December is here, and to me, that means one thing: sparkling wine. I can’t think of anything that says celebration more than the sound of popping a cork. Champagne is absolutely fabulous. For centuries it’s been the drink of the monarchy, the drink of opulence, of occasion, and for good reason. It conjures images of luxury, grandeur and frivolity. Champagne is an amazing wine, it can be a mass-produced commodity or a true vision of love & terroir (French for place, its geographic individuality). But these days there is a stiff competition found a little more locally. On our doorstep in fact: English Sparkling. This year it’s gained some extra press due to the idyllic weather we were blessed with for growing grapes. I wanted to shine a little spotlight on this exciting product and explain why it’s a great industry to get behind.
The English wine movement has been slowly gaining speed, and now due to climate change, we have comparable weather to Champagne 50 years ago. England is very well suited to sparkling wine production; regularly winning in tasting competitions against Champagne, and still tends to come in at a lower price. You get a very decent quality and value for your money.
Most English sparkling wines are made from the same three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. They all bring a different element to the wine and all houses have their own style. Champagne and English sparkling are made in the ’Methode Champenoise’ or 'traditional method’, where wines go through a secondary fermentation in bottle to create the bubbles. Traditional method sparkling wines spent some time ageing on their lees (the yeasts). This adds richness and is the source of savoury aromas. Bread, brioche, biscuit, and pastry are all common. A great sparkling wine will have these balanced in harmony with the fruits. Along with some time ageing in the bottle and the acidity that comes from the cool climate, the wines are delicate, defined and the complexity can be really special. Cava is produced the same way, and it can create richness and flavours that you won’t get with a Prosecco.
I’ve chosen to talk about a particular estate I’m a fan of, Gusbourne. They only create vintage sparkling wine which is quite unique (grapes grown in one year). Champagne producers understand that the weather this far north can be unpredictable, so most large houses will blend over the years to create a ‘standard’ blend and only release a vintage in exceptional years. Gusbourne decided that was too easy and they’d create a vintage wine each year, showing true skill and craftsmanship in the winery. The understanding it requires is very impressive and a testament to their staff. They plant the classic Champagne trio of grapes, using Burgundian clones chosen for their low yields and exceptional quality fruit. The wines are produced with only estate grown grapes, which can also be quite a rarity with sparkling wines. Having this connection with their vines really does mean they'll produce the best fruit they can. And as the old saying goes, great wine is made in the vineyard.
Currently on by the glass, Fourth & Church have a Gusbourne 2014 Brut Reserve. The wine is made from 60% Pinot Noir, 22% Chardonnay and 18% Pinot Meunier. It spends 36 months on the lees to give a subtle pastry undercurrent, as well as 3 years in bottle. The acidity is tamed using a process called malolactic fermentation, which adds subtle creamy, buttery scents. A small portion of the wine is aged in oak to add further complexity. The fruits are ripe and delicious: think baked apples and strawberry jam, biscuit and brioche, all with some great citrus to cleanse the palate. It is a grand beverage, indulgent and rich yet so easy to drink. It would work really well with an array of foods. The wine stands up well to fish dishes: from smoked salmon to battered cod. I think in particular it would pair well with goats cheese. The fruit flavours compliment the cheese and the acidity cuts right through, leaving your palate refreshed. In fact, sparkling is just great with food. I love the stuff.
We’re always keen to talk wine, so if you want to know any more just ask.
Cheers, and Merry Drinking.
- Thank you to Gusbourne for providing the images and making lovely wines.
Further information about English & British wines: