Message in a bottle: The Rise & Rise of English Champagne

Why our top-grade fizz is throwing down the gauntlet to competitors across La Manche.

In the candy pink and white chandelier-adorned Music Room at The Ritz, Rathfinny Blanc De Noirs 2015 is being served, appropriately enough, under the gaze of Bacchus. The Greek god of wine, who looms down from an oil painting in the regal room, would no doubt be offering generous pours of this libation – for it is one of the showstopper offerings this summer in the English sparkling wine category.

A blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and bursting with white peach and almonds, it was the hotel’s house pour for the month of May. This is an unusual move in an establishment where Champagne is usually its hero product, but head of wine and beverage Giovanini Ferlito was wowed when he visited the Sussex winery two years ago. For him, English sparkling wine is in ascendance.

The Simpsons Wine Estate near Canterbury  Thomas Alexander

“When we started serving English wines in 2017,” he says, “I would present the Champagne trolley, and suggest English sparkling, but diners always wanted Champagne. The following year the difference was massive – I remember offering Nyetimber or Chapel Down and the uptake was remarkable.” Ferlito believes that the marketing investments and good summers, as well as the wish to patronise local products, are helping its status rise. The Rathfinny Blanc de Noirs 2015 is almost sold out at The Ritz (main picture), by the way, so if you want to try it out make a thirsty beeline to Lea & Sandeman, Selfridges or Harvey Nichols.

According to Wine and Spirit Trade Association data, sales of English and Welsh sparkling wine rose six per cent in 2018 to a record four million bottles, which is more than sparkling wines from Australia, the USA and Germany combined (although it still pales next to the 117 million bottles of Prosecco that the nation seems to love).  Accordingly, an increasing number of upmarket hotels and restaurants are creating exclusively English wine lists or making it their house pour.

The Coral Room in the Bloomsbury Hotel  Simon Brown

Take the Coral Room at the Doyle Collection’s Bloomsbury Hotel (above), which offers one of London’s most extensive English sparkling wine lists. “We noticed that the quality of English sparkling is very similar to that of the good Champagnes,” says general manager Giovanni Spezziga. “We also pride ourselves in supplying locally sourced wines with a menu split up by county. Guests often come in and ask for a wine from the county in the UK they grew up in. For me, Nyetimber and Ridgeview are both very exciting, as well as Exton Park – we helped them launch their new Blanc De Noirs last year.” The restaurant is now selling the world’s first super premium English sparkling wine – Nyetimber 1086 (£175.00 a bottle).

Simpson’s in The Strand restaurant also champions home-grown fizz: “There’s an obvious comparison to be drawn between English Sparkling and Champagne,” explains Ben Humberstone, head of wine. “The wines are arguably the closest stylistically you can find to Champagne outside of the region itself. With that in mind, any occasion where Champagne fits the bill, English Sparkling wine is becoming stiff competition. It has got to the stage where we outsell Champagne. We currently list 13 sparkling (alongside seven English still) wines, with our house pour being Ridgeview Cavendish from Sussex.’

Ridgeview Wine Estate launches its new label at The Savoy.  Julia Claxton

Humberstone suggests serving some of the more refined Blanc de Blancs examples, such as Gusbourne, Ridgeview and Hindleap with freshly dressed Dorset crab or Falmouth oysters, whilst bolder expressions of Blanc and Rose de Noirs – such as Furleigh Estate and Rathfinny – can stand up to more of a robust palate of light game or charcuterie dishes, and are also perfect with beef carpaccio or tartare.

Other winning drops to try this summer are Greyfriars Vineyard new Blanc de Noirs NV, a blend of 60 per cent Pinot Noir and 40 per cent Pinot Meurnier, rich with apricot and late orchard fruits, with a hint of candied peel.  Hattingley 2013 Blanc de Blancs, a tribute to what was a very good year for Chardonnay, bursts with nectarine and honey and is delicious alongside charcuterie.

Or try the Simpsons Wine Estate Chalklands classic cuvée 2016 (unrelated to the restaurant), which is bursting with caramelised pear and floral millefeuille – the very epitome of an English summer in a glass, and best enjoyed before a snooze in the long grass watching the cricket, under the shade of a weeping willow.

 

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