Throughout history, the English have been some of the world’s greatest drinkers of fine wine. Shakespeare’s Falstaff famously delighted in a “good sherris sack,” while Charles Dickens had a personal penchant for Sauternes, Chablis and “Metternich hock,” as revealed by a handwritten inventory of his cellar. Then there is Sir Winston Churchill, whose love of drink is both notorious and well-documented; he reportedly claimed that the four essentials of life were “hot baths, cold Champagne, new peas and old brandy.”
If the iconic statesman had been born just a few generations later, however, he wouldn’t have needed to look to France for the bubbly stuff.
To anyone who’s been keeping track, the sudden rise of England as a top producer of terroir-driven sparkling wines represents one of the most dramatic wine-industry success stories of recent memory. In the words of English writer Andrew Jefford, “What had once been regarded as a harmless eccentricity has become, over the last decade, one of the wine world’s most promising developments.”
The proof is in the numbers. According to the Wine and Spirits Trade Association (WSTA), 2017 saw a record-breaking amount of English wine released onto the market. The WSTA also projects that English Sparkling Wine production will double by the year 2022 to approximately 10 million bottles annually (with plans to export at least a quarter of that figure to the United States). This is why the U.K. government’s Food is GREAT campaign teamed up with industry this past October to launch its first British Spirits and Sparkling Wine week in New York City.
Meanwhile, these wines are popping up more and more frequently stateside, both in the press and at top restaurants and retailers. Just this month, the celebrated Hattingley Valley Wines signed a nationwide deal with Whole Foods to make its Classic Reserve the first English Sparkling Wine to be available across the U.S.
“Here in the States, most of us still don’t expect wine from England,” says Mauro Cirilli, beverage director Press Club San Francisco. It’s this “surprise factor,” as he calls it, coupled with the electric freshness of the wines—think Champagne, with the acidity turned up to ten—that has made them a hot commodity.
But how, one might ask, did all this happen? And what exactly makes these wines uniquely English in style?
Even just a few decades ago, to speak of an “English wine industry” would have smacked of hyperbole. As Gareth Maxwell of Hattingley Valley Wines explains, “In the 1970s, we actually used to grow a lot of German varieties and odd hybrids, but back then it was mostly a cottage industry and the quality wasn’t all that great because the grapes didn’t fully ripen.”
In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, however, a few visionary producers—notably, the pioneering Nyetimber estate, which remains one of England’s top wineries—took a bet on planting chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, the classic grapes of Champagne. But unlike many aspirational sparkling wine regions, who typically adopt those varieties by default, in England’s case the decision was based in extremely sound logic.
Remember the White Cliffs of Dover, one of the U.K.’s most famous landmarks? Well, they owe their existence to the same ridge of chalky limestone that runs directly across the English Channel and into the prime Southeast English vineyard areas of Sussex, Kent and Hampshire. Lately, as climate change continues to boost ripeness levels in the vines, making it possible to cultivate perfectly ripe grapes, this unexpected corner of England has been transformed into prime sparkling wine real estate.
It didn’t take long for the rest of the world to notice, especially after the wines experienced what might be called their own “Judgement of Paris” moment, snatching up top prizes and trophies over the past few years in global competitions.
“I think the real turning point was the blind tasting results of a few years ago, when a selection of English Sparkling Wines scored higher than some of the more famous Champagne houses,” says Jonathan White of Gusbourne Estate, which oversees 60 hectares of sustainably farmed vines in Kent and 30 in West Sussex. “It was then that people started to become more informed and realize that we had a product that was commensurate with the quality of Champagne.”
Today, however, many in the region feel that the category is starting to outgrow those associations. The next big step, which will ensure the classic status of English bubbly in the years to come, is carving out a unique identity of its own. “We will always be compared to Champagne in terms of style and quality, and we’ve enjoyed the comparison up until now,” says White. “But now I think that many of us are now feeling the desire to stand on our own two feet and forge our own path.”
Given the clear commonalities that run through the wines, it’s clear that this process is already happening. The essential hallmark of the “English style,” is freshness. But not the usual run-of-the-mill, cool-climate freshness, which we associate with any number of places. Imagine extreme freshness—an almost electric jolt of acidity, infused with bracing minerality and orchard fruit. Although individual wineries tend to interpret this profile through their own stylistic lens, it signals the emergence of a singular regional expression that stands apart from the other sparkling wines of the world.
“We’re after a much fresher, cleaner style than Champagne,” Maxwell explains. “We’re not looking for a rich, yeasty style. We want to highlight the quality of our fruit, which is exceptionally high, thanks to our long, cool growing season. That’s what we have in mind when we say we make a uniquely English style of wine.”
Hattingley Valley Classic Reserve
Currently featured at over 400 Whole Foods locations across 40 states, the Hattingley Valley’s Classic Reserve sparkler is leading the way forward for the category’s current British invasion as the most widely available English wine in the U.S. Around 15 percent of the blend is fermented in used white Burgundy and Bordeaux barrels, imparting a fullness on the palate, but the oak character is extremely subtle, allowing the wine’s underlying flavors of pear and red apple to shine through.
- Price: $45
- Vintage: NV
- From: Valkyrie Selections
Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs
A brilliant take on the Blanc de Blancs style sourced from 100 percent estate-grown fruit, this vintage-designated cuvée represents the flagship wine of the celebrated Gusbourne estate. Aged for a minimum of 36 months on the lees, its textural depth is balanced by a powerful sense of freshness and mineral precision, making it a perfect “oyster wine.” It’s no surprise that this cuvée has been served at Buckingham Palace for visiting heads of state.
- Price: $68
- Vintage: 2011
- From: Broadbent Selections
Chapel Down “Three Graces”
Known as England’s largest producer of sparkling wine, the Kent-based Chapel Down estate produces this blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier (the eponymous “three graces”) with reserve stocks that add richness and complexity. Further aged four years sur lie, it reveals classic notes of brioche and toast, but, again, the striking aspect is the clarity and purity of the fruit expression, all white peaches and pears. Poured at some of England’s top Michelin-starred restaurants, it’s a fantastic introduction to the style.
- Price: $45
- Vintage: 2010
- From: ABCK Corp.
Exton Park Pinot Noir Rosé
This pale, salmon-hued rosé from the Hampshire-based Exton Park Vineyard—a blend of 70 percent pinot noir and 30 percent pinot meunier—exhibits a cool-climate transparency that instantly conjures the famous South Downs chalk on which it’s grown. Wonderfully delicate (it’s reminiscent, in ways, of a bubbly Sancerre rosé), it still packs a punch of flavor, with notes of tart rhubarb and crunchy cranberry. Like all the wines in the Exton Park portfolio, it’s made exclusively from fruit grown on the estate, overlooking Exton village.
- Price: $42
- Vintage: NV
- From: Primrose Fine Wine
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée
Located in West Sussex, the trailblazing Nyetimber estate was first mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 and was later owned by Henry VIII and eventually gifted to Thomas Cromwell. Of historical significance in terms of the English wine industry as well, the winery was the first to plant Champagne varieties on English soil in 1988. Since then, the winery has won countless international medals and trophies, helping to raise the profile of the region as a whole. A blend of 51 percent pinot noir, 36 percent chardonnay and 13 percent pinot meunier, this elegant entry-level expression speaks to the quality that defines Nyetimber’s entire range of production.
- Price: $63
- Vintage: NV
- From: Valkyrie Imports