I’ve said before that the key to England becoming a world-player in the sparkling wine branch is that it has to adopt and develop its own style: something the Gusborne Estate rather aptly calls Méthode Anglaise. A lot of the stuff I’ve tried though doesn’t taste very Anglaise at all: the only way I could describe it would be Copycat Français. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with copying a popular style of wine and pulling it off brilliantly well, but surely the entire point in a new production region is a new style. Whilst I can’t fault the lush wines of certain English wineries, I find many wines so similar to that sparkling French stuff that it might as well be called Champagne.
I mistakenly understood the varietals used as being the key problem, whilst the wines from the Pinot grapes are nearly always better, I enjoyed seeing English wineries using Seyval Blanc and Bacchus, even a few of those other exotic, Germanic grapes.
But I was wrong, it is possible to create unique and high-quality wines from the same grapes grown elsewhere: terroir factors are ultimately the most deciding factor and the skill and ideas of the winemaker can turn traditional varietals and foreign methods into something completely new. Look at Sassicaia and Ornellaia in Bolgheri: effectively producing Bordeaux although it tastes nothing like the stuff. Look at the vintners of the Ahr Valley and Baden in Germany effectively producing Burgundy but, at the same time, doing the complete opposite. Of course it’s possible, it always has been.
On the English wine scene though, it’s been rare: many wines could have been labelled as coming from Reims or Épernay and not even the most sensitive tongue would’ve argued. There are however a few English wines that, despite having come from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, really do radiate both a firm feel of quality, enough classical notes to be deemed worthwhile and, thankfully, a big old chunk of Union Jack personality.
Take a wine I tried on Sunday as an example: Hush Heath’s Balfour Cuvée Skye Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay). Whereas it was classically elegant, timelessly presented and excellently made, it had a unique feel to it: a feel I’ve not had in sparkling wine for a while. Alongside yeasty and refined fruity notes, an underlying lime acidity and general freshness really protruded from the glass - making a unique wine.
This feel of individuality is the most defining factor of a wine: it’s the whole point in having an origin. Even on a smaller scale: you can tell Bollinger and Veuve Clicquot apart because of their individual characteristics: things the winemakers put in so that you know you’re not drinking another wine. It’s the difference in going to see the band or a cover band: musically, you’re getting a truer, more-rehearsed and more-similar sound from the cover band (the Champagne copycats) whereas the real band might miss a note occasionally or change the song slightly for the live album (the pioneers) – who is it you’d really like to see?
Hush Heath aren’t the only ones doing it and whilst their beautiful Balfour Rosé probably is my favourite English sparkler, I’m also impartial to a drop of Camel Valley's 'Cornwall' Brut, Chapel Down's Brut Reserve and I find that even Nyetimber’s Rosé has an English beating heart behind all that Frenchness.
So that’s where I stand, I want authenticity and uniqueness: I still demand quality and traditional values but, for me, a wine has to show where it comes from: terroir and AOC are, for me at least, much more important than opting for a generally popular style or using the ‘right’ varietals. I don’t think that I’m alone here and I’m more than certain that most of the wineries in the Southern half of the UK are striving for much the same thing.
Those who aren’t might, one day, create better ‘Champagne’ than the wineries who don’t have to use quotation marks when writing that same nine-letter C-word but they’re not going to change the world’s addiction to French fizz by copying it – Champagne is the brand that everyone wants. They’ll generally always opt for Champagne over another similarly-priced bubbly because, nine times out of ten, most people won’t know or care which tastes better and, even if they do, it's a French wine they'll opt for. Pioneers create new ways and new directions: they don't enter an already overcrowded market with a product that already exists.
What do you think?
Let’s face it, a little part of every one of us would like to get our noses deep into a glass of Lafite, Latour or Mouton. Unfortunately, the vast majority of us would receive a rather prompt phone call from our bank managers if we were to even think about purchasing a bottle. Even the worst vintages fetch well over £250 a bottle and if you want a wine which is both of drinkable age and from a decent vintage, you can part with the best of a grand for the privilege.
My first advice to anyone who wants to try affordable wine from Pauillac is to look at the vastly more-reasonable neighbouring AOCs: Saint-Estèphe or Saint-Julien…the appeal with Pauillac though is the word itself, not necessarily the taste of the wine.
There are however Pauillac clarets out there though that, whilst far from being reasonable, might just be within your budget.
