The Sparkling Wines That Will Get Me Through COVID-19
English fizz is poised for its star turn around the world, and these bottles deserve a place in your wine rotation.
Eating habits have changed for all of us over the course of the past month. With daily trips to the market no longer possible, and selections being picked-over half the time anyway, it’s become the new norm to whip up meals using ingredients and combinations that may not have been on regular rotation before.
Combine that with limited hours at wine shops around the country, and you have the perfect storm of wine-pairing agita: How do you know what to stock up on if you can’t be sure what dinner will be three nights from now?
Which is why I’ve become the sparkling-wine equivalent of a doomsday prepper. Few other styles are as versatile with a wide range of foods as bubbly, and every month, it seems, the fizzy stuff takes up more and more of my precious wine-rack space.
After spending the past few weeks digging into what is affectionately referred to as “English fizz,” I have a sneaking suspicion that sparklers from England will become a fixture here as well, alongside my bottles of Champagne, Prosecco, Cava, Franciacorta, Lambrusco, Cremant, MCC, and the rest.
Southern England is becoming a center of seriously exciting sparkling-wine production. It may seem counterintuitive for such a northern country to be producing excellent sparkling wine, but dig a little deeper and it makes perfect sense.
The chalky, limestone-rich soils of southern England mirror the famously chalky, limestone-rich terroirs of Champagne. Champagne itself is a cool-climate wine region, and Sussex, for example, which is home to some phenomenal bubblies, is only around 250 miles from Reims, France. And since both regions have a climatic tendency toward the chillier end of the spectrum, their grapes possess the necessary acidity for the production of world-class sparklers. (This is an over-simplification, of course—great wine is the product of a million different things, from wind patterns to winemaking philosophy and beyond, but the similarities are telling, nonetheless.)
No discussion of English fizz is complete without addressing climate change. As warming temperatures have benefitted Champagne producers, and allowed them to achieve consistent levels of ripeness far more readily than in generations past, the same climate phenomena have impacted the producers of Southern England in much the same way.
The result is a sparkling-wine culture as vibrant and exciting as any in the world right now. The best of the county’s wines are alive with acidity, anchored by generous and zippy fruit notes but still mouthwatering. Over the course of my tasting for this piece, I’ve paired white and rosé English fizz with everything from fried chicken and waffles to eggplant parmesan to smoked pork shoulder.
One particular dinner, however, brought together the real alchemy of these wines, and highlighted how much an otherwise humble meal can be elevated by great bubbly like these. Canned anchovies melted in garlic-kicked olive oil and tossed with some boxed pasta was an umami-drenched feast when enjoyed alongside a bottle of Hattingley Valley Brut Blanc de Blancs 2011. Any one of the eight bottles below, listed alphabetically, would have had the same impact, and they all deserve a place in your wine rotation—during these strange times and certainly afterward, too.
The Bolney Estate “Bolney Bubbly” Classic Cuvee Brut NV West Sussex ($40)
Gentle aromas of walnuts, pistachios, hard pears, and lemon flesh and oils, all anchored by delicious notes of fresh-baked brioche. These transition to a palate marked by sweet spice, lemon gel candies, sweet-tart apples, lemon clotted cream, key-lime pie, and a beautiful saline minerality on the mouthwatering finish.
Digby Fine English 2010 Reserve Brut ($67)
Nutty and yeasty, with savory, acid-zipped flavors of quince, seckel pear, and a hint of fresh-dug cremini mushrooms. I love the juxtaposition of weight and energy here. Amazingly fresh for a decade old. I also recommend their 2014 Vintage Brut Rosé ($67), with profuse flavors of spiced cherries and cranberries, wild mushrooms, apricots, yellow apples, Asian pears, and wild strawberries.
Gusbourne Brut Reserve Late Disgorged 2010 Ashford ($125)
Aromas of just-baked brioche and lemon clotted cream precede flavors of butterscotch, hard pear, and white tea, yet it’s the core of pound cake, pralines, and brioche that define this sparkler, all of it tugged along by gorgeous leesiness and perked up with mineral acidity in the lemon-lime vein.
Hattingley Valley Brut Blanc de Blancs 2011 Hampshire ($70)
Vivid, comforting aromas of coffee set the stage for flavors of pistachios, lemon pastry creme, melba toast, and Granny Smith apples. So energetic with chalky minerality on the finish.
Hush Heath Estate “Balfour” Brut Rose 2015 Kent ($58)
Very pale onion skin in color, this smells of marzipan, kumquats, and white peaches before turning to a palate of apricot pits, kumquats, wild strawberries, and lemon-lime, which really shines through on the mineral-tinged finish.
Nyetimber 1086 Rosé 2010 West Sussex ($275)
A beautiful, mature nose of strawberry pastry creme, fresh-picked cherries, warm challah, mineral, and a touch of sweet spice mark this as a rich, evolved bottle of wine. On the palate, this is dense yet with excellent underlying energy, and flavors of salted caramel, nectarines, wild strawberries, and cherries. The “1086” name, interestingly, comes from the date that the property was referenced in the Doomsday book; the history of this estate is as fascinating as the wine.
Ridgeview Single Vineyard Blanc de Blancs 2014 Sussex ($115)
Aromas of pure pistachio and d’Anjou pears are sweetly spiced and anchored by fresh-baked croissants, and precede a palate of sweetness and perfectly calibrated acidity that enlivens the candied lemon and saline minerality. Gobs of lemon-lime and a bit of yellow peach emerge in the glass, and are joined by the suggestion of honey-roasted peanuts. This is long and linear yet with plenty of breadth as well.