English Sparkling Wines at the Institute of the Masters of Wine
|Breaky Bottom Seyval Blanc - on its way to full (and deserved) 'cult' status?|
This tasting, organised by Stephen Skelton MW, was perhaps the closing paragraph in a debate that has been rattling away in my head over the course of the last year; is there really a critical mass of world-class wines being produced here, or it it still just a handful, accompanied by a very capable entourage? Is the hype machine still a long way ahead of the wines? Could I really recommend a range of English Sparkling Wines to my friends on absolute quality/value terms?
For some, the 'tipping point' for English Sparkling Wine came many years ago with a small number of revelatory wines. For me, it is coming now. Sitting here looking at the gaps in my cellar for Christmas 2018, I feel for the first time as though I could happily put together two or three mixed cases of readily-available wines that were all of extremely high-quality and fairly-priced. Are there hundreds of such wines? No. Are the die-hard Champagne palates queueing up to switch allegiance? No. What has happened, though, is that that original handful of wines has has turned into modest bucketload; enough to create some real momentum.
Pressure In The PipelineStephen Skelton is quite literally the man who wrote the book on English Wine. With typical level-headedness, he raised some eyebrows by pointing out that a startling 55% of all plantings of the Champagne grapes in England and Wales had not yet produced wine that had found its way onto the shelves. Leaving aside exports, he maintained that we would have to double our consumption of quality sparkling wine in the UK in order to mop it all up.
The larger producers are fully aware of this and trying their hardest to increase exports, but there is still a looming question mark over what the market is going to look like in 5-7 years. I watch prices quite carefully, and I think there is (generally) a bit more caution at the moment. The lower end of the market is a battleground that it is very difficult for producers to compete in unless yields can reach 2018 levels more regularly. Nevertheless, some will be deciding that they may have to address it in order protect the flagship wines. I can't remember who said it in relation to English Wine, but the words "being the best is not a business plan" come to mind.
|Stephen Skelton MW addresses the calm and studious room|
I've been meaning to try the wines from Henry Laithwaite's Marlow vineyard Harrow & Hope for a good while now; I can safely say that the two on show here, the Harrow & Hope Rosé NV and the Harrow & Hope Blanc De Noirs 2013 were as strong a pair of wines as anything in the room. The Rosé especially impressed me, so generous in flavour with sweet, fine redcurrant on shortcrust pastry. Real presence and completeness on the palate here; a quality also found in the Blanc De Noirs' baker's kitchen full of buttered roasted apples, apricots and almonds. You can really taste quality, ripe fruit in English Sparkling Wine, and these wines have it.
It is testimony to the speed with which the English Wine industry moves that I don't consider Squerryes a 'new name', despite the fact that the 2013 Squerryes Brut is only their third vintage. The older 2010 was certainly impressive, but I loved the sleek and textural quince and orchard fruit of this wine, vivid and balanced with 11 g/l dosage. You could drink this now or keep it very happily for a few years.
The wines in the room were organised alphabetically, so I had to return to Ashling Park Cuvée 2013 just to check that my initial enthusiasm for it couldn't be partly attributed to a long, diverted Tube trip. It wasn't; lovely ripe pears, red fruits, almond and a little anise, with just enough biscuity richness. Great freshness and airiness on the palate. This is ready to drink and would be a perfect aperitif wine.
As a contrast, a real jack-in-the-box; Fox & Fox Essence Pure Chardonnay Brut 2014. Sometimes the bigger, toastier wines shout the loudest in these tastings, but this is a lesson in steely-nerved purity. I scrawled 'zzzzing!' across my tasting notes, after thinking how good the tight, ripe citrus and green apple fruit was. Fruit-led, this is a recent disgorgement (June 2018) and has the feel of a wine that will open up into something delicious. Give it some time.
The Big Players
|Undeniable quality from Wiston in 2010|
Nyetimber Blanc De Blancs 2010 leapt out of the lineup here like a true thoroughbred. With 60 months on lees and, crucially, 26 months on cork, it was one of only a few wines in the room that went beyond the world of fruit/bakery/floral flavours to something a little more elusive, with a delicious, creamy salinity sitting in perfect equilibrium with the primary aromas. This was the best tasting I've had of this wine; there's more to come from it. The Champagne comparisons are inevitable, I'm afraid.
