Why England’s Sparkling Wines Can Now Rival Champagne
South of London, cutting-edge vintners are making sparkling wine that rivals those from the great houses of France. Follow Ray Isle on a quest through England's new wine country.
How often does the world give birth to a brand-new wine region? Every 50 years? Every 100? And yet southern England, of all places, has just arrived as one. New, exciting, unprecedented—the best sparkling wines being made here, less than 75 miles from London, hold their own alongside those of Champagne, and 30 years ago they didn’t even exist.
On the other hand, it occurred to me as I tried to grind my rental car up out of a muddy field in Hampshire that it was possible they did exist—just that no one could find them. Lost once again, I’d mistaken the field for a good place to turn around. One last lurch finally freed me from the mud, after which, under the gaze of some wary sheep and wreathed by the smell of burned clutch, I was on my way again. My goal was Hattingley Valley winery in Lower Wield, a thriving if elusive little village. Lower Wield is actually too small to have a stated population, but if you toss it together with the megalopolis known as Upper Wield, the total is about 254.
When I finally reached Hattingley, I sat down to taste through a series of bottles with winemaker Jacob Leadley. A clean-cut young guy who’d ditched a career in finance for a life amid grapes and barrels, Leadley was justifiably proud of the Hattingley wines. Uniformly, the fine, thrilling acidity that seems to be a hallmark of English fizz lifted their flavors, giving them vivid freshness that’s hard to resist. “It’s wet here, and mild, and we get a lot of wind off the North Atlantic,” Leadley told me. “Not too dissimilar from Champagne, though we tend to start harvesting about two weeks after they finish.”
Champagne is the undisputed king when it comes to wine with bubbles, and all else is compared to it. But I’d set out on this trip because, of all the rivals seeking Champagne’s crown, I’ve begun to think that England comes closest stylistically, and in terms of quality, too. In London a few years back, I met up with a friend who’d left a job with Charles Heidsieck, the Champagne house, for one at Nyetimber in West Sussex; when I raised an eyebrow at this move, he suggested I ought to try the wines before jumping to conclusions. Point made. I did. They were very impressive. Unfortunately, they weren’t available in the US, nor were any of the other top English producers. That suddenly changed last year, when a decision was apparently made that America must be conquered. Now it’s the British Invasion all over again, with bubbles instead of Beatles wigs.
I stopped that night at The Pig Brockenhurst, a 400-year-old country house turned food-centric hotel that manages to be incredibly charming without ever falling off the cliff into twee—no mean feat. At dinner at the hotel’s restaurant—spring lamb on a bed of crushed favas and peas—a glass of the nearby Hambledon Vineyard’s ultraprecise Classic Cuvée affirmed my pro-English feelings. And the next day, driving across the rolling South Downs toward Sussex, in the moments when I didn’t find myself drifting into what seemed an endless stream of oncoming vans, I had time to ask myself why.
That is, why is English sparkling wine so good, and why only recently? There are several reasons. First, while wine has been made off and on in England for centuries, it is only in the past decade that the level of winemaking overall shifted from what one winery director I spoke to referred to as “cult hobbyist stuff” to a far more professional level. Second, it wasn’t until the late ’80s and early ’90s that vineyard managers started planting Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the classic grapes of Champagne. Before that, no one believed they would ripen. (What they did plant early on were German grapes, acres and acres of oddball Teutonic varieties like Bacchus and Rondo that I might file under “How not to establish a wine region.”) That brought me, as I pulled into the gravel parking lot at Bolney Wine Estate, to reason three, which is global warming.
A cloud physicist friend of mine likes to say, “Climate is not weather.” By that he means that climate is global and long-term; weather is local and immediate. The first influences the second, in extraordinarily complex ways. But with wine, regardless of causality, one thing is absolutely true: A mere degree or two of average temperature change during the growing season can make an enormous difference.
At Bolney, winemaker and estate director Sam Linter observed that she’s seen a steady improvement in September weather in England over the past couple of decades (her family owns the winery, which was founded in 1972, though they didn’t start making sparkling wine until the early 1990s).“And September is the key ripeness month,” she said. “It could be global warming or it could be part of some centuries-long cycle, but, regardless, we’re quite happy about it—warmer Septembers are what make viticulture in England work.” The same might be said for Champagne. The marginality of both regions’ climates, in fact, plays into why they are suited to making sparkling wine—the cold-climate acidity that drives great sparkling wines tends, in still wines, to feel as if it’s going to rip the enamel off your teeth. Not all that fun to drink.
But even with a slight lift in temperature, growing grapes in England is still not a sport for the faint of heart. “We’ve definitely been a beneficiary of global warming,” I was told the next day by Richard Balfour-Lynn, the owner of Hush Heath Estate. “That doesn’t make me very popular with my children when I say it, but there you have it. Yet even with that, England is, literally, the most marginal climate for growing grapes you can have.”