Firstly don’t expect massive value for money: Pauillac, Margaux, Saint-Émilion and Pomerol are, by far and away, the most expensive Bordeaux appellations (being the most famous) and wines that receive a Parker score of over 90 Points are quick to reach the £100 mark (if not more) – a comparable wine in terms of quality and score from Italy or another Bordeaux AOC might cost less than half of that rather hefty sum.
Here they are then: five wines that you might be able to afford that offer typical Pauillac character at untypical Pauillac prices, two of them are even related to the most famous family name in the town: Rothschild.
Château Lynch-Bages (Pre 2005 (excl. 2000))
Châteaux Lynch-Bages continues to ridicule the 1855 Médoc and Graves classification act. This fifth-Cru Pauillac estate has been offering stiff competition to the biggest names of Bordeaux for the best part of two decades now and Jean Michel-Cazes' winemaking skills are the key to the turnaround of the company’s fortunes.
Whereas the 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010 wines are priced to compete with the upper echelon, wines from average vintages are affordable. Particularly 2001, 2002 and 2003 are especially affordable and offer fantastic drinking.
My notes (2003 Vintage)
Château Clerc-Milon (2008, 2007, 2003, 2002, 2001)
As one of the only Bordelaise wineries still using the lush varietal Carménère, Château Clerc-Milon is the sister estate of d’Armailhac. Baroness Phillipine de Rothschild, owner of the mighty Mouton-Rothschild estate is the driving force behind this delicious claret.
2007 and 2008 offer the best value-for-money but earlier wines (2002, 2003) are serving up some fantastic drinking at the moment.
My notes (2007 Vintage)
Château d’Armailhac (2008, 2007, 2002, 2001, 1999)
Another Baroness de Rothschild estate, Château d’Armailhac has some pretty impressive neighbours : Pontet-Canet and Mouton-Rothschild to name but two. Slightly spicier than the racy Clerc-Milon, the wine is a favourite amongst restaurateurs: elite wines at affordable prices (with lots of words people have heard of).
2008 and 2007 are for me the best tips to pass on although I found the earlier wines very enjoyable: particularly 1999.
Château Pedesclaux (2008, 2007, 2003, 2002, 2001)
A rather small player in terms of big names, Château Pedesclaux might sound to the inexperienced like an also-existing option when buying Pauillac wine. The winery's discreet heritage is key to its ability to produce excellent and affordable wine though.
Although the 2009 and 2010 vintages weren’t particularly what you might call cheap, Pedesclaux is one of the few Châteaux of Bordeaux which offers consistent value-for-money. 2002 and 2003 were decent wines and priced between 20 and £30 a bottle, they offer some of the best Pauillac per pound there is. 2007 and 2008 were also fantastic wines but the 2005 is probably the best value-for-money 2005 out there – if you can find some!
My notes (2002 Vintage)
Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste (2008, 2007, 2003, 2002, 2001)
Probably the most high-profile winery on this list and, for many, Pauillac’s secret beating heart, Grand-Puy Lacoste offers some fantastically priced claret during otherwise mediocre vintages – whereas the majority of other producers are unable to turn an average vintage into a decent wine, the know-how at Puy-Lacoste ensures a fabulous drop every year.
2003 and 2007 are the best options here, 2002 and 2001 offer wonderful drinking though and, at less than £50 a bottle, you might not be able to say cheap but, once you’ve tried it, you won't be disappointed.
Also look out for the big winery’s second wine : Lynch Bages’ Echo is a treat, as is Latour’s Pauillac de Latour. I’d like to recommend Lafite’s Carruades but a) I’ve never tried it and b) I’d recommend packing a couple of notes on top and going for the first wine. As a general rule, avoid the vintages 2004 and 2006 – I find most wines very flat and 2004 in particular rarely offers that essential Pauillac style – still if you’re looking for a bargain: you’ll be able to pick up of a bottle of Mouton, Lafite or Latour from 2004 for about the same price as one of the above-listed winery’s 2005 vintages – that’s how Bordeaux pricing works, just don’t expect to be impressed. Only a handful of vintners achieved high-quality wine in 2004 and 2006 and most of that is gone now: Pichon-Loungueville 2004 is one of the best value-for-money clarets from 2004 but priced at roundabout £80 a bottle, it’s far from being a bargain.