It’s been a funny old year for English sparkling wine.
On the one hand, 2012 was a bit of a nightmare vintage. Drought was followed by deluge and some producers didn’t even bother making wine. (This after 2011, which wasn’t exactly the harvest of the century.) At the very least, volumes took a significant downturn – hitting producers where it hurts most, in their stock levels and cash flow.
But this past year has had some real highs too. The royal wedding, Jubilee and Olympics put the spotlight on the UK and English sparkling wine has been ideally placed to capitalise on the celebratory mood and nationalistic fervour.
There is real momentum in the category.
On one level, it’s simply far easier to get hold of good English fizz now than it ever has been. There are more high-quality vineyards and producers around now and as a result shops and restaurants across the UK are keen to sell what was before more a tourist curio than a source of national pride.
More importantly, quality is better than it ever has been.
Last week I had the privilege of blind tasting 79 English sparkling wines. I’m not sure that anyone would have described this activity as a privilege twenty or even ten years ago. It would have been a chore – a necessary but not particularly pleasant part of the job.
How things have changed.
What I realised during this tasting was that I expected all of these wines to be drinkable at the very least, in the same way I would if I were tasting a range of champagnes. With one notable exception (sorry, Carr Taylor), they didn’t disappoint.
‘The Judgement of Parsons Green’ was initiated in 2011 by leading UK viticultural consultant Stephen Skelton MW. Stephen deserves enormous credit for having had the foresight to set up this West London tasting which is now a firm and important fixture in the UK wine tasting calendar. I’ve attended all three and 2013 was every bit as interesting and surprising as the past two.
Slightly fewer wines were entered this year than last, 79 versus 90, but significantly more than the 52 entered in 2011. Stephen says the decrease in numbers this year is due, in part, to low stock levels and producers wanting to sell what stock they have rather than enter it into tastings. The lack of stock, he says, is the result of strong sales following the royal wedding, the jubilee and the Olympics, in combination with a short harvest in 2012.
Stephen also states, ‘A few vineyards, sadly some of the better known ones, decided they didn’t want to be judged against their peers and refused to play ball. Perhaps they were frightened of the competition?’ I noted on the day that Nyetimber, one of the country’s leading sparkling wine producers, hadn’t entered.
The tasting consisted of 23 rosé wines, 22 blanc de blancs, 2 blanc de noirs wines, and 32 ‘blends’. They were all English, no Welsh wines were entered. In addition, Stephen threw in four non-UK sparkling wines, three from Champagne and one from California (Roederer’s Quartet). There was a morning and an afternoon tasting session with a mix of styles shown in each. Prices ranged from £12.20 to £55.00, though the majority of wines shown were between £20 and £30.
As regards vintages, 52 of the 79 wines were from the 2009 and 2010 harvests. Added to this, the 12 non-vintage wines entered were also, according to Stephen, largely based on these two high-quality years.
Laithwaite’s leads the way
When everyone’s scores were averaged, the name linking the two top wines of the tasting was ‘Laithwaite’. (Tony Laithwaite is one of wine’s most successful entrepreneurs, with his highly successful eponymous mail order company and now a raft of subsidiary businesses.) The top-rated wine was grown by Tony’s wife (and Laithwaite’s Wine co-founder) Barbara, while the second most popular bottle was the company’s Theale Blanc de Blancs:
Wyfold 2009 £24.99 (67% Chardonnay, 21% Pinot Noir, 13% Pinot Meunier) – Wyfold is part owned by Barbara Laithwaite
Theale Blanc de Blancs 2007 £24.95 (100% Chardonnay) – Theale is a tiny vineyard just outside the Direct Wines / Laithwaite’s head office.
Both were made by the Roberts family, owners of Ridgeview, one of the UK’s leading producers. Ridgeview also performed very well in the tasting and had another two wines in the overall top six.
On a related note, the performance of Laithwaite’s bodes well for the vineyard which they have helped plant and develop in the Queen’s back garden in Windsor Great Park. When I met the Duchess of Cornwall alongside Tony and Barbara at a recent UK wine bash (Camilla being the UK Vineyard Association president) she professed to being a red wine lover…perhaps the quality of the local Laithwaite’s fizz will convert her eventually.
It’s worth noting is that only one wine in the top 30 overall wines was made from a non-champagne variety. (Although one wine didn’t specify the grapes.)
The future is rosé…?
The biggest surprise for me was the quality of the rosé wines, made in every style and hue imaginable. This style gained my highest average score of the tasting. In Stephen’s summary of the tasting he states, ‘I still think that the rosés are an undervalued class and when producers really get the hang of them, they will prove to be a UK speciality.’ I heartily agree.
We were asked to score using a scale of 20 and what follows are my top UK sparkling wines from the tasting, those which scored 17 and over, in descending order of personal preference. I have also added a summary of the 20 overall top-scoring wines when the scores of all the tasters were collated.
