Easter is on it’s way and it’s traditional in this country to get together and have a re-run of Christmas in terms of gut-busting lunches, repeats of terrible films and of course plenty of drinks to wash it all down with. Another British thing is to use such opportunities to get stuck in to some Champagne, the UK remains by far the biggest export market for French fizz in the world. I’m here to suggest that you might actually want to look a little bit closer to home for your bubbly….
A long, long time ago, in a city not far away, lived a man called Christopher Merret. By all accounts he was a bit of a character, who enjoyed playing around with his wine. So much so in fact that it has been unearthed that 30 years prior to Dom Perignon’s ‘discovery’ of the champagne method, Sparkling wine was being made in, of all places, London. Now don’t for a moment imagine that Hyde park was covered in beautifully manicured vines in the mid seventeenth century, instead it was a question of adding a little yeast and a little sugar to imported still wines to make them fizz, but it still beats old Dompers into second place.
English wine has a big problem – everyone thinks that it is acidic, suck your-cheeks-in, plonk that’s only marginally preferable to chewing on a whole Lemon. Now that certainly used to be the case, but equally the same can be said of the still wines that used to be produced in the Champagne region of Northern France. The French solution was that a fizzy lemon flavoured wine would be far better, especially if it had a bit more alcohol. Regardless of who actually had the idea first, what is certainly true is that the winemakers in modern England take their cue from our friends across the channel and entertainingly, seem to be doing a better job of it than certain Frenchman.
Making Champagne is certainly an art, one which is much copied throughout the world but not nearly as successfully in recent years than in good old England. The process itself is quite protracted – Pick three different grape varieties, make them separately into wines. Then you blend them together and sling the whole lot into a bottle. Into the bottle goes sugar and yeast and a crown cap then goes on the top. The yeast ferments the sugar, raising the alcohol level and giving off CO2. The gas can’t escape so dissolves into the wine, giving you sparkling wine. Elsewhere in the world they tend to use only two of the Champagne grapes or three different grapes altogether such as in Cava, but in England they use the same grapes as in champagne, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay.
The French are very hot on the use of the term champagne – you can’t even say ‘champagne method’ on any bottle that isn’t from the region. Their argument (quite rightly) is that it is the combination of geography, soil and grape variety that makes Champagne what it is. So why is English fizz so close? The simple answer is two-fold. Firstly, if you look at where most of the English vineyards are, then draw a line straight across France, you more or less go straight to the Champagne region. Secondly, if you dig a big hole in the ground in Kent, you’ll find porous, chalky soil. Nip over to Epernay in Champagne and dig another hole (long trip, but worth it) and you’ll find the same chalky soil. So if you have a similar climate, the same soil and the same grape varieties, make the wine in the same way and cellar it for the same amount of time, surprise, surprise, you get a result that’s very similar.
The Northern climate that we have in this country promotes wines with high acidity and delicate flavours, ideal for fizz. There are a number of estates throughout the country who put sparkle into their vino, below is a selection of some of the biggest and best….
Denbies Greenfields Cuvee
Denbies are just outside Dorking in Surrey, not somewhere that immediately conjours up images of Michael Schumacher drenching his fellow F1 drivers in fizz, but don’t let that put you off. This is good stuff and easily competes against Champagnes of a similar and indeed greater price. At around £15.99 it’s still not a cheap bottle, but worth every penny. Denbies is the UK’s biggest wine estate and produces a range of twelve wines covering all red white and rose, as well as the fizz.
Ridgeview Bloomsbury Cuvee Merret
This lot are to be found lurking on the south downs in sussex, their flagship fizz recently took the trophy for best sparkling wine at the International wines and spirits competition. Made from the classic Champagne blend, this is also a vintage wine and sets out to specifically beat the French at their own game. Seems to me like they’re pretty good at it too. Another one that will give you a penny change from sixteen quid. Nyetimber Classic Cuvee
This is the old man of the sparkling woods as far as UK fizz goes, Nyetimber, based in Kent, have long been regarded as the country’s top producer of bubbly. The slight downside to their success is that the price of their wines has increased steadily over the years. This is one English fizz that believes it has the quality to stand shoulder to shoulder with Grande Marque Champagnes so £22 a bottle is not uncommon to see. It does have a richer style than either of the other two, but my advice is to try all three and see which one you prefer.
Other fizz-meisters include Camel Valley in Cornwall, Chapel Down in Kent, Three Choirs in Gloucestershire and the entertainingly named Breaky Bottom winery in Sussex
Of course, all of these wines should be at least £1.65 per bottle cheaper, but our dear Chancellor insists that we should pay the UK alcohol import duty on wines made in our own country. What a nice man.