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English sparkling wine masterclass: session summary and tasting notes

English sparkling wine masterclass: session summary and tasting notes

There have been so many inflection points English sparking wine in its relatively short commercial history. Estates that were brave upstarts just a couple decades ago are now industry establishments, usually a multi-generational process. Although it has firmly staked its reputation for premium sparkling wine in the image of Champagne, there nevertheless is still a streak of experimentation and discovery, and a sort of renegade spirit. There was a general consensus that English sparkling wine should be an internationally lauded category, but not an agreement of what to call it.

I’ve been in the UK wine industry for 14 years. The difference in quality and variety of great English sparkling wine between now and then is remarkable. There’s been a Moore’s law effect that talent begets more talent exponentially. The notes below will attest to that!

Each speaker chose a flight of four wines based on a theme.

Dermot Sugrue’s flight:  Classic Cuvees that are Chardonnay dominant. Most of them are 4-6 years on lees, except for the Langham NV.

Sugrue South Downs, East Sussex, Brendan O’ Regan 2016

Dermot Sugrue’s prestige cuvée, named after his accomplished great uncle.

The golden hued wine has aromas of freshly baked croissant, savoury biscuit and lemon pudding on the nose. It has concentrated, broad mouthfeel but with a sharply linear and nervy acidity driving through to the finish, the house style. It has an herbal note, and an intensity of flavour on the finish. A serious, hefty, and age-worthy wine that dances lightly on its feet.

This is a special single vintage bottling, as currently the Brendan O’Regan is made in a MV style. This is made from solely Jenkyn Place fruit, a vineyard based in Hampshire on greensand soil which gives the wine a bit more broadness compared to Chardonnay grown on chalk.

Langham Wine Estate, Hampshire, Langham Corallian NV

You would call Langham’s winemaker Tommy Grimshaw a young rising star, but his star is most definitely already risen. In 2022, I was a judge for the Harpers 30 Under 30 award, and Tommy was the one of the most impressive recipients of that year, having shown immense dedication to furthering English sparkling wine not only in his day job, but also his start up business Emerging Vines which is dedicated to democratising wine.

Notably, at £31.95 RRP this wine offers great value and is revelatory starter wine for those trying English sparkling wine for the first time. Tommy’s aim is a longer elevage with shorter time on the lees (an inverse to the other traditional method wines on show). The result is a more immediately forward wine with intensely bright Meyer lemon aromas overlayed with chamomile and gentle sweet butter notes. Of course, it’s not as overtly autolytic as the other wines, but has an appealing crisp lively texture and freshness, especially due to the low dosage. Made of 2020 base wine.

Breaky Bottom Vineyard, East Sussex, Cuvée David Pearson 2015

Having had foresight in the 1970s to plant a vineyard and see the potential of English wine, Peter Hall is a founding pillar of the English wine industry and yet he continues to be a maverick forging his own path.

Dedicated to a long-serving colleague, this is a wine with an earthy, savoury character with an almost brie-like initial aromatic sitting atop pithy grapefruit notes. It has a sharp acidity, like biting into a gooseberry. However, the dosage moderates this on the finish, as the wine ends on a rounded, smooth note.

Hattingley Valley Wines, Hampshire, Kings Cuvée 2015

Hattingley Valley is an example of how well-funded English estates specifically focussed on a quality ethos. Emma Rice, who was winemaker at the time this was made, led the young team with precision and focus.

The estate’s top wine, given a king’s treatment. This is a microvinification of a 100% oaked blend taken from the best parcels fermented in the best barrels. As such, there’s notable grilled brioche and vanilla bean aromas with rich lemon curd flavours on the palate. A hefty wine with glossy, stylish oak requires a crisp, searing acidity to balance it, which this has in spades. Potentially divisive given the forwardness of the oak, but undisputedly a classy wine.

Josh Donaghy-Spire, Chapel Down’s Rose Flight: to show a diversity of sparkling rosé winemaking (assemblage vs saignée), grape varieties, vintages and philosophies.

Flint Wines Charmat Rose 2020

A wine to dispel the connotations that English wine must always be serious, this is a subversive Charmat method wine made from PiWi and hybrid varieties. Bright neon pink with a candied strawberry and sour cherry gummy nose, it is frothy and friendly. It’s also unapologetically estery with the 8.7 g/l RS sitting sweetly on the palate. The guy sitting behind me commented to himself, “You could drink this quite happily at Wimbledon”, which sums it up nicely.  Saignée.

Camel Valley, Cornwall, Pinot Noir Rosé Brut 2020

Camel Valley is another industry stalwart, seeing potential in the Cornish terroir in 1989 and producing quality wines since the start, whose reputation belies its small scale. The family business is now run by Sam Lindo, the son of the founders.

Salmon pink with a very lactic, strawberry yoghurt aroma derived from the lees. The palate follows with a similarly creamy, marzipan flavour. It ends on a sweetish, pure note that ever so slightly outpunches the acidity on the balance (12 g/r RS; 9.9 g/l TA). This was destemmed and crushed on receipt of the grapes (saignée), no MLF.

