In the absence of any kind of organised, comparative tastings during Covid-19 lockdown, I thought it would be fun to put together a tasting of fifteen Traditional Method wines that come in around £20-25. It’s a bit of an in-between price point, below good champagne but above the basic party fizz/Prosecco market. There are some very, very good wines available.
I tasted the wines in three flights of five in the following order:
Cloudy Bay Pelorus NV, New Zealand
Torelló Special Edition 2014, Spain
Enrico Gatti Franciacorta Brut, Italy
Langlois-Chateau Crémant de Loire Brut NV, France
Tesco Finest English Sparkling Wine
Ferrari Maximum Blanc de Blancs, TrentoDOC, Italy
Griesel Riesling Brut 2015, Germany
Hunters MiruMiru Brut NV, Malborough, New Zealand
Raventós I Blanc, Blanc de Blanc 2017, Conca del Riu Anoia, Spain
The intensity of the gaze falling on English Sparkling Wine can sometimes lead to a little warping of perspective. Words on the subject – including my own, I’ll concede – appear with enough regularity that the temptation is always to build microscopic narratives, find nano-patterns and talk about ‘trends’ whose appearance might rest on nothing more than a few thousand bottles. The more is said, the faster time seems to pass.
The fourth edition of this impeccable resource sees Essi Avellan MW take over the reins for the producer profiles and tasting notes whilst Tom Stevenson contributes the considerable supporting material.
A Point of Balance Avellan and Stevenson present a unified front, completely contemporary yet unmoved by trendiness or hype. Everything is measured against consistent standards. Freshness, longevity and elegance run through every page, scrutinising wines from even illustrious producers that perhaps flatter to deceive with oxidative or developed styles whilst rewarding wines that show precision and finesse. In this regard Christie’s stays true to its origins as a buyers guide; the wines that Avellan and Stevenson recommend are the ones you would trust in your cellar.
The Grower movement is the fuel behind recent substantial publications such as Peter Liem’s Champagne and Robert Walters’ Bursting Bubbles. There is sometimes a slightly begrudging attitude amongst prominent writers towards Grande Marque houses, but Christie’s is the perfect counterbalance to the trope of the revolutionary artisan. The truth than runs against the grain of still wine culture – that large houses with slick marketing operations and multi-million bottle outputs frequently manage to out-perform many smaller, more personable producers – is allowed to emerge unqualified here, both in the ratings given to producers and in the included summaries of results from Stevenson and Avellan’s Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships. Piper-Heidsieck Grand Vintage given the same rating as Egly-Ouriet V.P. or Ulysse Collin’s top wines? Not something you might see on instagram, perhaps, but reflective of a reality many would recognise.
A Subtlety Not To Miss It is worth noting with this guide that the numerical ratings given to producers are absolute, but the star ratings relate only to the wine’s peers from that region and style. There is a diplomatic sleight of hand here which allows wines from even minor regions to be recognised as ‘well above average quality’ (one star) without suffocating under Champagne comparisons.
Having said that, regions such as the Loire, Burgundy and Germany are not spared from generic criticism where the authors feel it is warranted. Readers are not left in much doubt as to the authorial view on, for instance, the suitability of Chenin Blanc and Riesling for traditional method sparkling wine, or the attitude of a region’s producers towards the category as a whole. Whether you agree or not, the clarity of the stance is useful. Consistency is the most valuable asset of a guide like this, and Christie’s is as consistent as it gets.
England Whilst the star ratings for individual wines are not universal, each producer (with enough track record) is given an overall rating out of 100. The view on English Sparkling Wine? Extremely even-handed, diplomatic and realistic. The only producer to get a rating of 90 or above is Nyetimber, whereas most of the other top producers are in the mid 80s. In other words a fair ‘school report’ for English fizz, and surely recognisable to anyone that drinks sparkling wine broadly and without prejudice (including someone that goes to the trouble of writing a sizeable English Sparkling Wine report!).
