Right now, UK wine is fizzing with energy. Pioneering sparkling wine producers have turned a former joke, English wine, into an internationally award-winning force, the success of which is attracting new producers as UK vineyards grow rapidly.
According to industry body, WineGB, Britain is now home to 165 wineries and 770 vineyards. Their output is not huge, yet: around 9 million to 16 million bottles annually, in a country which drank 1.7 billion bottles last year, reports IWSR Drinks Market Analysis. But what this craft industry lacks in size it makes up for in quality.
Last year’s International Wine & Spirit Competition named, not a French champagne house, but Dorset’s Langham Wine as the world’s best sparkling wine producer. That did not surprise Charles Carron Brown, sommelier at Simon Rogan’s Henrock in Cumbria, one of many top restaurants now taking English wine seriously. “English wine,” he says, “is entering a golden age.”
Supermarket sales back that up. UK rosés and reds are flying at Waitrose. At M&S, another early supporter, UK sparkling wine sales are up 89%.
THE SPARKLING WINE EXPLOSION
Remarkably, in 2017, French champagne house Taittinger opened a vineyard in Kent. It confirmed what UK producers had long maintained that, with its mineral-rich soil and short summer, southern England (home to 94.5% of UK vines), is as suitable as northern France for growing chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes, to make traditional-method sparkling wine, aka, champagne.
It has taken UK makers decades to master that craft. But, says M&S winemaker, Sue Daniels, “site selection, viticulture and wine-making techniques” have all improved. “Winemakers are taking full advantage of the land and making exceptional sparkling wines,” agrees Sandia Chang, co-owner and sommelier at London’s Kitchen Table.
Despite its similarity to champagne, advocates maintain that English sparkling wine is distinctive: drier, zestier, lighter, fruitier. This is partly due to how acidic UK grapes are balanced with so-called dosage sugars, but also, says Sandia: “The terroir. Champagne has gravel and limestone, we’re more clay and chalk.”
Sunny Hodge, owner of London wine bar Diogenes the Dog, argues that English sparkling wines often lack “a sense of place”. “They’re essentially going for the champagne model: same style, grapes and similar subsoil,” he says. In contrast, the best UK still wines (Sunny namechecks Blackbook Winery’s “very precise chardonnay”), expose the grapes’ character in a way that evokes their specific English origin: “You can’t compare Blackbook wines to French or Italian wines. They’re unique. When you’re a new wine-making region, that’s what you have to do – something different.”
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