It’s fair to say that English sparkling wine has bloomed in popularity over the last couple of years, becoming the drink of choice for everything from royal receptions to Michelin-starred meals. There’s even an English Wine Week dedicated to the stuff.
So, what is it about this native wine that's caught people’s attention? Not only is it nice to know you’re buying something that’s been made up the road, English sparkling wine also has a deeply complex flavour with very similar characteristics to Champagne. In fact, it’s quickly becoming a drink to rival the famous French-made sparkling, with a number of big-name Champagne houses investing in land in the UK with the intention of producing their own English sparkling.
The similarities between Champagne and English sparkling wine don’t stop there. Both are made using the ‘traditional method’ using a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes. One of the first, and now the most well-known, brands to start making English sparkling wine was Nyetimber, who planted their first vines back in 1988. We spoke to their winemaker Brad Greatrix, to explain how it's made.
''Traditional method means the bubbles come from a second fermentation that happens inside the bottle. It differs from more industrial methods where the second fermentation happens in a tank, which is how Prosecco is made, for example. [Prosecco] is fermented in a tank and then bottled under pressure so the whole process is much quicker and much more cost effective.’’
''There are other varieties coming along – such as bacchus and seyval blanc – with a few people experimenting with different things. But if you want to speak generically about English sparkling wine, it's going to be made with the traditional method using chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier.’’
Brad joined Nyetimber in 2007, when owner Eric Heerema brought him - as well as head winemaker Cherie Spriggs - on board, and he's seen a huge shift in people’s perception of the English drink. ''I would say, in my first seven or eight years of working at Nyetimber, I never met anybody outside of those directly involved in the wine trade that had heard of English sparkling wine. I’d bump into somebody in a cafe or a shop and what I do for a living is probably one of the questions that would come up very early in conversation. I'd say [I make] English sparkling wine. And they’d say, oh yeah, no. Your grapes must come from Portugal or something like that!’’
So, what changed? ''We saw a big step forward in 2012. The queen had her Diamond Jubilee and it was the London Olympics. There was just a very intensive period of celebration of all things British. That was the first discovery for a lot of people I think, of searching for local wines to celebrate those quintessentially British events.’’
Sparkling wine now accounts for about 80% of the grape-growing planted area in this country, which is huge. And sure, while there are a number of similarities between domestic wine and Champagne, what makes English sparkling all the more special is its unique flavour profile.
''What English sparkling wines tend to evoke is a reflection of fruits and flavours that are typical and known for this country’’, Brad explains. "Our rosé, for example, is typically evocative of red fruits that grow and succeed really well in in England, like strawberries and raspberries.
''Our cool climate also means that English sparkling wines retain a freshness and an acidity that is needed for our long ageing, high quality sparkling. Because of the acidity, there's also an association with lemon. Apple and lemon flavours are not unusual.’’
Specifics aside, the real question is knowing which bottle to buy when there’s so much choice on the shelves, so we took it upon ourselves to put in the tasting time and test some of the best English sparkling wines on the market right now. We’ve included tasting notes on each one, as well as a score out of ten, so you can see at a glance how each one stood up.
Chapel Down Brut NV
Verdict: Even if you don’t know much about sparkling wine, chances are you’ve heard of Chapel Down which is something of a household name these days. Based in Kent, this award-winning blend is made from chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier and pinot blanc grapes and offers soft aromas of apple and blossom, with a long finish and lots of depth of flavour. It delivers all the hallmarks of a quality sparkling wine, and we rate it amongst the best in this list.
How much? £29.99
Verdict: Fun fact: this Bloomsbury bottle by Ridgeview was the official wine served at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, so naturally we had to taste a wine that's good enough for royalty. Ridgeview is another well-established winemaker that's been going for more than 25 years. Their vineyard is based in Ditchling in rural Sussex, and they were one of the first wineries in England to focus solely on the production of sparkling wines from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes. So, what did we think? A gorgeously light number with very fine bubbles that creates a lovely effervescent, melt-in-the-mouth feel. We detected subtle notes of red fruit along with plenty of crunchy, crisp tartness from lemony accents. A smart and striking bottle would make this a very nice gift for someone.
How much? £29.99
Exton Park Rose
Verdict: We were particularly taken by the colour of this English sparkling rose by Exton Park, which is a beautiful blush and shown off in a clear, simple bottle. The pale colour matches its floral, slightly peachy flavour, with a good structure that renders it very crisp and dry. If you don’t trust us, trust Simon Rogan who serves it at his three-Michelin starred restaurant L’Enclume.