Resources like this are never meant to be guides to recent, individual vintages (although the most prestige cuvées do helpfully receive this treatment). This does pose a problem when it comes to reporting on a category that moves as quickly as English Sparkling Wine. I feel for a couple of producers who have made giant leaps in the last couple of vintages but – unavoidably – remain rated on more modest starts. There are also a few minor (or slightly off-beat) producers from more unusual parts of the UK whose spots will probably go to higher-quality entrants in the future.
It is good to see markers for the future featured in Louis Pommery England and Domaine Evremond, even before many (or any) wines have been released. The wines from Simpsons Estate and Rathfinny have not quite made the deadline. For now, the top wines from Nyetimber, Ridgeview, Squerries, Hattingley Valley, Gusbourne and Camel Valley show a common thread; not too oaky or developed, balanced acidities and clear, fresh English fruit. Fine wines, in other words, for readers all over the world to discover the potential of the English style.
The Micropedia The Encyclopedia ends with a unique resource. Tom Stevenson’s ‘Micropedia’ is an Aladdin’s Cave of technical information for any sparkling wine student, taking in modern production technologies, the science of wine flavour, closures and common tasting terminology. Issues such as SO2 and post-disgorgement oxidation loom large, as you would expect from the author. It is eminently readable and relatable in style though, each entry remaining grounded in real-life tasting experience. It is also quite funny in places:
When Print Works
Whilst the days of annual printed wine guides are probably numbered, this sort of resource is not really replicable in any other format. With the exception of regions such as England that are populated by very young, developing businesses, the slow pace of change in established regions and the long gestation periods in sparkling wine production mean that profiles and ratings will remain relevant for many years to come. Christie’s might cost as much as a bottle of Krug, but it is both good value at that and, in all likelihood, just as long-lived.
Tuesday saw the second instalment of The Vineyards of Hampshire’s trade tasting at 67 Pall Mall. Even though many of these wines were tasted fairly recently for English Sparkling Wine 2020, it was a good opportunity to add a few more data points and check out some new vintages.
Patterns Nosing around for emerging regional patterns in English Sparkling Wine is always intriguing. There are some that believe Hampshire to be about as far West as it is advisable to plant in the UK due to the influence of autumnal Atlantic weather patterns. There certainly is some evidence to suggest that ripening is sometimes slightly later here than in say Kent or Essex. None (or as close to none as I can tell) of the quality still wine emerging from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is from Hampshire, after all. This is sparkling-specialist county for now – and very good at it they are, too.
Hampshire does seem to excel in fragrant, delicate blends and rosés featuring Pinot Meunier. The superb Hattingley Valley acts as a mothership, with Raimes, The Grange and Cottonworth (for now) all going to Emma Rice to have their wines made. Rice and the Hattingley team seem to understand how to retain all the freshness and brightness of English fruit whilst avoiding austerity or harshness. Hambledon, Exton Park, Jenkyn Place and Black Chalk make up a dynamic, varied set of independent producers.
An Interesting Statistical Nugget: Varietal Breakdown. Chardonnay, the latest and hardest to ripen sparkling wine grape in England, is a team player in Hampshire to date, with Hattingley Valley the only producer in the room to have produced more than one vintage of Blanc de Blancs. This will of course change, but Blanc de Blancs is not a headline style here for now. As a small insight into this;
At the Vineyards of Hampshire tasting, Chardonnay averaged 38% of each wine across 23 wines from the classic grape varieties. From leading multi-regional producers Nyetimber, Chapel Down, Ridgeview, Hush Heath and Gusbourne Chardonnay averages 53% of each wine across all cuvées.
Pinot Meunier averaged 25% per wine at the Vineyards of Hampshire tasting. Amongst the leading multi-regional producers mentioned above it averages just 8% per wine.
