English wine is changing at a bewildering pace. Spurred on by the sparkling wine successes of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the fields of Southern England have seen plantings on an unprecedented scale over the last decade; there are ambitious new producers of Traditional Method Sparkling Wine, boutique operations, negociants, and even still wine specialists, all vying for a piece of the positivity surrounding the industry. As vintage 2021 faces challenges not only from the sort of weather found at the extremities of the world’s viticultural map, but also by the twin disruptions of Covid and Brexit, how are the newer names faring against those a generation (or more) ahead? Is the rapid growth being seen sustainable?
This Special Report is based on a blind tasting of over 250 English wines, still and sparkling, undertaken in August 2021. With 58 pages of tasting notes, scores, awards, background and analysis, it is the most comprehensive wine-by-wine report yet published.
This site has been a little neglected as most of my writing has been published elsewhere this year. This is of course a Good Thing, and comes with many thanks to a small cast of supporters. If you missed anything and would like a quick rundown of the last year’s more substantial pieces:
“There’s something magical about Champagne that I rarely feel in other wines. The bubbles just seem to appeal to something innate, something about being human…”
Peter Crawford, Sip Champagnes
Sip was founded in 2020 by Daniel Blatchford and Peter Crawford (a.k.a. the unmistakable à la volée). There are few people hard-wired into champagne quite like Peter, whose knowledge and relationship with lesser-known independent producers is the foundation of Sip’s portfolio. The selection of ‘grower’ champagnes available in the UK is fairly wide, with Vine Trail and Tim Hall’s Scala leading the way with their established wholesale-driven lists. Nevertheless there was room for more, and Sip opened for business in September 2020 with a Direct-to-Consumer model based around subscriptions, exclusive cuvées and a smart, contemporary online presence.
I spoke to Peter about setting up a new, specialist importer against the headwinds of Brexit and Covid:
Sip was born through Covid. We never planned to do anything other than direct-to-consumer, but these wines deserve to be on the tables of the finest bars and restaurants so we have just registered as a wholesaler. With Brexit we have managed to fend off a lot of the faff, but it has been a challenging journey – every week there seems to be a physical or philosophical roadblock! If we put an order in on the first of the month, we’re unlikely to see the wines in our warehouse for 8-10 weeks. Managing that when the wines are often effectively sold out before they hit the shelves is very, very difficult.
Although Peter was keen to point out that they haven’t ‘cracked’ Brexit yet, the list is now running to over one hundred wines. The website, the tasting notes, the instagram feed, the newsletter – everything is carefully put together and eminently user-friendly. If you want to dive into a more granular Champagne experience than you are going to get from the Grandes Marques there can be few better places to start.
I assembled my itinerant crew of bubbleheads to taste through six blanc de blancs, almost all of which are UK exclusives and totally new to us (although I have encountered other wines from Legras & Haas and Henriet-Bazin in the UK).
We tasted blind over two hours. In the end it was the last drops of the more classically-styled wines from Chouilly and the Northern Côte Des Blancs that provoked the fiercest negotiation. Most interesting of all was how the wines moved over the night, some growing in stature whilst others played their strongest hands first.
Six Blanc de Blancs from Sip
Legras & Haas Les Sillons 2013 17.5
Chouilly single vineyard. Vinification and élevage in foudres. Disgorged April 2019 with 4g/l
Tasted blind. Closed and slightly reductive upon opening, quite a lot of C02 at first. Some ‘cool’ profile here, pale yellow fruits and chalk, a slightly herbaceous lemon sherbet streak. The wine keeps growing, though, and after 45 minutes it is up and running with lightly roasted fruit, lime and demerara sugar, a marriage of refinement and slightly obstinate firmness on the palate (we picked it as the 2013 based on that). A chameleon – top quality but give it some more time on cork if you can. It will certainly take five years, and probably longer. (Group position 1)
N.B. It was interesting that this was the only wine under DIAM cork
Pertois-Lebrun 2012 l’Egoïste 2012 17
Chouilly, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oiry. All stainless steel, disgorged October 2020 with 3 g/l dosage
Tasted blind. Beautifully assembled, the most ‘classical’ style of the night here. Must be one of the Northern Côte des Blancs wines. ‘Nose of the night’ is the general agreement! Fresh and fragrant yellow apples, ground almonds and zest. Beautiful tension and refinement, although I would leave it for another couple of years to see if the palate settles further. (Group position 2)
Henriet-Bazin Marie-Amélie 2012 17
Villers-Marmery. Enamel. Brut Nature
Tasted blind. Classic profile, clean, toasted/grilled lemon, some delicate stone fruit and florals. Quite muted on opening but it opens up beautifully. This is suave, powerful, tight, with real finesse to the mousse and incredible chalkiness and motion on the palate. Great energy, one of the central Côte des Blancs wines? (Group position 4)
Domaine Vincey La Première 2014 16
Oger. 50% stainless steel, 50% oak. MLF is “non-recherchée!” Disgorged July 20, 3g/l dosage. 1574 bottles.
Tasted blind. Big nose, toasted pine nut and tropicals, butter and hazelnut praline. Rich and decadent with some oily nut and candied grapefruit. It feels young, slightly puppyish, but quite serious with some oxidative flourishes. Needs time for the palate to calm down. One of the Montgueux wines? (Group position 3)
Beaugrand Cuvée Gustave 16
Montgueux. Held in oak for 18 months before tirage. 4.5 g/l dosage.
