“Sparkling wines from England? What?!? Tell me more!” So said a good wine friend when I invited her to join us for tasting a range of the newly popular sparkling wines from England.
“Thank global warming,” observed another pal. “In a few years, we might be talking about wines from Sweden. Or Norse sparklers.”
And indeed, when it comes to these new Traditional Method wines out of England—the topic of much discussion over the past few years— the consensus seems to be that global warming has made them possible. Wine production in Southern England was virtually unknown 20 years ago—certainly apart from experts and locals. The emerging industry is booming now.
According to WineGB, led by HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, British winemakers produce between 13 and 16 million bottles annually, with sparkling wine accounting for 69 percent of overall production. With more than 164 wineries and 763 vineyards in production, British vintners are planting 2 to 3 million vines per year.
The bottle numbers are still small compared to most of the world’s wine-growing regions, but production is growing fast. Exports only account for 8 percent of overall sales. Nearly 85 percent of all bottles are sold in the UK, either through distributors or to customers directly via “cellar door” sales.
Determined to know more, we assembled a small group of wine lovers for an informal tasting on a sultry evening outside. We fortified ourselves with bubbles-friendly food like salty potato chips, onion dip, and a couple of gooey, triple-cream cheeses, and then tasted six different wines from three producers, Balfour Hush Heath, Gusbourne, and Nyetimber.
In summary: Champagne makers don’t need to panic just yet—but these wines make for intriguing exploration. Here are our notes:
Balfour Hush Heath “1503” Brut NV ($38)
The “1503” wines are the second label of Hush Heath, one of England’s top wine producers. We found this Brut to fit with its French cremant counterparts in the same price range, offering a lush mouthfeel and crisp acidity. With 64 percent pinot noir and 32 percent chardonnay, this wine is making some appearances on restaurant wine lists and is worth a try.
Balfour Hush Heath “1503” Rose NV ($38)
My notes say “integrated and balanced;” this pale pink beauty was a real treat. The fruit on this wine was just what it needed to become a perfect offering, especially for the price. With 70 percent pinot noir, this wine just tasted good without overly acidic austerity, making it a perfect weeknight drinker.
Balfour Hush Heath “Leslie’s Reserve” Extra Dry NV ($42)
This elegant offering, named for owner Leslie Balfour-Lynn, is a blend of three vintages. This wine had finer mousse than the others, resulting in a silkier wine in the mouth. Not designed to hold, this is a “drink now” wine with citrus tartness, perfect for an aperitif.
Gusbourne Brut Reserve 2015 ($60)
Our group was split on this bottle, with some loving the wine and others finding it their least favorite style. While some likened it to a rustic cremant, others felt it was closer in style to a robust grower Champagne. But where this wine lacked a smooth, elegant texture it made up for in boldness. A bit acidic, it would be great paired with food like seafood with a lemon crème sauce or even grilled shrimp.
Nyetimber Classic Cuvee NV ($55)
“This drinks like a Champagne from a major house,” was my first note. It wouldn’t be too far off. Nyetimber just celebrated their 30 year anniversary and is well promoted, like a Veuve Cliquot, with prices to match. They’re frequent sponsors of equestrian sporting events and said to be served at state dinners. This granddaddy of UK sparklers was an impressive, polished pour with a finished elegance. Perhaps it was the blanc-de-blancs style that made the difference with 55 to 65 percent chardonnay and 30 to 40 percent pinot noir. Either way, this showed a natural balance which translated to a fine style.
Nyetimber Rose NV ($55) Another elegant offering from this classic house, the Nyetimber Rose is primarily chardonnay and pinot noir coming with less than 5 percent pinot meunier. A balanced, elegant option that would be a perfect light aperitif wine.
While we didn’t all agree on our favorites, we decided there was much to be said for exploring a new—and new-to-us—wine region on a late summer evening. Good potato chips didn’t hurt either.