When I visited Augusta Raimes back in November only the Classic Cuvée 2014 was on release. This has rounded out a touch more, with baked bread wafting over its russet and conference pear fruit, seasoned with a little herbal twist. It is a delicate wine for 2014 and, like all Rice’s wines, finds exactly the right dosage. The Blanc de Noirs 2016 is a new release, extremely youthful for now and wound tightly with slightly wilder apple and hedgerow fruit. Possibly some cool-fermented flavours bringing out the fruitiness here. Narrow for now, this will build really nicely.
The Rosé 2015 reaches new heights for this young producer. Kudos to everyone involved for giving it time when the temptation is always to release Rosé younger than other cuvées. There is just a touch more autolytic substance here behind the pretty summer pudding fruit, touched with gingerbread spice. Lovely clarity and texture.
Every time I taste these wines, made by Dermot Sugrue at Wiston Estate, they seem different! True Chameleons. The Classic Cuvée 2014 was in good shape, its creamy baked pears and lemon posset Chardonnay having relaxed a bit since last tasting. There’s an intriguing aniseed/fennel note there and a breezy, cool stroke of acidity that made me wonder if Sugrue had blocked some malolactic, as he often does. Almost glassy in texture. Nice grapefruit bitters on the finish.
The Blanc de Blancs 2015 was more outgoing than I remembered, wearing a touch of oak influence very dashingly. Lime tart with a dollop of crème frâiche! There are even some tropical nuances here, hinting at some really good flavour development for Chardonnay in this vintage. The focused, nervous palate is set off against some fresh-cream roundness. This will be really interesting in another year or so. The Rosé bottle I tasted was unfortunately not quite correct, but the Blanc de Noirs 2010 was by some distance the best bottle I have ever tried of this cuvée. Clear glass has been a problem here in the past, so here’s hoping the future is…dark!
As the ‘mothership’ in Hampshire, Hattingley set the pace with their own wines. The wines show a composed set of flavours that demonstrate the benefits of a wide variety of blending options. The Classic Reserve has a lovely sense of generosity to its baked lemon and red apple fruit, touched by a bit of sourdough toast. Really quite elegant in a direct kind of way. The Blanc de Blancs 2013 is quite an interesting wine now, with delicate white fruits – whitecurrants and a little white peach – playing off fresh lemon and herbs. There’s a kind of nougat/sourdough autolysis and a touch of butter, too, softening the edges of a powerful acid line. It’s stimulating stuff, playing patiently with quite a pointy kind of vintage.
The Rosé 2015 is offering so much refinement and charm in this new vintage. A classy assembly of fragrant strawberries and redcurrants where the palate just has an extra degree of silky finesse, it has the completeness of flavour to take a slightly higher dosage of 9 g/l effortlessly. Top drawer.
Ian Kellett’s Hambledon is carving out its own identity with Chardonnay-led wines of tension and purity. As I reported in English Sparkling Wine 2020, dosages are well on the way down here. This tasting saw the latest 2017-based Classic Cuvée down at 4.5 g/l, where a finely-sanded texture delivers clear and elegant citrus fruit. The style is frank, yes, but the freshness is appreciable next to the more developed Première Cuvée, which shows an appreciable depth of toasted bread surrounding the bristling, fresh-lemon Chardonnay. At just 2 g/l the powerful citrus core is almost rampant on the palate. Quite an exciting style, although once again I found myself charmed a little more by the freshness of the entry-level wine.
This was my second taste of wonderfully-bonkers Première Cuvée Rosé, a zero dosage wine from 100% Pinot Meunier in the 2015 vintage. Deep, dark and curious, this is developing post-disgorgement like a fairly openly-stanced light red with its dried leaves and plums. A proper conversation piece to drink sooner rather than later. The contrast with the LED-bright Classic Cuvée Rosé NV is quite something, its 90% Chardonnay motoring off with massive acidic brightness in a mineral, racy wine that is almost a polaroid negative of the other, Pinot-led Rosés in the room. A real pick-me-up.
