Rarely does a month go by these days without an article on English sparkling wine appearing in print or on the Internet. Its praises are being sung not only by writers but by judges too. According to statistics on the English Vineyards website, in the past 16 years English sparkling wines have won eight trophies for Best International Sparkling Wine and six trophies for Best Sparkling Rosé in global competitions; something – again according to the English Vineyards site – that no other country has achieved. One British supermarket reported a massive sales increase of 188% year on year in 2015, but perhaps the most important recognition that English and Welsh sparkling wine has arrived is the purchase of land in Kent by Champagne house Tattinger.
It may come as a surprise to many that this focused attention is being paid to an area of little more than 1 800–2 000 hectares under vine, the figure varying depending on who one follows, and 135 wineries. Around 66% of the crop is turned into sparkling wine, with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir the main varieties employed. Production, very much dependent on vintage conditions, has increased from 4.05 million bottles in 2010 to 6.3 million in the very good 2014 harvest. And climate, allowing for better harvests, is one factor for growth. Another is the soil. Although the wineries are strung across the length and breadth of the UK, it is in a strip along the south-eastern part of England, where the chalk is very similar to that in Champagne, that the majority are concentrated.
The prospect of tasting a range of these wines and of pitting them against South African Méthode Cap Classique (MCC) was one to be relished, both from the point of view of tasting wines that aren’t available here and to get a measure on our own bubblies.
If English and Welsh bubbly appear to receive a disproportionate amount of publicity relative to their size, it must be due to their success and the fact there’s little other local wine to challenge it.
South Africa, on the other hand, has a much bigger basket of established styles, white wines and blends being particularly popular with critics. MCCs, though much enjoyed and awarded, have much more competition.
The MCC Challenge – South Africa MCC vs England & Wales Sparkling – was realised thanks to Roger Jones, owner/Michelin-star chef of The Harrow, Little Bedwyn, wine writer and judge, and Roy Davies, GM of The Vineyard Hotel in Newlands.
Thematically, the event was built around the current cricket series between South Africa and England, the idea being to select a First XI with a 12th man, with the ‘Braai’ Trophy, a black Riedel glass, going to the country with the most wines in the team. The wines, tasted blind by 30 guests, roughly half English, were scored out of 20, though it was a far cry from the formalities of serious competitions. It was a challenge trying to identify which country each came from. Of the 20 I attempted, I got 13 correct; so it wasn’t as easy as one might expect.
There were perhaps three major differences between MCC and English and Welsh sparkling wines. Overall, ours taste riper, not necessarily fruity but more generous. There was also greater complexity in many MCCs. Researching the English and Welsh entries beforehand, I understand why. Their vineyards have been planted fairly recently; the oldest being around 10 years. They would, of course, have been younger when these wines were harvested, so little surprise ‘simple’ frequently cropped up in my notes. Thirdly, the mousse is often different. The creamier, more sustained examples were generally South African, as compared with the brisker bubble in several of the English and Welsh ones.
I’m sure these factors are mainly due to age, for the top wines are truly excellent. Among the English and Welsh which stood out for me were: Hattingley Vineyard Classic Cuvée 2013, Wiston Rosé 2011, Wiston Blanc de Blanc 2010 and the Welsh Ancre Hill 2008.
There was general surprise that South African MCCs filled the majority of the First XI and provided the ‘opening batsman’ with an English wine but there was also an excuse for the opposition. The wines were not released by customs in time, so Wiston’s Pip Doring gamely flew over with another two cases (minus two of the original entries), arriving the day before the tasting. The wines hardly had time to settle. It would be useful and fairer to repeat the exercise next year with the wines that didn’t make it to the tasting.
What this year’s event has done is to highlight the quality of our best MCCs, showing they need respect as serious wines rather than just a bottle of fizz one opens to celebrate.
Team South Africa Team England & Wales
Altydgedacht Blanc de Blancs 2013 Alder Ridge Blanc de Blancs NV
De Morgenzon Chenin Blanc NV Ancre Hill Chardonnay Pinot Noir NV*
Domaines des Dieux Claudia Brut 2009 Ancre Hill 2008*
Graham Beck Cuvée Clive 2009 Coates & Seely Blanc de Blancs NV
Graham Beck Brut Zero 2010 Hattingley Blanc de Blancs 2010
Ken Forrester Sparklehorse Chenin Blanc NV Hattingley Classic Cuvée 2013
Le Lude Brut NV Herbert Hall Brut NV
Silverthorn Jewel Box 2011 Hush Heath Balfour Brut Rosé NV
Simonsig Cuvée Royale Blanc de Blancs 2011 Llanerch Cariad Seyval Blanc 2012*
Steenberg Lady R 2010 Wiston Cuvée Brut NV
Stellenrust Clement de Lure MCC NV Wiston Rosé 2011
Villiera Cru Monro 2008 Wiston Blanc de Blancs 2010
Graham Beck Cuvée Clive 2009
Coates & Seely Blanc de Blancs NV
Silverthorn Jewel Box 2011
Simonsig Cuvée Royale Blanc de Blancs 2011
Le Lude Brut NV
Hattingley Blanc de Blancs 2010
De Morgenzon Chenin Blanc NV
Villiera Cru Monro 2008
Domaines des Dieux Claudia Brut 2009
Altydgedacht Blanc de Blancs 2013
Joint 12th men:
Stellenrust Clement de Lure MCC NV
Ken Forrester Sparklehorse Chenin Blanc NV
– Angela Lloyd