THE English wine industry is growing up fast. There has been a general move away from fruity, single varietal German crossings to blends with more complexity and ageing potential. And since 1983 the Carr Taylor Vineyard in Hastings has been blazing the trail for sparkling production.
There was no national strategy to make bubbly, rather a recognition of English wine's suitability, with its high acidity, as a base for sparkling wine.
The English weather is also a benefit:"We may not have the intensity of the Champagne climate, but our long, warm autumns do the trick and ripen the grapes sufficiently," says Alexander Carr Taylor, down on the South Coast.
Our cool climate is suitable for sparkling wine production, but it holds risks. Although there is usually sufficient sun to ripen the fruit, a sudden frost, as in 1997, can spell disaster.
English wine is about making the best use of our conditions while recognising our limitations. A slight warming of the climate over the 1990s may have brought the harvest forward, but making red wine, for instance, is still folly.
angular fruit character
Most producers maximize the conditions by planting on south-facing slopes, as at Three Choirs vineyards in the Vale of Evesham. But whether it's windbreaks or trellising, whatever the techniques used the fruit will be only just ripe, giving the bubbly an angular fruit character. The style is less New-World gregarious, more English reserve - drinkers new to our bubbly should be prepared.
English producers use the traditional method, carrying out the second, fizz-inducing fermentation in the bottle. Much of the typical toasty character of traditional-method sparkling wine is derived from this, as well as from the length of time spent maturing on the lees (the dead yeast cells). At Barkham Manor in Sussex, for example, producers are looking for a mellow, biscuit character. The 1990 Barkham Bubbly was six years on the lees.
Although lees ageing diminishes varietal character, the grape variety remains a significant influence on the aroma, flavour and structure. Currently, the varietal state of play is traditional Champenois grapes versus German crossings.
The pragmatic Karl Koenen at Chapel Down vineyard has plumped for German crossings. Mller Thurgau and Reichensteiner combine in a joint effort toproduce fruit and fresh acidity at a competitive price. The Chapel Down Brut NV is a quintessentially English style, fragrant without being too floral, with a blossom-like aroma and green, appley fruit. Three Choirs NV has also followed this route with its Seyval Blanc, which has a fresh, grapefruit character. Both wines make a good aperitif, and can be glugged quite happily throughout the summer months.
Many producers are hedging their bets by growing the more cool climate-tolerant and generous-yielding German crossings while experimenting with the infinitely superior varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Throughout the world, Pinot Noir is the ultimate goal for a serious winemaker. As a blend in sparkling wine it could also have a serious role over here. Three Choirs blends it with Seyval Blanc to a slightly rounder-bodied and creamier effect in their Vintage Reserve Brut. Barkham Manor uses Pinot Noir according to the year - 1997, for example, was a very ripe vintage and may result in a 100% Pinot Noir sparkling wine.
The strong Pinot backbone enables these wines to be paired quite happily with mild cheeses, fish and light poultry dishes. Ripe, Pinot-based sparkling rosés, such as the one produced by Denbies, could even be suggested as an accompaniment to the more mild-flavoured of our game birds, such as pheasant, with its dollop of sweetness on the finish.
Carr Taylor sparkling is a good illustration of the English "tightrope" approach. The vineyard's Bacchus wine is bursting with ripe fruit. Quick-ripening Reichensteiner fills out the palate with moderate alcohol, leaving the low-yielding Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to contribute fruit, weight and grip to the palate. The advantage of this hard-won balance is broad appeal. The lack of austerity makes such styles excellent for catering for larger numbers and a wide range of tastes.
Making an impact abroad
Carr Taylor and Three Choirs are making significant inroads on the European markets - in The Netherlands and Sweden particularly. Designer Vivienne Westwood used English sparkling wine for her fashion show recently, reflecting a sense of growing national pride in what surely must become our flagship style.
Although farm gate sales remain significant, there is a trend towards increased production and sales to the on trade. Denbies sells to a network of local restaurants. Others, such as Chapel Down, are now represented on such fashionable lists as Conran's restaurants in London and the new Hotel du Vin in Tunbridge Wells.
The problem of chronic under-funding in our wine industry is decreasing as consumer confidence grows, encouraging more investment - such as the £80,000 Three Choirs has just spent on riddling and disgorging equipment.
For the majority, the future lies in continual experimentation, the target being quality and consistency. At this stage, with limited reserve stock, it is difficult to make NV as a consistent brand, but wineries are slowly building up their reserves. Not only are winemakers experimenting with different varieties, but with fermenting in oak and suppressing the malolactic.
identity of its own
Although the wines are competitively priced with sparkling wines from around the world, stylistic comparisons are pretty immaterial. As with other newcomers to this field, such as New Zealand, English bubbly is evolving an identity of its own.
But there is an exception to this. At Nyetimber, in the depths of Sussex, husband-and-wife team Stuart and Sandra Moss are producing a fizz in the Champagne mould. Seemingly linked by an umbilical cord to the Champagne region's controlling body, the CIVC, Nyetimber has been nurtured through the whole sparkling wine process.
The couple carted the whole Champagne-making paraphernalia from Epernay to Sussex - everything from the CIVC-approved yeast to the cardboard boxes in which the product is packed. That said, the site is probably the root of their success, confirming the growing international importance for site selection. Just down the road from Nyetimber a meteorological office reveals a rainshadow over the area plus some of the highest sunlight hours in the south - ideal grape-growing conditions for sparkling wine.
The resulting Blanc de Blanc 1992 (Chardonnay) is a wine of marvellous complexity, where biscuity aromas and flavours combine an intensity on the palate with delicate, crystallised citrus-fruit characters. The palate is creamy from four years spent on the lees. It may cost more, but we have yet to see what future years will bring - watch this space.
English sparkling wine will certainly bring novelty to a restaurant wine list. But the relatively small production lends also a sense of exclusivity, and for restaurants local to a vineyard, regionality is the strong selling factor. They are well worth a trial, maybe first by the glass. Freedom from appellation restrictions and tradition means there's a style to suit every palate and every occasion. n