These wines were perhaps the most openly-styled of the Hattingley-linked producers for now, with the Classic 2015 showing a very attractive white buttered sourdough toast over quite relaxed baked fruit and a friendly dosage. I like that they have really tried to avoid anything too tense or angular in this cuvée. The Pink 2015 has an extra layer of fragrance, though, with very attractive poached summer pudding fruit. I look forward to getting to know this producer better over the coming years and vintages.
Under winemaker Corinne Seely Exton Park have achieved a recognisable house style of airy brightness and purity without any harshness or over-dryness. The Blanc de Noirs NV seems to have become a welcome fixture in the portfolio. I think the base vintage must have moved on from the last time I tasted as its lovely pear and blossom fragrance was just a touch tangy and direct. With a few more months in bottle this will open up.
The Rosé NV was on majestic form. It has one of the most distinctive fragrances in English Sparkling Wine, with totally joyful raspberry fruit dusted with white pepper and delivered with beautiful clarity on the palate. This is available in Magnum £75, which has to be a seriously good buy. It is frustrating to see it in clear glass, though, so vulnerable to that wonderful fruit being spoilt by light damage.
The Brut Reserve NV is tight and linear with fresh apple and some more developed lemon flavours. Quite quiet for now with some delicate white fruits. Once again the balance and integrity is there for this to open up really well over the next year. Magnums at £65 look like very good value here.
The Liddells still have a few vintages of Hattingley-made Cottonworth before the Black Chalk era begins. The Classic Cuvée NV is a perennial favourite, displaying the quality of the vineyards here. It seems to achieve a fuller, more distinguished Chardonnay expression than many of its local peers, with freshness of truly ripe, rich lemon, sweet red apple and a lovely red fruit element sitting in front of baked pear, icing sugar and almond. A touch of chalky grip, too. There is a dimensionality of flavour here that sets it apart amongst the Classic Cuvées in the room.
The new Blanc de Blancs 2014 carries some elegance and ripeness too, with clear white fruits and juicy pear fruit. Just a squeeze of refreshing herb and white flowers. The dosage needs a little time to settle, so I would leave this at least six months. Whether it has the intensity or precision of the Classic Cuvée I’m not sure, although that relaxed mid-palate is quite common in 2014 wines. The Classic Rosé is on form right now, though, with delightful strawberry and red cherry yoghurt and some subtle spicing. A bright, charming style with some grip and pink grapefruit refreshment on the finish.
The spotlight is firmly on Jacob Leadley’s Black Chalk at the moment with its recently-announced move into Cottonworth’s premises (and vineyards). The next few vintages to be released have been made from purchased fruit, however, so we might expect some continuity for a few years before the changes to Cottonworth fruit emerge. The new Black Chalk Classic 2016 is the new release, taking a similar blend as the 2015 and putting it through a slightly cooler-tinted filter. For now the quite fun meaty/marmite notes that really warmed up the 2015 (including at this tasting 1 year ago) are not in attendance, so the 2016 promises a slightly more classically-styled profile. There’s a lovely integration of crisp apple and faintly limey citrus, rounded out with pretty strawberry and a touch of white stone fruit. The 2015 was a superb, immediate wine, but there is more finesse and togetherness on the palate here.
For current drinking the Wild Rose 2016 is in a stellar place, with super-refined lemon and raspberry fruit and posh strawberry macaroons dancing along a palate of microscopically-textured delicacy. It closes with a calm taper, the acidity never threatening to push too hard. The quintessential Hampshire Rosé!
I nipped into the Wine Australia tasting today to get a refresher on most of the small contingent of quality Australian traditional method sparkling wine being brought in to the UK.
Just the two Premium wines were on show here. No vintage. Grapes for these two wines are sourced widely in Tasmania, not only from Jansz’s home in the Pipers River region but also the Coal River Valley and elsewhere. The wines are normally a blend of five vintages, with a small percentage of oak fermentation and two years on lees. With RRPs of £20 these are highly recommendable wines, made in a crystal-clear, pristine and complete style. Yes, the dosage – around 10 g/l in both – means these are approachable, but they wear it tremendously elegantly. I would jump at them at that ‘in-between’ spot on restaurant sparkling wine lists.
