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English Sparkling – more than just froth

If you’ve been following Wildflower Wine Club stories, you’ll know the UK is one of the world’s fastest growing wine regions, heralded for our award-winning wines, much of which is sparkling.

Here we chat to Corkk’s Master of Wine, Clive Barlow to find out how the frizzante in our sparkling success came about, what the difference is between English and international fizz, and who really created those effervescent bubbles.

WWC:  Can you explain the ‘Traditional Method’ of making English sparkling wine?  How does it compare with other sparkling from around the world?

The Traditional Method (known as the Classic Method in the UK) is a process which evolved in Champagne during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Essentially the bubbles are created via a second fermentation in the bottle, by adding yeast and a measured amount of sugar to a base wine.  The yeast eats the sugar, a by-product of which is carbon dioxide, the gas that makes those magical bubbles.

This sparkling wine continues to age in the bottle, and over time the yeast cells break down to form ‘lees’, which evoke umami flavour compounds such as brioche, fresh bread and even marmite notes.

The other method to create sparkling wine is the ‘Charmat’ or tank method where the bubbles come from a second fermentation in large, pressurised, usually steel tanks.  The resulting wine is taken off the lees much sooner and bottled, delivering a fresh, sparkling wine unfettered by umami notes. Examples of this include Prosecco.

WWC:  It is said there is a particular English freshness to our sparkling wines, can you explain?

English grapes grow in what is considered a cool climate and therefore have a naturally high level of acidity when harvested.  Due to our cooler climate and slow ripening, our fruit flavours are unique. Think of the difference between apples grown in England compared to those from warmer climates; our fruit doesn’t ripen as much and therefore has a fresh, slightly tart edge.  Our wines have greener flavours, such as apple or lemon as opposed to more tropical, riper flavours found in warmer regions.

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Beautiful English grapes ready for the press

WWC:  Which recent vintages should we be looking out for in terms of English sparkling?

At the moment I am loving some of the 2014 and 2016 vintages.  These were relatively warm years in the UK, allowing the grapes to ripen whilst maintaining good levels of acidity, which produce wines that age well and develop more flavours over time.  For those who prefer riper fruit flavours, the 2018 vintage is now showing real accessibility, roundness and creaminess.

WWC:  Would you recommend laying down English sparkling wine?   

Nearly all English sparkling wine will age for a decade or more due to their high acidity.  Look out for wines made with the classic Champagne grape varieties (Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay) or Seyval Blanc.  These will evolve in the bottle delivering complex wines with a gentle, palate-seducing mousse after five years or more.  In terms of vintages, I suggest 2014, 2015 and 2016 and producers such as Hattingley, Gusbourne, Nyetimber and Herbert Hall.

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A Nyetimber vineyard

WWC: So, what is the difference between premium English sparkling and Champagne?

The key difference is the structure and flavour. English wine’s high acidity means they taste crisper and brighter, Champagne is more rounded and creamier.

Because our grapes hang on the vine for a long time before picking, compared to their French cousins, our sparkling tends to have more fruit notes, primarily deeper apple (Bramley apple) and lemon notes, compared to Champagne. Our rosé bubbles tend to have more Pinot Noir flavour, such as strawberry or raspberry.

Pound for pound, English Sparkling Classic Method is a great match for Champagne. I would not say the same for most of our still wines but in terms of our Sparkling wine they offer great value when compared to Champagne.

WWC: In the 2020 Decanter World Awards, our wines took 155 awards, up 7% from 2019, with two judged to be in the top 50 best tasting wines in the world.

We should be proud and supportive of our young wine industry. It has taken just three decades to prove that we have the climate, soils and skills to grow grapes and make world class wine.

Who knows where we will be in another decade, but the number of awards and our world standing will undoubtedly rise. In blind tastings, English Sparkling wines are equal to and will beat price equivalent or more expensive French wine. A great example of this is Redfolds’ Ambriel Classic Cuvée NV 2014 vintage, which received the same score as Krug Vintage Brut 2016. Both achieved a score of 95 points. The Krug costs around £240 whilst the Ambriel is £30.

WWC: The French say they invented the bubbles in our sparklers, and we’ve heard it was the English …. what is the truth?

Historical evidence points to 17th century English wine merchants creating sparkling wine through the addition of a sugar source causing a second fermentation in the bottle.

This was made possible as the English had developed a stronger glass for their bottles and utilised cork stoppers, both of which were not used in France.

It was not until the very late 17th Century or early 18th century that the wine producers in Champagne intentionally made sparkling wine. Tom Stevenson’s ‘Encyclopaedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine’ delivers a good history of how this method evolved. The recent book by Stephen Skelton MW, ‘The Knight who invented Champagne’, tells the story of Sir Kenelm Digby who developed strong glass bottles, dubbed Verre Anglais by the French, which allowed sparkling wines to be produced and how this gave the English a head start in making sparkling wine.

www.corkk.co.uk