English-style wine

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England. Now – Climate change favours vines. Very well. The limestone soils in the south of the big island are just like the best Champagne. Sparkling wines are bubbling up everywhere. With varying degrees of success. Some do very well. We know who.

The English go back a long, long way. They are now taking credit for the invention of sparkling wine. In the days of the monks, whether in Burgundy or Champagne, wines were still and effervescence was a defect. The cold autumn arrived soon after the harvest, and the wines did not systematically finish their alcoholic fermentation. In the spring, as temperatures warmed up, fermentation resumed, this time in the bottle.

This posed the risk of losing a large number of bottles, as their glass often had faults that made them fragile. They would explode under the impact of this second fermentation and, through a chain reaction, the entire stack of bottles would be lost. In the 17th century, the English, who were major consumers of French wines, imported still Champagne in casks. They bottled the wine themselves. Receiving barrels full of wine that had become effervescent during transport, and with an inexhaustible source of sugar in their Caribbean colonies, they deliberately began adding sugar to the wine at bottling time. This was the birth of secondary fermentation in the bottle, one of the criteria that defined the specificity of Champagne. In 1662, Christopher Merrett published an article on the subject for the official Royal Society. This quest for effervescence in the bottle was made possible by another significant event in English history. In 1615, King James prohibited the use of wood in winemaking. The resource was to be used solely to build ships for the Royal Navy. Admiral Sir Robert Mansell began to produce much stronger glass bottles using coal (coal burns at a much higher temperature than wood, editor’s note). In 1630, Sir Kenelm Digby perfected the technique for making even stronger glass bottles, creating, among other things, the famous “bottom of the bottle” for greater stability. The modern bottle was born. And the second fermentation could now take place in the bottle without any risk of loss.

WHAT ABOUT CHALK? Those who want to support the legitimacy of the English producing quality sparkling wines on their territory claim to have limestone soil similar to that found in Champagne. Which is true. The Parisian Basin does indeed stretch around Paris, East to Champagne and West to the South of England. However, only a small number of the English estates producing sparkling wines are located on land benefiting from this type of subsoil. A more pragmatic and precise approach led some estates, including Coates & Seely, to have their soil analysed in France before planting. The results confirmed that not only was there a good proportion of limestone, but that it was ideal for Champagne grape varieties. Of course, there’s nothing impossible about making a good sparkling wine without limestone. But Champagne is often the source of creative inspiration, as at Coates & Seely. “We want to make a great sparkling wine. Why deny ourselves the advantages of this soil? It’s possible, and we know it works,” explains Christian Seely, who also runs Axa Millésimes. At Nyetimber, the founders take the same approach. In 1988, they were the first to plant Champagne grape varieties to make sparkling wine in the South of England. While their neighbours tried to dissuade them, they too turned to Champagne and its experts for reassurance on the validity of their intuition. This pioneering energy still lives on at Nyetimber, now under the leadership of Eric Heerema, the new owner since 2006. The estate was the first to take on the international markets, thanks to its large surface area, which gives it the advantage of being able to produce enough bottles. A leader in its field, Nyetimber continues to open up new markets while waiting for others to join them.

A NEW TERROIR Often, the number of bottles available holds back the expansion of other quality estates, such as Coates & Seely. Founded in 2008 by two friends, Nicholas Coates and Christian Seely, this independent, family-run business is growing at a slow pace, buying up well-situated plots of land where the vines need time to take root and bear fruit, weather permitting. Some years, such as 2012, there is no harvest. Defining themselves as winemaker-craftsmen, the duo make sparkling wine with the desire to express a terroir. Great Champagne lovers with demanding palates, Nicholas and Christian make it their mission to produce wines that make them want to open their own bottle rather than those produced in Champagne. “It’s more fun to make high-quality wine,” says Christian Seely. Accompanied by Stéphane Derenoncourt, an advisor to many of the greatest wine estates, they take their production seriously. And with a bit of English humour that makes you smile. In their range, the vintages bear the name of La Perfide. At Gusbourne Estate, they have chosen to produce only vintage wines. Each year’s wines reflect the vagaries of the weather in the south of the island. Most of the numerous estates that have set up shop here aim to produce sparkling wines using grape varieties known as “champenois”, grown on soils of varying degrees of limestone. They all attach varying degrees of importance to the comparison with French wine. Some ostentatiously distance themselves from it, while others are inspired by it in their desire to match it.

A COMMON APPELLATION? These differing attitudes have been reflected in a debate that has shaken this small community: the creation of an appellation for this sparkling wine. There were two possible names: Merrett, in homage to the man who first mentioned adding sugar to wine to produce bubbles, or Britagne, a contraction of Britain and Champagne, in homage to the wine’s cousin across the Channel. As neither side was able to get a majority behind it, both erased the name from their labels. Today, both proudly call themselves “Product of England” and mention the traditional method (or, in the case of Coates & Seely, the British method). Some estates are beginning to display the English Protected Designation of Origin. This is the first step towards a unified spirit that will eventually lead to a common appellation. Others do not want to follow the main principles of the PDO for quality English sparkling wines, which is modelled on the traditional method (i.e. the Champagne method). Some of the newer players on the market are taking their cue from Prosecco in terms of vinification (the Charmat process and the use of more and different grape varieties). According to Tom Stevenson, an English specialist in sparkling wines, at this still young stage of the new category of wines, few estates produce consistently good sparkling wine. They are joined by another small number of estates that produce fine sparkling wines on an irregular basis. And they can count on a small number of estates joining them in the next few years. English sparkling wines are at a stage where they can benefit from as many initiatives as possible before imposing a framework. The south of England is a wine-growing area where experimentation is still the order of the day, where regulations have not yet been established, and where the future has only just begun. A whole new page is being written in the book on wines of the world. Let’s raise a glass of English bubbles to their success!

And the French? Taittinger set up Domaine Evremond with its English partner and friend Hatch Mansfield Ltd in 2017. The first wines are not yet available. Champagne Louis Roederer had been approached to take over a vineyard but declined, believing that the best sparkling wine in Europe is still Champagne and that it would concentrate on always offering high-quality Champagne, despite changes in the climate. In 2016, Pommery partnered with a young English vineyard, Hattingley Valley, to establish a foothold in the English sparkling wine market before buying vineyards there. Louis Pommery England has been produced and sold in England for several years. This summer, after investing in a 40-hectare vineyard in Hampshire, the company announced the creation of a winery.

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