The high quality of English sparkling wines comes as something of a shock to most people. England seems too far north, too cool and too rainy, doesn’t it? And it doesn’t have much history as a wine-growing country. True, vineyards date back at least as far as the eighth century, and the warm period between the 12th and 14th centuries produced some English wines of real quality, if contemporaneous reports are to be believed. But the 14th century brought the Little Ice Age and the Black Death, and the end of English wine along with them.
It wasn’t until 1952 that a (1.5-acre) commercial vineyard appeared, and it wasn’t until decades later, after a string of unusually warm, sunny summers, that English growers replaced the original German hybrid grapevines with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the three grapes of Champagne.
The ancient calcareous rock formation largely responsible for the success of Champagne extends north into southern England, where the soil is remarkably similar to that of Champagne.
The ancient calcareous rock formation largely responsible for the success of Champagne extends north into southern England, where the soil is remarkably similar to that of Champagne. And climate change has warmed southern England enough so that grapes now ripen adequately and consistently enough to create sparkling wines that compare favorably with — and sometimes even top — their more famous French counterparts.
Unfortunately, the prices for English sparkling wines often top those of Champagne as well! The consumer receives little discount for England’s lack of vinous fame. Nevertheless, these fine wines are worth trying, and many restaurants offer them by the glass.
On my 2018 trip to London, I tried seven English sparklers. All were delicious, and a few were absolutely sensational.
The English sparkling wine I encountered most often was Nyetimber’s Classic Cuvee, and I was always happy to drink a glass. I first tried it at the Rex Whistler Restaurant at Tate Britain, and I was immediately smitten with its yeasty, citrusy aroma, its sense of richness and its forceful, focused bubbles. Even more memorable was the 2010 Blanc de Blancs made from only Chardonnay, which still felt fresh and lively in spite of its age. That’s my kind of aperitif!
Chapel Down may be the official supplier to No. 10 Downing Street, but I must admit I preferred the Nyetimber. It should also be said, however, that a flute of the Chapel Down Classic Non-Vintage Brut cost me just £9.50 at the Swan, the restaurant attached to the Globe, which made it one of the least expensive wines I tried (the classic Nyetimber was usually about £12). Both the Brut and the Rosé Brut had focused (if not pinpoint) bubbles; juicy, mouthwatering acids; and refreshingly dry, rather mineral finishes. I’d be interested in trying Chapel Down’s more premium bottlings.
Hambledon was the site of that very first commercial English vineyard planted in 1952, giving this winery the country’s longest pedigree. Both the Nyetimber and the Chapel Down Brut had more of the yeasty, bready quality I covet in a sparkler than did the Hambledon Classic Cuvée, which I tried at the stylish new Hide restaurant. This wine had more citrus and green-apple notes, followed by sharp, foamy bubbles. It worked very well with food, as one might expect with all that acid, but for simply sipping, I preferred the others on this list.
Simpson’s in the Strand, a storied restaurant in The Savoy hotel, has its own cuvée of the Ridgeview Cavendish. I very much liked its aroma of citrus and white bread, its bright acids and its frothy but focused bubbles. Underneath it all was a berry note, like red currant. On further investigation, I learned that this wine is a blend of the red grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, along with a little Chardonnay. Paired with some sweet potted shrimps in mace butter, it was heaven.
I followed a glass of Ridgeview with the gorgeous 2010 Furleigh Estate Brut Rosé, to pair with some grouse. Whereas Ridgeview is in Sussex, just north of Brighton, Furleigh lies to the west, in Dorset, a few miles from the “Jurassic Coast.” The fossil-rich soil surely doesn’t hurt when it comes to making wine. Although it’s a rosé, this sparkling blend includes 40 percent Chardonnay in addition to Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. It tasted ripe and very classy, with pinprick bubbles, raspberry and zesty acids, and it stood up well to both the grouse and some roast beef.
Less than an hour from Dover, Gusbourne also benefits from ancient chalky soils. Our French waitress at Spring restaurant in Somerset House confided that she prefers the 2013 Gusbourne Brut Reserve to many big-name Champagne brands, and I’m inclined to agree. I was quite taken by the bready note in its aroma, as well as its dark acids and focused bubbles. Delicious.
Of all the fine English bubblies I tried, the 2010 Laverstoke Park Brut Reserve was my favorite. The label looks unpromising, with its childlike drawing of a man in a vineyard, but the wine is the embodiment of sparkling sophistication. The aroma of toast and caramelized sugar was very seductive, and I loved the rich flavors of crème brûlée, red apple and lemon, with an undertone of smoke. The Wine Bar in the basement of Fortnum & Mason serves Laverstoke Park by the glass, and I highly recommend taking a shopping break to try some, even at the rather steep price of £18.50 for a small flute. Fortnum & Mason had four other English sparklers by the glass on its menu when we visited, making it one of the best places in London to acquaint yourself with these wonderful wines.