Chapel Down. Kent, Rosé Reserve, 2020

Chapel Down is one of the largest, and arguably the most commercially-minded, wineries in England. That’s not a bad thing. It is one of the wineries leading the charge in cellar-door visitor experience, and in releasing brand-led still and sparkling wines that appeal to a broader audience and establish England as a bone fide winemaking region of the world, all important for this young industry.

A pale salmon pink colour, with a gentle savouriness of an oatcake, and pure cloudberry fruit flavours. It’s extremely well balanced on the palate – characteristic high acidity is matched perfectly with the dosage, so neither dominates. It has a featherweight body but under that it has concentration on the finish. Assemblage using Pinot Noir Precoce.

Ridgeview Estate, Sussex, Rosé de Noirs 2018

Pure medium rosy hue. A rich, generous wine with a firm, crispy fresh cranberry aromatic on top of more sweet strawberry jam notes. A hint of development follows, coming across as a toasted bread flavour. It has a rich, mouth-filling texture. More than the others, the tannins and phenolics of the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier come through, but also the slightly pleasantly herbaceous tannins from being hand-picked and whole bunched pressed, assemblage. Only made with estate fruit in the ripest years.

Cherie Spriggs’s Blanc de Blanc flight: all from the warm-at-harvest, ripe 2014 vintage, all Chardonnay, all whole bunch press, all 100% MLF. Idea is to show terroir differences.

Woodchurch Vineyard, Kent, Blanc de Blanc 2014

A pure, green apple aroma combined with freshly baked baguette notes. Really nicely balanced between the dosage and the bright, crisp acidity. It’s all stainless steel fermented, and the purity of the fruit comes through. It has a lightness in texture and finesse in its mousse, which the Cherie describes aptly as a “delicate dancer”.

Greyfriars Vineyard, Surrey, Greyfriars Blanc de Blanc 2014 in Magnum

Savoury, gunflint aromas are immediately apparent on the nose. A toasted breadcrust element speaks of the many years of bottle development. It has a very mineral-drive core and a pithy grapefruit finish on the palate. It has a really high, piercing acidity, balanced with a more rounded body. From a higher elevation site (200m on Hog’s Back hill), hence the level of acidity.

Nyetimber Vineyard, West Sussex, Blanc de Blanc 2014 in Magnum

Rich aromas of lemon curd and brioche. It has a wonderfully balanced fresh, white cherry and toasty oak nose. It has a searing acidity, but this tautness is nicely paired with the sort of broadness of flavour that’s been built up across fruit from various soils. Drinking really beautifully now, but would age fantastically for at least another 5 years.

Harrow & Hope Vineyard, Buckinghamshire, Blanc de Blanc 2014

An intensely mineral-driven wine with a saline, oyster-shell aromatic. Its angular, taut texture carries this element across to the palate. It has a sharp, directional acidity and the body is light and bright initially, and broadens out on the mid-palate and finish. I’d love to see how this tastes with more age and development, as savoury characters would bring it even more complexity.

Charlie Holland’s flight of older wines: to demonstrate ageablity of English sparkling wines across several different styles; and to highlight winemaking techniques for creating a wine that’s age-worthy.

Gusbourne Vineyard, Kent, Fifty-One Degrees North 2014

A golden hue on the colour foretells the ripe yellow plum and fragrant honeysuckle aromas on the nose. Layered on top of that, it’s showing nicely balanced autolytic and oaked characteristics (6 years on lees) – baguette, butter and vanilla. Has a balanced, fresh acidity with a judiciously rounded body softened by the dosage. Grapes come from clay vineyards, which Charlie says gives it that roundness, and this cuvée is only in warm vintages for fruit concentration. He said he used 20% of oak and says “normally for English sparkling wine the convention is to push oak until you taste it and then push back, but this is pushed just a little bit more”.

Squerryes Estate, Squerryes Brut Late Disgorged 2013

Situated on the North Downs, this is a relatively high elevation site creating precise wines (high acidity/low pH). The wine starts with a flinty, gunsmoke characteristic, and follows with a Kaffir lime leaf aroma. It has a fresh, sharp, greengage-like acidity highlighting the leanness in body and the lower RS level. It’s of a linear, laser-like style.

Breaky Bottom, East Sussex, Cuvée Koizumi Yakumo 2010

Using Seyval Blanc in a premium, traditional method sparkling wine shows that Peter Hall is not afraid to push boundaries and change perceptions what can be done. This a non-aromatic variety delivers just that – no overtly estery or fruity aromas – just a lean, pure neutral palate. It’s embodies the Japanese concept of “kire” – clean flavours in a pleasantly simple, lucid finish. If anything, the subtle leesy notes give it a gentle lactic flavour, like eating a a malted milk biscuit. This all about the fresh, bright texture.

Ridgeview Estate, East Sussex, Blanc de Blancs 2010, Magnum

It was acknowledged at the tasting that this is getting madeirised and starting to fall off a bit. It shows toasty almond and an aromatic sweet toffee note pleasantly similar to a Werther’s Original. It still shows a racy and persistent acidity, with the flavours of the nose broadening out in the palate. 2010 was a great vintage. There was a good crop and winemakers could be choosy about what press wine to use, and therefore wines of the vintage would show finesse. Made with all free run juice, hence a fine texture.

By Regine Lee MW