Searching for regionality in English sparkling wine

To mark the start of English wine week tomorrow, Peter Ranscombe ponders whether it’s possible to spot regional identity in the country’s sparkling wines

ASK a connoisseur of Champagne about their favourite bottles and more likely than not they’ll start waxing lyrical about the different areas that make up the famous French sparkling wine region.

Whether it’s the Côte des Blancs or the Côtes de Sézanne, or Aube or Montagne de Reims or Valée de la Marne, fans are likely to have their own particular favoured spots, especially when it comes to the current well-deserved interest in individual grower-producers.

Can the same be said yet for English sparkling wine? Do different English counties have similar regional identities that drinkers can spot in their glasses?

A recent tasting ahead of English wine week, offered the chance to put the idea to the test, with 38 of England’s 133 wineries and 502 vineyards putting their wares on show.

And the short answer is… not yet. Ask those questions again in another ten years though and I fully expect that experts will be talking about English localities exhibiting the same variations as found in Champagne.

But those localities won’t be “Kent” or “Sussex” or “Cornwall” – and why should they be?

Those county lines are arbitrary administrative marks on a map, which is why France’s appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) system – which designates a wine’s identity – is normally linked to local areas and not to the country’s giant political departments.

Can you dig it?

Instead of looking at county lines, it will be the soils that will define the emerging English wine regions.

Soil was one of the major factors in Camel Valley’s Darnibole vineyard being granted protected designated origin (PDO) status by the European Commission – the same level of protection offered to Scotch beef, Arbroath smokies and Stornoway black pudding – with a Sussex PDO application also filed.

Further east, as Simon Bladon – the owner of the Jenkyn Place winery in Hampshire – pointed out to me at the recent tasting, the greensand soils once used to grow hops in his neck of the woods are now a popular choice for grapes, including at his own vineyards and those of Nyetimber and Ridgeview.

Bladon’s 2010 Jenkyn Place Brut (£28.50) has really full aromas on the nose, something that’s often noted in wines made from grapes grown on greensand soils – lots of lemon notes, leading through to red and green apples on the palate, with a great balance between the fruit and refreshing acidity.

Chalk is the major talking point, with much for the south-east of England sharing similar chalky soils to those in Champagne.

Further north, in Herefordshire, Sixteen Ridges is growing grapes on sandy loam soils.

Its 2013 Sixteen Ridges Vineyards Signature Cuvee (£28) has a much more savoury element to it, with flavours of asparagus and green pepper.

Variety is the spice of life

Another influence that’s more important than county lines is the grape varieties that are used in the blend.

Most English wine producers grow the traditional Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

But that’s not where the story ends: Camel Valley in North Cornwall adds 30% Seyval Blanc – a hybrid variety often grown in cool climates like New York in the United States and the fifth most widely-planted vine in England – to its blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in its 2013 Camel Valley Brut (£26.95), with toasty and nutty aromas on the nose and then peach flavours on the palate.

The 2014 Giffords Hall Sparking Brut (around £25) from Suffolk is made using Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc and had much more floral aromas on the nose, with greengage and grapefruit on the tongue balancing the bright acidity.

Whether it be soils, grape varieties or winemaking techniques, sparkling wines from south of the Border offer a wide range of aromas and flavours, and English wine week is the ideal time to give them a try, without forgetting about the increasingly high-quality still wines either.