I took a look at the glasses on the table. The liquid was a pale gold with a stream of small bubbles. The nose ranged from mineral and citrus to apple and brioche notes.
A simple guess was that Champagne was in front of me. But it was not. I had eight glasses of British Bubbles in front of me as I sat down for a seminar at Pebble Beach Food & Wine titled “Oysters, Pearls and British Bubbles” led by Champagne-lover Kim Beto, Sommelier Tim Smith, an American living in England, Master Sommelier Joe Spellman and English-born Master Sommelier Laura Rhys. Kim recalled a few years ago when Chef Gary Danko first asked him about English bubbles. He had no answer then but today, make no mistake that British Bubbles is a serious category of wine.
The British have always had a love-affair with sparkling wine, specifically Champagne, dating back to the 17th century. The English were influential in developing the Champagne-method. And, after France, the British have been known to consume more Champagne than anywhere else.
But now the English are making their own sparkling wines. They use the same grapes — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier — and the same method to make the sparkling wine. While England, like many other places around the world, has tried to make wine over the centuries, British sparkling wines are gaining recognition and a following. Perhaps climate change is playing the biggest part in this. That said, there has only been a slight increase in temperature so far and England still has a challenging environment in which to grow grapes.
What England has in common with Champagne is the chalk soils. The White Cliffs of Dover are part of the same chalk bench that runs across the English Channel into Champagne. The chalk is porous and water drains through it. Combined with the increasing temperatures during the growing season, the grapes are able to ripen more evenly and consistently.
Two of the primary grape growing regions are Sussex and Kent. Sussex, located in the southeast corner of England, along the English Channel, is characterized by limestone chalk soils and for being one of the sunniest areas in the British Isles. Kent, located just east of Sussex, is where the White Cliffs of Dover form the coastline. Chalk soils, south-facing slopes and a relatively warmer climate are characters of Kent.
At the seminar, we indulged in oysters from Morro Bay Oyster Company and caviar from Passmore Ranch, while tasting sparkling wines from four British producers.
Gusbourne Estate is based in Kent, in the southeast corner of England, also known as the “garden of England.” Dating to the 1400s, the estate was planted to turnips, asparagus, cherries, apples, strawberries and now grapes. In 2004, Andrew Weeber, a knee surgeon from South Africa, took over with the single goal to make world-class sparkling wine.
Gusbourne Blanc de Blanc 2013—The flagship wine, the Blanc de Blancs, is a true expression of the terroir. The wine spends four-and-a-half years aging on the lees. It is a bright golden color with aromas of green apple, citrus, minerals and a touch of toast. On the palate, it is austere and racy with a salty, saline finish.
Gusbourne Brut Rose 2013 – A pale pink color, this wine is made from 100 percent Pinot Noir. The clay soils with sand add weight and richness to the wine that spends two-and-a-half years on the lees. The wine has aromas of red fruit, as well as smoky, savory notes and great acidity.
Gusbourne RSV 2013 – The brut reserve is predominantly Pinot Noir with Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier and the wine spends three years on the lees. A bright gold color, the wine has aromas of red apple and honeyed citrus fruit and intense mineral notes.
Established in 2001, Chapel Down is located in Kent, near the town of Tenterden. The company owned approximately 200 acres of vineyards across Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and Essex. One of the most awarded English wineries, Chapel Down can be found served at Buckingham Palace.
Chapel Down Brut Rose NV – A salmon pink color, the wine has fruity aromas of strawberries and raspberries, and a sweet candy fruit note like a Jolly Rancher.
Chapel Down Brut NV – After spending 18 months on the lees, the wine has notes of lemongrass, red apple and a toastiness on the finish.
Located in Sussex, the Nyetimber estate dates almost 1,000 years and vines were first planted in 1988. Eric Heerema purchased the property in 2006 and began to focus on crafting the finished English sparkling wines. With nine vineyard sites across the South of England, Nyetimber uses only estate-grown grapes for their wines.
Nyetimber Blanc de Blanc 2010 – Pale gold in color, this Blanc de Blancs has delicate aromas of floral and citrus and a long finish.
Nyetimber Tillington Brut 2013 – A single vineyard wine, it is a pale gold color with aromas of strawberries, raspberries and toasted nuts.
Ridgeview Wine Estate
Ridgeview was one of the first wineries to plant in Sussex, near Brighton, one hour from London. An important agricultural area, Mike and Chris Roberts saw the potential and planted in 1995. Ridgeview Wine Estate is the only English winery to win the Decanter Award for “Best Sparkling Wine in the World, including Champagne.”
Ridgeview Blanc de Noirs 2013 – Only made in the best vintages, the Blanc de Noirs is a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. It is a deep golden color with red fruit and toasted aromas.
Ridgeview Cavendish 2014 – A blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the wine is a golden color with notes of red fruit. The wine is fresh with complexity and finesse.
The world of English sparkling wines is continuing to grow, and I look forward to exploring this new wine region even further.