Wiston Estate sent four wines, all of serious quality. The 2010 Blanc De Blancs is a classic - outgoing without being too open, it had a moreish, mealy richness which sat alongside the classy, complex lemon and apple fruit and floral freshness of its recent disgorgement (May 2018). This wine has been disgorged over a considerable stretch of time, so there will probably be quite a difference between this and the earlier batches. The Blanc De Noirs was just so vibrant and fresh for the style, with delicious dried apple, apricot and gingerbread flavours. I'd drink it before the Blanc De Blancs. The Estate Cuvée Brut 2013 is a real NV Champagne-beater, and perversely a bit more immediate than the superb, monumental Estate Cuvée 2009. This brilliant wine is a meeting-place of flavours and textures - gentle buttery pastry, cream, savour - all tightly-bound up with a delicious, persistent finish. It has the concentration and quality to age for many years in bottle.
Also from Dermot Sugrue was the Sugrue 'The Trouble With Dreams' 2011. Amazingly, this was the only 2011 vintage wine on show. Three years post-disgorgement had really allowed this complex, heady wine to open up with ripe roasted pears, creamy toasted almonds and touches of spice. It's drinking beautifully, treading the line between openness and structure that all of Sugrue's wines seem to find.
Chapel Down Kit's Coty Coeur de Cuvée 2013 was a step up from the standard bottling, with a lovely transparency from a slightly lower dosage allowing the pure, creamy candied lemon, ripe pear and green apple fruit to emerge. There's a lurking frangipane sweetness coming here - so elegant, as you would expect for £100 a bottle.
The quality of Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2013 is immediate from the first swirl of the glass- this is consistently one of my favourite Chardonnay wines. There's just an intensity and confidence to the fruit and a togetherness on the palate which is deeply impressive. It's developing a little pear tart and macaroon alongside the clean, burnished apple fruit now.
Alongside the Harrow and Hope, Hattingley Valley Rosé 2014 stole the show when it came to Rosé. Such delicacy of cherry and strawberry fruit, lovely floral touches and a great, perfumed length. It's a really beautiful, subtle assemblage.
Finally, a eureka moment for me. You may laugh...but I finally 'got' Camel Valley Pinot Noir 2015. This is really quite a distinctive wine - it's so brightly-fruited, with sunny mandarin, fresh raspberry, redcurrant and quince. Pristine and balanced with a gently pithy finish and a friendly dosage, it was an absolute charmer. This seemed so much more expressive than the bottle I tasted 6 months ago (a long time in the life of a young wine!).
Breaky Bottom 2010 Cuvée Koizumi Yakumo is a 100% Seyval Blanc of pure class. Peter Hall manages to craft something of such restraint and subtlety from this unloved grape, just allowing it a little herbal flourish on the finish to keep us honest. Lovely lees characters here alongside the purity of the lemony fruit - another example of the a wine with over 2 years post-disgorgement age showing really well.
No less than four other Rosés really impressed - the Langham Rosé 2014 and Hambledon Classic Cuvée Rosé NV both hit the fresh end of the spectrum, with the Langham a bit more friendly and biscuity and the Hambledon restrained, dry and elegant. The Plumpton Estate Brut Rosé NV showed lovely autumnal fruit, as did the Greyfriars Sparkling Rosé Reserve 2014 alongside its quite distinctive savoury biscuit, spice and pink grapefruit flavours. Oxney Classic 2015 was a lovely, bright and breezy style -very well-made with its fresh apples and herbs, and Ridgeview Blanc De Noir 2013 showed real lightness of touch, with the freshness of the fruit coming to the fore over lees characters.
SelectionsFour Wines To Drink Now at £30 or Under
- Ashling Park Cuvée Brut 2013
- Harrow & Hope Rosé NV
- Plumpton Estate Rosé NV
- Camel Valley Pinot Noir Rosé 2015
Four Laser Beams of Englishness
- Fox&Fox 'Essence' 2014
- Breaky Bottom 2010 Cuvée Koizumi Yakumo
- Hambledon Classic Cuvée Rosé NV
- Wiston Estate 2010 Blanc De Blancs
Four Wines To Convert An English Sparkling Wine Sceptic
- Harrow & Hope Blanc De Noirs 2013
- Wiston Estate Blanc De Noirs 2013
- Sugrue 'The Trouble With Dreams' 2011
- Langham Rosé 2014
Four Flag Bearers for Quality
- Gusbourne Blanc De Blancs 2013
- Wiston Estate Cuvée 2009 (Exceptional Value)
- Nyetimber Blanc De Blancs 2010
- Hattingley Valley Rosé 2014