Is English sparkling wine the next Champagne?
“English sparkling wine is a rising star!” says Tamas Toth, Bibendum business development manager for luxury hotels, and ex-wine buyer at St Martins Lane Hotel.
With increased investment from producers, the quality of English sparkling wine continues to sky-rocket – while sales are growing at double-digit figures. But is this just a flash in the pan, or the rise of a style that can rival Champagne?
A wine-producing country at the northern latitudinal limits for producing wine, English growers are no strangers to struggling in the name of creating something special. Frost is a big concern during flowering and ripening, and producers often have to go to extremes to protect their vines and crop. Unpredictable rain can cause further headaches, while the generally-cooler temperatures can hamper ripening of certain grapes as well as lead to lower yields and raised acidity levels.
Once considered extreme, climate change, has nudged England to become a prime location for sparkling wine growers from all over the world – most notably Champagne. Tamas explains, “It has been proven that the weather conditions in Champagne are not great: temperatures are rising and this is not good. As a result, we can see more and more Champagne Houses buying land in the UK as the climate is better for great quality sparkling wine production. Colder and more stable, the grapes ripen to perfection to produce one of the best sparkling wines in the world.”
In addition to England’s increasingly suitable climate, the soils are ideally chalky – in fact, there’s little difference between the chalk soil found in Champagne and that of England’s Downs. Unsurprisingly, traditional-method bottle-fermented sparkling wines – the best of which are based on traditional Champagne grapes – remain England’s strongest suit.
Considered an oddity not that long ago, the quality of English sparkling wine keeps improving. Producers are regularly winning prestigious awards and gaining international acclaim, even standing up to Champagne in blind tastings. In April 2016, a team from Britain’s WSTA travelled across the Channel to challenge some of France’s most influential figures in the food and wine industry to a blind tasting. The panel concluded that the English sparkling wine was better in two out of three categories, drawing equal with Champagne in a third.
According to the WSTA’s Rebekah Kendrick, this is only the beginning. “There’s a huge amount of potential still to come from the English wine industry: more planting of vines, more investment, more innovation, more awards, and more ambition. The total area under vine has more than doubled since 2009 and we are on track to produce over 10 million bottles by 2020.”
Sales are equally impressive. During the last year, we nearly doubled our value and volume sales of English sparkling wine at Bibendum, while selling to an increased number of customers. And we’re not alone. CGA reported that value sales of English and Welsh sparkling wine increased by 63% year on year, while volume sales rose by 77%.
Times are a-changing
So can English sparkling wine take on Champagne? Considering the WSET handbook doesn’t even mention English sparkling wine, or list England as a producing country, it’s fair to say the category remains rather niche on the world scene. This is the case even locally – and despite the recent improvements – as English wine constitutes less than 1% of wine sold in the UK.
But Tamas believes that more and more people are openminded to try English sparkling instead of Champagne or Cava. “Champagne is becoming an extremely expensive joy and consumers have identified this already. English sparkling is a great, traditional-method sparkling wine extremely similar to Champagne. And it’s made locally, making it a win-win situation!
“I have to say, the market is ready for a change. Commercially speaking, English sparkling wine is a better value option, with the same characteristics as an expensive Champagne. Premium, top-end markets have already started to put a big focus on listing top-quality English sparkling wines: amazing producers with passion and spectacular winegrowing ability.”
The real deal - Ridgeview
Now run by Simon and his sister Tamara (Ridgeview’s CEO), their journey started in 1996 when their parents, Mike and Chris Roberts, found a piece of land in England’s South Downs and planted some Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier vines.
A stone (and a half’s) throw from Brighton, their vineyards benefit from the best of British terroir: clay-loam top soil with a deep limestone ridge to bring crispness and freshness to the wines. Their philosophy is simple: minimal intervention in order to allow the fruit to speak for itself.
In just 16 years their wines have become a beacon in the English wine industry and they’ve been awarded over 250 medals and 27 trophies in both international and national competitions, including the prestigious English Wine of the Year title no fewer than four times.
What our customers say
How have attitudes towards English sparkling wine changed in recent years?
“I think people have started to look at English sparkling wine in a different way. Before it was always sceptical, but after certain events like the tasting in Paris, for example, people enjoy English sparkling wine a lot more and the attitudes towards them are much better, much more positive.”
Zareh Mesrobian, Sommelier at Ormer Mayfair, Flemings Hotel Mayfair
How would you recommend selling English sparkling wine?
“It’s a very easy comparison to make with Champagne, which is something people can grasp. We have a lot of international visitors at our restaurant who have never tried English sparkling wine and so if you can draw comparisons with Champagne, something they are familiar with, it makes them feel more comfortable, makes them understand what the product is.”
Ben Humberstone, Sommelier at Simpson’s on the Strand, The Savoy Hotel
Why do you think people should drink more sparkling wine?
“I think people need to taste what this land has to offer. It’s very important; just like when you’re in Champagne, you drink Champagne. But this is England – so drink some English sparkling wine.”
Ryan Linton, Chef de Rang at Kaspar’s Restaurant, The Savoy Hotel
Also try - Coates & Seely
“We are fundamentally a family firm, we are Coates’ and Seeleys combined together,” says Nicholas Coates. Nicolas and close friend Christian Seely started their venture into English winemaking in 2006, buying their first vineyard a year later.
The vines are planted on a chalky slope in the North Hampshire Downs. A mere 80 miles north of Champagne, the grapes benefit from rivalling acidity and flavours thanks to virtually-identical soil, geology and a similar climate to the region. An all-French winemaking team use traditional Champagne methods alongside cutting-edge winemaking technology to make a truly unique expression of English terroir.
No strangers to critical acclaim, this year saw Coates and Seely bring home four awards at the inaugural UK Wine Awards. These included the coveted Supreme Champion.
English wine - sans bubbles
England might be known for its sparkling wines, but there’s a growing revolution among still wine producers crafting interesting, quality wines.
Brand new to our range is Litmus Wines, based in Dorking, Surrey. Owned and operated by John Worontschak, Mike Florence and Matthieu Elzinga, Litmus uses the best fruit from various southern-facing slopes in Surrey, Sussex and Essex. Jamie Avenell, Bibendum buyer for England, says, “In the UK, the English sparkling wine industry is excelling and we've now found a real gem producing still wines. The Litmus Element 20, a blend of Chardonnay and Bacchus, was their first wine, but it is now joined by an excellent White Pinot, a Pinot Noir and an Orange Bacchus.”