How much? £39
Nyetimber Blanc de Blancs 2014
Verdict: Nyetimber was one of the first brands to put English sparkling wine on the map, when owner Eric Heerema saw its potential back in 2006 and brought head winemaker Cherie Spriggs and winemaker Brad Greatrix on board. We tested the Blanc de Blancs 2014, which was the first style of wine the vineyard started producing back in the 90s and is still one of the best English sparkling wines on the market right now. This single-vintage chardonnay offers a delicate flavour profile of vanilla, brioche and lemon, while a long finish and lots of acidity make it a great pairing with fresh seafood. A must buy!
How much? £46
Bullards English Sparkling Rose
Verdict: This 2009 vintage is a bit of an underdog and took the whole team by surprise when testing. Made from seyval blanc, auxerrois and pinot noir grapes, it's beautifully aromatic on the nose with a fruity palate (think peaches, raspberries and strawberries) and a touch of acidity on the finish. Very fine bubbles render it light and elegant, and we couldn't help but fall for its stunning salmon pink colour.
How much? £40
Gusbourne Brut Reserve
Verdict: One of the top dogs in the English sparkling wine world, Gusbourne planted their first vines in 2004 across their vineyards in Kent and West Sussex, going on to collect a series of awards over the years for all its sparkling wines. This best-seller offers floral blossom notes, good fruit and a hint of honey on the nose, while zesty grapefruit conspires with nutty, toasty flavours on the palate, with a hint of white pepper. A shaft of acidity keeps things fresh and the finish is rewardingly long.
How much? £39
Tesco Finest English Sparkling Wine
Verdict: Interestingly, this English sparkling wine from Tesco’s Finest range is crafted by another maker in this list, Balfour Winery (see below), so we were interested to see how they compared. With a dry and citrusy flavour - albeit a slightly bitter after taste - subtle brioche notes and plenty of bubbles, we thought it was a decent option for just over 20 quid a bottle. It’s the cheapest in this list and very good value.
How much? £21
Balfour Brut Rosé 2018
Verdict: At nearly £40 a bottle, this Brut rose by Balfour Winery is one of the most expensive options on the list. It’s highly drinkable and super light, with notes of sherbet on the nose and a more rounded fruity flavour on the palate, without being too sweet or overbearing. This one’s worth the price tag and was one of the best roses we tried. The grapes are grown on the Hush Heath estate in Kent and for the first six years, this was the only wine they made. Stick to what you know and all that...
How much? £39.99
Searcys Classic Cuvée English Sparkling Wine, NV
: 2022 has been a big year for British caterer Searcys, what with turning 175 and all. Along with pledging 175k to charity
to celebrate the milestone, the brand has also created its first ever English sparkling wine in collaboration with award-winning Greyfriars Vineyard near Guildford. The grapes are grown on sunny south-facing chalk slopes before being handpicked, while the wine itself is aged in cellars for at least four years. Our first impression was marked by bubbles - lots of them - which create a pleasingly creamy texture. Bready flavours and notes of apple emerge on the palate, while a citrusy finish (we detected grapefruit) leave a clean and bright aftertaste.
How much? £31
Digby Fine English 2013 Vintage Reserve Brut
Verdict: This Kent vintage fizz has been catching our eye for a number of years now, not just for its sense of place but for its sheer consistency. White flowers intermingle with toasty notes on the nose, while on the palate there is both bright fruit as well as nutty, citrusy complexity. Elegance and finesse are watchwords of this delicious wine.
How much? £44
Nutty Vintage Brut 2018
Verdict: A lesser-known label but one we’d like to firmly put on the map, this 2018 Brut from Nutbourne Vineyard in Sussex is a dangerously easy-to-drink entrant. Its deep golden colour acts as a precursor to its characterful flavour, with bold notes of apples and almonds. It’s not as citrusy as quite a few we tried, which makes it a good option if you’re still getting used to the lemony flavour that a lot of English sparkling wines possess. It's made from a combination of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot blancs grapes, then matured in oak barrels before being aged for 36 months underground.
How much? £24
Hambledon Classic Cuvee
Verdict: A blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier grapes, this Classic Cuvee by Hambledon tends to come up trumps in best-lists and, without wanting to follow the crowd, we’d have to agree. Its grapes are grown on Newhaven Chalk, the same chalk found in the best Chardonnay areas in Champagne, allowing Hambledon to create something very similar in quality and flavour.
How much? £34.99
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