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?