Tasted blind. This is a firework! Explosive aromas on opening, yuzu and quince, green pears, a lift of white pepper spice and almond. Incredible acidity here – maybe this is the Oger wine? With time a more oxidative aldehydic (sherry) profile becomes evident. At its peak upon opening – not necessarily a bad thing for champagne! This would be a great one to look into if you are a Selosse fan. Drink rather than keep. (Group position 5)
Jean Velut Lumière et Craie 15
Montgueux. No base year – all blended from reserves. Disgorged Jan 2021.
Tasted blind. This opens up rather reductively. Jackfruit, russet apple and green mandarin, really attractive underneath with some lovely silkiness to the texture. Just a little rubbery/sulphurous note showing at the moment which shades the profile. Give it a bit of time in the cellar to see if that equalises. Group position 6)
Peter Crawford mentioned a special bottling of this wine that Sip will be releasing with 4 years extra age.
I sat and tasted through three wines from top Tassie producer House of Arras with my good friend and fellow bubble-head Cat Barry at the weekend. Arras feature fairly regularly at Six Atmospheres – this is a producer with a real sense of style, turning out deeply flavourful wines that somehow always keep their feet moving lightly. Refreshment with complexity – that’s what great sparkling wine is about!
All three wines are Chardonnay-dominant, with fruit sourced from growers in pretty much every Tasmanian winegrowing region. Arras is all about immaculate blending seen through layers of complexity – barrels, malolactic fermentation and, crucially, time on lees. There are few better ranges to explore if you’re interested in the magic of autolysis (the breakdown of yeast in bottle after fermentation). The wines arrive fully-formed, journey completed, ready to be enjoyed.
We tasted two Grand Vintages, the 2007 and 2008, with 2007 showing a intense, richer profile and 2008 gliding along with more tension and restraint. The 2008 is a beautiful wine, perhaps even the equal of the 2004 Ed Carr Late Disgorged with its remarkable 13 years on lees.
An extra few years on cork has brought out the intensity of this wine, with some cooked lime and toffee apple showing over powerful candied grapefruit and dried peach. That lovely oyster/iodine sense of fresh air hangs around, tempering the richness here. A big character – the 08 steals the show, feeling tauter, shinier, and ultimately more engaging. Still this is a very fine sparkling wine.
Another data point for this wine, and it is showing as brilliantly as ever. Such a good vintage! The balance point between fruit – candied citrus and dried apple, lemon posset, creamy strawberry – and the ‘Arras’ hallmarks of salt/iodine/toffee/florals is just right. Focused, intense but elegant and full of refreshment. It plays on and on.
13 years on lees. 69% Chardonnay, 31% Pinot Noir. DIsgorged mid 2020.
This is remarkable stuff. Previously I have sometimes found this a bit too intense with the leesy characters, but this is beautifully honed and harmonious today. I think it is a good idea to open it a bit early and let it settle.
The aura of ‘white’ flavours – sea salt/iodine/sourdough starter, salty white butter and truffle hangs over charred candied lemon and apricot/peach fruit. Beautiful citric freshness and just the right level of unctuosity on the palate. It doesn’t obscure the line, length or refreshment value. We’re not seeing the toffeed/caramelised notes of the Grand Vintages tasted alongside.
I would drink this within a couple of years of disgorgement.
So you’re in England, or Tasmania, or Trentino, or Patagonia. Your dream – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Traditional Method. “Ah!”, your friends say. “You’re going to make Champagne!”
No, you say. It will be different from Champagne. The vineyard site is different. The soil is different. Yes, the grape varieties and the method are the same, but the wine won’t be. You’ll see.
Eight years later you have the first bottle. You pour it for your friends. “I like this more than champagne!”, they say. You get a gold medal in a competition. A notable Grande Marque NV receives a Silver. Your marketing guys decide this is a worth hammering home – “Better than xyz Brut Réserve, say the judges!” appears on your social media, on a poster in your tasting room, in the local press. You are being compared to champagne all the time. You find this annoying. Why do people do this?
There is something cringeworthy about watching a brand ambassador claim that their climate is actually superior to that of Champagne for sparkling wine (as I saw from a Northern Italian producer earlier this year), or that xyz estate has the edge over Champagne as they grow all their own grapes (a cynic might point out that they then have to use them). Then there’s the king of the cringey taste-offs – the English Sparkling Wine vs Champagne showdown! This kind of sales-orientated Champagne comparison is usually banal, over-generalised and gappier than an empty pupitre. There is no one Champagne, after all; it’s mind-bendingly varied, reaching at extremes of site and vintage towards both warmer- and cooler-climate wines.
The truth is that all Tradional Method wines come back to Champagne. It’s not worth pretending we can sever the link – we can’t. The more we assert our independence over our parents, the more we (begrudgingly) end up learning the same lessons. It’s no coincidence that English Sparkling Wine Producers, for example, often end up Champagne-ising when they want to push quality: wider grape sourcing, non-vintage production, reserve wine usage, specialised presses. Champagne represents culture, craft, tried-and-tested methodology; you can try and solve the puzzles yourself, but you’ll probably come up with similar answers.
These answers point to us keeping open boundaries in the way we taste. Knowledge reflects both ways, and we can learn a great deal about Champagne by getting to know the relatives. Putting these next to classic wines, shaped by hundreds of slowly-improving iterations, proves fascinating not for the purposes of finding champagne-beaters, but for hunting down what is (and what isn’t) unique about both. Getting to the heart of any wine means trying to understand elements of style that can transcend regionality, and fundaments that can’t.
Next year, your friend returns from France, holding a bottle. “I’ve found a champagne I really love!”, they say. The blend is the same as yours. The oak regime is almost identical, as is the time on lees, the texture. The shape is different, the acidity a bit finer, the fruit a shade paler. The two are hardly worlds apart, though. You should be disappointed – you thought your wine wasn’t like champagne at all.
Deep down, though, you feel the warm glow of satisfaction.