Hush Heath is lovely, a serene bowl of vineyards surrounded by one of the last old-growth oak forests left in Kent. After I left the winery, I headed to the tiny hamlet of Sissinghurst—population: 1,025—and checked into The Milk House, an exemplar of the gastropub-with-rooms trend that’s flourishing across England these days. An excellent martini followed by a buttery onion tart, crisp asparagus salad and a glass of Hush Heath’s Balfour Brut Rosé; then a vast comfy bed and zero complaints on my part.
That’s the thing I discovered about visiting wineries here. Generally, when you visit a “brand-new” wine region, you’re headed somewhere like the southern wilds of Chile, or a former Soviet bloc country that’s still trying to figure out what a tourist infrastructure is. Not so in southeastern England: The rolling hills are packed with country inns, charming gastropubs, stately homes, random castles, ambitious restaurants, artisanal butchers and cheesemakers (a lot of those, actually)—you name it. Around one bend in the road you get Hever Castle, home to Anne Boleyn, at least until Henry VIII had a bad day and decided to remove her head; around another you’re driving past the Sussex Kebab House and Tony Gents Hairdressers. I stayed one night in Gravetye Manor, a gorgeously renovated 16th-century estate, and the next morning walked through its gardens to a pond populated by a single beautiful swan (which promptly hissed and started sailing toward me like some kind of evil barge). I passed through towns with names like Upper Dicker, Climping and Pett Bottom, which prove once and for all that there is, thankfully, something else in the world that’s as easily parodied as a wine description. Travel here is more than well established; it’s practically antediluvian: Consider the fact that the walking trail through South Downs National Park follows a path that’s been in use for almost 6,000 years.
But the wine part of all this is just being established, and thanks to that, it’s also refreshingly low-key. Wineries here largely haven’t embraced the “Come into our tasting room and we’ll sell you a bunch of random junk” ethos. You won’t find yourself struggling through busloads of bachelorettes to find a space at the tasting bar. And the food can be sublime. When I drove out to The Sportsman, a scraggly, whitewashed pub on the edge of the sea in Kent that chef Stephen Harris has transformed into a Michelin-starred destination—miraculously without losing an ounce of its character—I had one of the best meals I’ve had in years: poached Whitstable oysters in a beurre blanc topped with caviar; baked North Sea cod with a green olive tapenade and subtly spicy bouillabaisse sauce; and a warm bittersweet chocolate tart. With it I drank most of a bottle of Gusbourne Estate’s mineral-intense 2011 Blanc de Blancs, possibly my favorite of all the wines I’d had so far. Afterward, I walked out over the empty dunes to the waterside. In the stiff wind I felt like the last soul on earth. I would have raised a toast to the idea, but foolishly I hadn’t brought a glass of wine.
On some level, making wine in England is nuts. Producers here work on the knife-edge of suitable climate. For every 2011 (abundant crop, good ripening) there’s a 2012, with pouring rain from April to June. The total amount of sunlight for that whole period was 119 hours, less than an hour and a half per day: disaster for grapes, and not great for humans either. Springs are rife with unpredictable frosts; summers are damp and cold; and autumn might get your grapes to ripeness, finally, unless it dumps rain on them or they’re ravaged by mold. So why do it? Why even bother?
I asked Jacob Leadley at Hattingley Valley that question, and he shrugged. “Because we can make some fantastic wines,” he said. “We know it’s very, very difficult. But the thing is, all of us, we’re only just realizing what we can create here.”
Until last fall, the best English sparkling wines weren’t imported to the US. Now you can find these great bottles near you.
2013 Hattingley Valley Classic Reserve ($45)
Lemon-blossom notes and fine, zesty acidity drive this refined sparkler from one of Hampshire’s best producers—which also recently announced an English joint venture with the Champagne producer Pommery.
2013 Bolney Wine Estate Blanc de Blancs ($55)
Bolney started off as a still-wine producer in the 1970s, but recent years have seen the winery shift more and more to sparkling. Its focused Blanc de Blancs—made entirely from Chardonnay—is clean and crisp.
2013 Ridgeview Bloomsbury Brut ($55)
Mike Roberts, Ridgeview’s late founder, was a pioneer of English sparkling wine, planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in 1995. His flagship Bloomsbury cuvée, with its light honey note, is one of England’s defining wines.
2011 Gusbourne Brut Reserve ($60)
One of the most promising new English estates, located in Kent. Extended aging on lees (the spent yeasts from fermentation) gives this steely wine more complexity than most, with apple and toasted bread notes.
2013 Hush Heath Balfour Brut Rosé ($60)
Owner Richard Balfour-Lynn recalls telling a noted wine expert his plans to make a sparkling rosé on par with those of Champagne. “He thought I was bonkers—still does, I think.” But the wine suggests otherwise.