12 Wines of Christmas: England

Peter Ranscombe ventures south of the Border for the latest instalment in his “12 Wines of Christmas” series.

WHAT is “English sparkling wine”?

It’s a question that I get asked more and more often by readers.

The answer is a bit complicated.

As we discovered back in June during my series of articles covering English Wine Week, there’s a broad range of wine being made south of the Border.

There’s even diversity within the sparkling category.

Most English sparklers follow the traditional method of production – the process used for Champagne and cava – whereby the bubbles are created by adding yeast to a still wine in a bottle to trigger a second fermentation.

Yet it’s not the only game in town; other fizz is made using the tank method, like prosecco, in which the second fermentation takes place inside a large tank under pressure.

One isn’t better than the other – they’re just different.

Traditional method sparkling wines have “autolytic” characteristics – they smell and taste a wee bit like bread, toast, or brioche.

Tank method wines tend to be fruitier and fresher, focusing more on apple or lemon flavours.

Those tank method wines are usually cheaper to produce and so carry lower price tags on the shelf or wine list.

One of my favourite tank – or “Charmat” – method English sparkling wines is the 2018 Kingscote Estate Brut Sparkling Charmat Method (£12, Street Wines), full of asparagus and green pepper flavours from its bacchus grapes.

Making their mark

That diversity of production methods leads to a diversity of styles and so WineGB – the industry body that represents grape growers and wine producers in England, Wales, and even Scotland – has created a new hallmark for those made using the traditional method.

“This is the hero style that has put Great Britain on the wine map,” explains Simon Robinson, chairman of WineGB.

Expect to see more labels carrying the “Great British Classic Method” logo and phrase over the coming months and years.

A recent online tasting hosted by master of wine Sarah Abbott to mark the launch of the classification highlighted the diversity of styles within the classic method category.

Ridgeview Bloomsbury Brut (£21.69 until 3 January then £28.99, Waitrose)
A great introduction to English sparkling wine, made from the classic trio of grapes: chardonnay, pinot meunier, and pinot noir. Its full of peach, apricot, red apple, brown sugar, and a touch of white bread on the nose, before launching into characteristic crisp acidity on the palate, balanced by raspberry, strawberry, and more brown sugar.

Simpsons Chalklands Classic Cuvée 2017 (£22.40, Roberson Wine)
An old favourite, made by Scotswoman Ruth Simpson and her Northern Irish husband, Charles, at their vineyard in Kent. Great value at £28 but even better with Roberson’s current 20% off promotion. A more savoury style, with lemon rind, apricot, brown bread, and a honeysuckle note on the nose. Beautifully textured, with red apple skin and lemon rind, and a sweeter raspberry jam note on the finish to balance its acidity.

Henners Brut (£25.99, All About Wine)
One of the best-value English sparklers on the market, and stocked by scores of online wine merchants at sub-£30 prices. Tonnes of red apples to balance its crisp acidity, and again formed from the classic trio of grapes. I see that Wine Raks in Aberdeen has the Henners Vintage 2010 (£31.95, Wine Raks) too.

The Grange Classic Cuvée (£31, Fareham Wine Cellar)
One of the most exciting aspects of writing about English and Welsh wines is that there’s always something new about which to write – Grange Estate Wines only planted its vines in 2010, on land that had been used for arable farming for 150 years, which bodes well for the quality of the soil. Hailing from Hampshire and again created from a blend of the three classic varieties, it opens with a complex nose full of stalky green apple, pear, and lemon, before hitting a crisper and fresher style on the palate, centred on Granny Smith apples, with a slice or two of brown bread.

Busi Jacobsohn Wine Estate Classic Cuvée Brut 2017 (£38, Harvey Nichols)
The star of the online tasting for me, and a new discovery on my English wine journey. There’s an apple crumble-like intensity to this bottle – oats, butter, brown sugar and royal gala apple aromas, leading into an excellent balance between its acidity and concentrated flavours of apples baked in butter, with a sprinkling of cinnamon and brown sugar on the finish. Pricier, but worth it.

Digby Vintage Brut Rosé 2014 (£42, Harvey Nichols)
Digby’s pinks are always impressive and the 2014 vintage wine justifies its £40 price tag. Gorgeous strawberry, raspberry, and red apple aromas lead into sharper mouth-watering lemon juice on the palate, with a mix of fresh raspberry and sweeter raspberry jam to contain its acidity. Look out for the non-vintage version, the Digby Leander Rosé (£32.75, Wine Line Scotland), made from a blend of wines from different years, from Alexander Wines’ Wine Line Scotland home delivery service.

Albury Estate Biodynamic Wild Ferment Blanc de Blancs (£49.95, Albury Estate)
You can tell winemakers are getting ambitious when words like “biodynamic” and “wild ferment” start cropping up on labels. There’s an intensity to the sour lemon flavours to Albury’s biodynamic fruit – grown using natural treatments to enhance the vineyard’s soil health – and a chewy texture that was probably enhanced by using wild yeasts to trigger the fermentation. Apricot jam and lemon curd on the nose simply add to this impressive package. Only 600 bottles were made, hence the wine being sold direct from the vineyard.

Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2014 (£60, Harvey Nichols)
Another old favourite – and again displaying the riper and richer fruit intensity that characterises Kent. Polished and elegant, Gusbourne’s blanc de blancs has clear and bright lemon and apricot aromas, leading into high acidity that’s nicely balanced by crunchy green apple, and more lemon and apricot. Another step up in price, but this will easily hold its own again grower Champagnes at the same price point.

Tomorrow: the 12 wines of Christmas continue with KWV’s “The Mentors” series from South Africa.

In the meantime, revisit last summer’s series on English wines, catch up on yesterday’s article about organic bottles from Sicily, and then read more of Peter’s vinous adventures on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.