted into wine at the Ridgeview estate in the South Downs, this traditional bubbly is an excellent example of prime English wine. It’s a classic Brut, made from classic Champagne grapes, with a rounded and welcoming palate that’s ideal for first-time English wine drinkers. The blend is toasty, with notes of hazelnut and soft fruity flavors.
Chapel Down Sparkling Bacchus 2018
Chapel Down produces English fizz by carbonating their still wines, not the usual traditional method, and this sparkling Bacchus is an excellent example. This characterful wine holds several distinct fruit flavors; pineapple, grapefruit, and elderflower. This vibrant and floral aroma gives the wine a tropical feeling, with a crisp and refreshing finish. Fruit used in these bottles comes from all over the south of England, from Kent, Sussex, and Essex, made without malolactic fermentation to ensure the wine retains its freshness.
Ridgeview Cuvee Merret Bloomsbury
This classic Cuvee is made from a vibrant blend of England’s three most common grape varieties, beautifully balanced by the winemakers at the Ridgeview estate in West Sussex. Flavors and fruit and honey permeate the bottle, with deliciously refreshing citrus notes. This sparkling white wine is ideal to accompany fresh seafood or as a celebratory drink. You can enjoy this fantastic wine upon purchase, or alternatively, age the Chardonnay for a few years in your cellar for a more mature and refined bottle.
Nyetimber Cuvee Cherie NV
This fantastic Demi-Sec bottle from England’s largest winery is a beautiful example of English fizz. Made in the South Downs, Nyetimer’s Cuvee Cherie is positively effervescent, with aromas of lemon, honey, and delicious tangerine. The palate is sweet and citrusy, to begin with, combated by crisp acidity and leading to a very clean and structured finish for this wine.
Hattingley Valley Blanc de Blancs 2013
This bubbly is of a relatively older vintage, compared to most other English sparkling wine, which is usually drunk fairly young. The vineyard; Hattingley Valley in Hampshire, uses no malolactic fermentation. This preserves the crisp acidity of the blend and combined with fruit and oak tannins, this allows the wine to age and the flavors to further develop for much longer than you’d usually keep a bubbly.
This Blanc de Blanc displays classic citrus and apple, with a refreshing minerality thanks to the area’s chalky soil. The terroir of this bottle of English fizz does a wonderful job conveying the flavors of the area, from an eco-friendly winery- the first in the UK to adopt solar power!
Nyetimber Rose NV
This sparkling rose is another excellent wine from the Nyetimber winery in southeast England. This exciting wine from West Sussex is full of raspberry and red fruit flavors, made from an excellent blend of two home-grown grapes. Pinot Noir is most prominent at 52%, and Chardonnay at 48%, combines to bring forward a crisp red berry freshness that’s ideal for special occasions.
Balfour Hush Health Estate’s Leslie’s Reserve NV
If you’re looking to sample an extra-dry English wine, look no further than this bubbly from Balfour Hush. This wine has vibrant acidity and fruity flavors, made predominantly from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This brew is fermented in stainless steel vats, which ensure the wine holds its clean fruity aromas.
This vintage is particularly special as it undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle, followed by a further 18 months of aging. This additional fermentation allows for the Chardonnay to develop and truly express its flavors, showing fresh hints of brioche and apple, with crisp acidity and just a tiny hint of sweetness.
Simpsons Chalklands Classic Cuvee 2016
Grown and produced in the chalky terroir of Kent, this sparkling wine is a traditional blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Plenty of fruity and toasty notes can be expected from this classic Cuvee Brut. This bottle spends a little more time developing than other English bubblies we’re discussed, allowing the blend of grapes to flourish into more refined flavors. Aromas of vibrant citrus and crisp apple complement the round, peachy taste of this excellent 2016 vintage.
Flint Vineyard’s Charmant Rose
Unlike the majority of English sparkling wine, which is made using the same method of the Champenois, Flint Vineyard’s Charmant Rose is made using the Italian Prosecco method. Named after Charmant, who patented the production method used in Prosecco, this wine undergoes secondary fermentation in a tank rather than in the bottle. This creates a more fruit-driven wine, with less fine bubbles. The wine holds a hint of minerality, with flavors of forest fruits and a slight sweetness.
The future of English sparkling wine
In recent years, English bubbly has been gaining more recognition on the international stage. For example, in the 2018 international wine challenge, Cherie Spriggs of Nyetimber won international sparkling winemaker of the year. Not only is this a landmark victory for the Brits, as this is the first time the trophy was awarded anyone outside of Champagne, France, but Spriggs is also the first-ever female winemaker to win the prize.
Because sparkling wine is held for up to 5 years before we see it on shelves, sales rates are several years behind the production. The southern English climate is also greatly variable, and this means it’s hard to reliably predict the future production and sales of English sparkling wine. However, if climate change continues in the expected manner, we may see increased British production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Rising temperatures help to ripen fruit, so English winemakers can produce more of the same bubbly that French Champagne houses are famous for.
English sparkling wine is relatively new to American consumers, and due to the current supply, it can be difficult to get your hands on a bottle without going over budget. Hopefully, the future is brighter for exporters of English fizz, as 2018’s bountiful harvest might be a sign of more success to come.
Currently, the supply of English sparkling wine doesn’t meet demand, as winemakers are limited by changing weather conditions that stop grapes from ripening. More successful production years in the future will increase the amount of English sparkling wine that can be bottled, so within the next 10 years, we hope to see a lot more available on American shelves.
It’s unlikely that English sparkling wine will ever reach the success levels of Champagne or Prosecco, as British winemakers simply cannot support such a high level of output. Nonetheless, the future is certainly bright for English winemakers, as it has the potential to become one of the world’s foremost sparkling wine regions. England will never be able to produce the most sparkling wine, but it’s possible that they make the best.
Bonus tip: Check out this video to see some of Nyetimber, England’s largest winery!
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