January 29, 2018 / Luxury Lifestyle

The Rise of English Sparkling Wine

Step aside, champagne—English sparkling wine can rival the best in the world, with its distinctive terroir and character impressing critics and connoisseurs


Britain, it may surprise some to learn, punches well above its weight in wine production, with more than 4,900 acres of land under vine in England and Wales producing in excess of five million bottles annually. And the stars of its offering? The sparkling varieties.

Winemakers from Southeast England’s Ridgeview Estate note that the cool climate is crucial for producing full-flavored sparkling wines. Photograph: Christopher Pledger. Banner image: The Rathfinny Wine Estate, established in 2010 in the Sussex South Downs, has ambitions to become one of the largest single vineyards in Europe, with its first wine to be released in 2018.The rise of the English sparkling wine industry has seen its bottles move from “plucky outsider” status to champagne-beating cellar essentials, claiming a record number of international trophies along the way. England is fizzing, and the world is taking notice.

English sparkling has its own distinctive profile—crisp, refreshing, and tasting of an English hedgerow

An impressive statistic illustrates the health of the English wine industry as a whole: one million vines were planted in 2017, the most ever planted in one year in the UK. “These are exciting times for English sparkling wine,” says Chris Munro, Head of Christie’s London Wine Department. “Investments by champagne houses such as Taittinger and Pommery demonstrate confidence in its potential.”

Taste testing
With the key regions under vine including Sussex, Kent, Hampshire, Dorset, and Cornwall, much has been made of the success of the wines in blind-tasting competitions, with the editions from English sparkling wine producers often trumping their more illustrious French counterparts.

Wiston Estate’s vines are located on land that closely resembles the physical and chemical composition of the Côte de Blancs region in Champagne.“Without doubt, the fact that English sparkling wine has been doing so well in tastings and competitions endorses the quality of the products and creates a lot of interest,” says Julia Trustram Eve, marketing director at English Wine Producers, which promotes English wines.

Sparkling wine accounts for 66 percent of English wine production, and currently five percent of all English wine is exported, with a target to increase that figure tenfold by 2020.

To create their sparkling wines, Ridgeview’s winemakers use traditional methods, and the three classic Champagne varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Photograph: Christopher Pledger“English sparkling wine sales were up 11 percent in 2015 and grew eight percent in 2016,” notes Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. “While English sparkling shares the grapes and similar soil and climate to the Champagne region, winemakers are not trying to produce a champagne analogue. English sparkling has its own distinctive profile—crisp, refreshing, and tasting of an English hedgerow.”

Camel Valley founder Bob Lindo and his son and second-generation winemaker Sam among the Cornish vines that produce the winery’s award-winning bottles. Award-winning terroir
East Sussex-based Ridgeview Estate’s vines were planted in 1995 on the South Downs, an area well suited for growing the traditional champagne varietals.

“The chalk-and-clay soils are an advantage in our terroir and also work as a micro-climate,” explains Mardi Roberts, Ridgeview’s marketing and communications director. “What we have in England is a cool climate that allows us to have a long growing season to maximize the ripeness of the grapes, while our cool evenings maintain a lovely balance of acidity.”

Ridgeview has received accolades at the Decanter World Wine Awards, International Wine Challenge, and Sommelier Wine Awards, among others, in some cases topping French champagne houses. Photograph: Christopher PledgerRidgeview caused a stir in 2010 when its Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2006 won the top accolade for sparkling wine at the Decanter World Wine Awards, beating more than 700 entrants, including top champagne houses.

Small yields, great terroir, full of concentration and flavor: English sparkling wine is inherently special—it’s a fact

Dermot Sugrue, winemaker at the Wiston Estate, West Sussex, says English sparkling wines are much more like vintage champagnes, rather than the typical non-vintage bruts.

“Vintage champagnes get the choicest, ripest, smallest yields of grapes from the best sites, whereas our grapes are like that naturally: small yields, great terroir, full of concentration and flavor,” Sugrue explains. “English sparkling wine is inherently special—it’s a fact.”

Bolney Wine Estate crafts both still and sparkling wines. Its Eighteen Acre Rosé is a vibrant, deep pink and received a Gold medal in the Global Rosé Masters 2017.  Photograph: Toby Phillips PhotographyThis helps to explain the rumors in recent years of champagne houses eyeing up land in the UK for sparkling production. Indeed, Taittinger planted its first vines in Kent in 2017. A joint venture with UK agency and importer Hatch Mansfield, the first bottles from its Domaine Evremond will be released in 2023.

A place at the top tables
The growing profile of English sparkling wine producers has seen their wines increasingly served at top functions in the UK and beyond, with Cornwall’s Camel Valley Pinot Noir rosé poured at a state banquet held at Buckingham Palace in July 2017, and the estate’s Cornwall Brut served the following day at a reception in celebration of the Duchess of Cornwall’s 70th birthday.

Bolney is located on the edge of the South Downs, about 14 miles from the UK’s south coast. Its five vineyard sites contain vines between two and twelve years old.Bolney Wine Estate, based in the heart of West Sussex, is one of the longest established English sparkling wine vineyards. “Comparisons with champagne have helped the UK sparkling category,” says owner and winemaker Sam Linter. “The UK pub group Fuller’s recently replaced its champagne house pour with English sparkling wine, and this includes our Bolney Wine Estate Cuvée Rosé and Bolney Bubbly wines.”

Mark Driver, founder of Rathfinny, says its first wine will be 100 percent Chardonnay, with the first Rathfinny Classic Cuvée to be released in 2020. “We plan to release our sparkling wines in Hong Kong and Japan [in 2018] and in North America in 2019,” he says. Rathfinny is aiming to sell half of its Sussex sparkling to markets in Europe, North America, and Asia.The accolades continue to rack up: Ridgeview and Kent’s Chapel Down are official suppliers to 10 Downing Street; Wiston Estate was used by the Queen to launch the cruise liner Britannia; and a blind tasting in Paris in 2016 saw experts judge the English sparkling as better than champagne in two out of three categories, with the other category declared as a tie.

While the momentum continues apace, everyone involved in the industry is upbeat, as Ridgeview’s Roberts sums up: “Our sparkling wine can rival the very best in the world, while still maintaining the unique characteristic of being English.”

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Zeren Wilson
is a wine writer, author, and consultant, and has written for Noble Rot and Christie’s Magazine