The Premium Rosé is a charmer, with fragrant raspberry shortbread, pear and frangipane wrapped up in a sweet floral freshness. It closes in with lovely clarity and dryness. I was possibly even more impressed with the Premium Cuvée, all lemons, lime, peach and almond with some fresh bread richness and a real deftness on the palate. Delicate, but there’s a proper finish with some ripe, grippy citrus fruit.
Petaluma’s Brian Croser started making a series of sparkling wines in the Adelaide Hills during the 1980s. Currently part of Accolade Wines. The Croser NV is a sweet-natured, sunny Chardonnay-dominant fizz made in a very attractive ripe lemon, peach and butter style. Going a little tropical, perhaps, but not blowsy. Better is the Croser Rosé NV, showing a bit more definition with its very pretty raspberries and redcurrants. Some ground almond richness and peppery spice too. This is well worth a look at £19.99, although it is a bit short of Jansz’s refinement at the same price. The Croser Vintage 2013 was not quite up to the standard of the Rosé, with a slightly confected oak and blossom nose and looser palate of quince, honey and dairy tones. It would perhaps have been good to check another bottle.
House of Arras
Ed Carr’s Tasmanian icon consistently produces some of the most interesting and uniquely-styled sparkling wines outside of Champagne. The top of the portfolio is really quite bold, weaving together extroverted autolytic notes with ripe fruit profiles and confident oak influence. There is often an element of reductive complexity at play too, throwing up flinty, marine and smoky nuances that are noticeable even to a small degree in the excellent entry-level wines.
‘A’ By Arras is the freshest, most direct wine in the portfolio, showing off vivid lime and grapefruit fruit alongside gentle dairy notes. At RRP of £19.99 this is a slightly edgier style than the Jansz entry level, but equally convincing. Brut Elite 1501 is the current iteration of the mid-tier wine, and starts to show some real Arras character. Struck match and lime oil open up, whilst fenugreek spice and some nice wild buttery richness are thrown against a cleansing freshness on the palate. The marine, sea-spray sort of saltiness is here too. There is some real intensity of tropical fruit lurking, but this shows a quieter style than the vintage wine. Some may prefer it. RRP £29.99.
The Grand Vintage 2008 definitely ramps up the intensity, with dried citrus and citrus oil meeting sourdough starter, oyster and quite an exotic richness of yellow fruits. There is baklava and sea salt, and some reductive complexity that almost threatens to become vegetal. Broad, quite saturated and finishing with a flourish of toffee. It’s hard not to break into a smile at this wine! The sweet spot in the portfolio is somewhere between the Brut Elite and here. RRP £45.99
The Vintage Rosé 2007 is, as you would expect, a powerfully-styled interpretation with some meaty red fruits, salted butter and plenty of peppery spice. It feels a little angular compared to the other wines for now, with its grippy, linear palate and dryness. At £49.99 it is bang in the middle of fine Grande Marque Champagne territory.
Perhaps the most unusual wine is the E.J. Carr Late Disgorged 2004. This is the Grand Vintage, kept back for over 10 years on lees. In this case I didn’t find the lees-ageing tones to be much more intense than in the 2008 Grand Vintage. Nor was it massively funky (although my taste was towards the end of the bottle, and some of the more funky tones can disappear over a few hours). There’s an almost crème fraîche-like richness of texture, with sea shells and white butter on sourdough. The fruit is bold and exotic, with charred grapefruit and mango, lime zest and a vein of sweet salted toffee and pith running through the finish. Positively outlandish, but fascinating stuff. £99.99
N.B. One thing I would note about these wines is that they have jumped in price. I have some in my cellar that were purchased within the last 18 months for around 60% of these RRPs. The current RRPs represent solid value though, even if the wines aren’t the complete bargains they were.