Bolney Blanc de Blancs 2008, £25.99 (100% Chardonnay,12.3% ABV) – reticent but rich and toasty on the nose. Palate is oaky(!) and spicy – is this really English fizz? It does taste it from the racy acidity but it’s a bit like drinking a mix of UK fizz and white Burgundy. It’s very unusual, but I like it and it’s hard to deny it’s a very impressive glass of fizz. 18.5/20
Kilcott Valley Monarch’s Way 2010, £n/a (100% Seyval Blanc, 11% ABV) – deep colour. Lots of character immediately on the nose. Really bready and savoury – thankfully the palate is the same and it works really well. It’s full of complexity and flavour albeit not hugely refined. A bready, developed and enveloping wine – lovely. 18.5/20
Bluebell Estates Hindleap Rosé 2010, £25.00 (61% Pinot Noir, 39% Pinot Meunier, 12% ABV) – pale onion skin hue. Creamy plum fruit. Nice crisp acidity, lovely balanced flavour, brisk but well balanced and really stylish –the best rosé in terms of balance and elegance. The fruit is definitely plummy and there’s good length. 18.5/20
Wiston Blanc de Noirs 2009, £tbc (100% Pinot Noir, 12% ABV) – a creamy, smooth, nutty style. Palate is similar, very white Burgundy-esque and very engaging. It’s really full-on and rich but balanced. Why not? 18.5/20
Wiston South Downs Cellars Bin 3 2009, £23.95 (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier – no stated quantities, 12% ABV) – savoury, bready, mineral aromas. Palate is stylish – it’s bready, zesty and a little creamy. Elegant but with full flavours and real character. Would be good with rich creamy food / fish pie. 18/20
Bolney Cuvée Rosé 2009, £24.99 (100% Pinot Noir, 12.9% ABV) – stylish bready aromas – palate is similar, works really well. I like the elegance and summer fruit stylishness of this one. Long, refined and very appealing. 18/20
Southcott Rosé 2010, £23.99 (50% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, 10% other, 12.5% ABV) – very pale with extremely lively mousse. Floral, pear and apple aromas with a little hint of sulphur. The palate is better than the nose; crisp, citric and mineral. Possibly a little dry to be totally harmonious but a fresh and lifted, elegant wine. Finishes a little thin. 17.5/20
Hush Heath Balfour Brut Rosé 2009, £35.99 (52% Pinot Noir, 37% Chardonnay, 11% Pinot Meunier, 12.5% ABV) – mid-salmon hue. Restrained, bready, plummy aromas. A fuller style with good crisp acidity, ripe orchard fruits and good length. A very satisfying glass of rosé. 17.5/20
Theale Blanc de Blancs 2007, £24.95 (100% Chardonnay, 12% ABV) – freshly baked bread and lemon zest on the nose. Palate is creamy and high in juicy, citric acidity. This is really characterful stuff and why not. Loads of zesty lemony acidity matched with a youthful but yeasty profile. Quite full-on but good. 17.5/20
High Clandon Queen’s Jubilee Cuvée 2008, £30.00 (58% Chardonnay, 24% Pinot Noir, 18% Pinot Meunier, 12.5% ABV) – fresh yeasty aromas. Palate is good, really lemony and zesty and with good length. A vibrant, youthful but impressive wine. 17.5/20
Camel Valley Cuvée R 2011, £24.95 (varieties not stated, 12.5% ABV) – baby pink colour. Plum and summer fruit aromas. The palate is dry and savoury and really bready – this is good. For once the palate is better than the nose and very impressive. Shame it doesn’t have a more serious-looking colour but it’s a lovely example. 17.5/20
Breaky Bottom Cuvée Princess Colonna 2008, £24.50 (85% Chardonnay, 7% Pinot Noir, 8% Pinot Meunier, 10.8% ABV) – restrained, bready, yeasty style. Lots of citric lemon fruit. Works pretty well in a tangy, creamy, lemony, full-on way. 17.5/20
Wyfold 2009, £24.99 (67% Chardonnay, 21% Pinot Noir, 13% Pinot Meunier, 12.5% ABV) – very bready aromas. A really rich, developed feel to this one. It must have some age and the dosage is a little high to be balanced but it’s an impressive, champagne-like style. 17.5/20
Yearlstone Vintage Brut 2009, £16.95 (60% Seyval Blanc, 40% Pinot Blanc, 11% ABV) – light, floral aromas. Palate shows florality and spice. Plenty of red apple / orchard fruit here. A good UK example of a youthful blanc de blancs. 17.25/20
Hoffmann & Rathbone Rosé Réserve 2010, £42.00 (95% Pinot Noir, 5% Chardonnay, 12% ABV) – mid-pink hue. Nose of red cherries and apples. Palate shows some oxidative, bruised apple notes and crisp zesty acidity. Well balanced and characterful – rustic rosé that works well. 17/20
Marden Organic Brut Rosé 2010, £25.00 (40% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Meunier, 12.5% ABV) – pale salmon pink. Restrained nose that is floral and blossomy with light peach notes. Palate is rounded and fruity, not complex but very drinkable. Fresh zesty acidity and good fruit balance. 17/20
Breaky Bottom Cuvée Alexandre Schwatchko 2008, £22.00 (95% Seyval Blanc 5% Chardonnay, 11.9% ABV) – nice bready, champagne-like aromas. Palate is bready and savoury but it’s a little cloying, palate not quite as good as the nose promises but still some good minerality and bready layers. 17/20
Sharpham Sparkling NV, £29.95 (55% Pinot Noir, 20% Pinot Meunier, 15% Pinot Gris, 10% Chardonnay, 12% ABV) – mineral and lemon aromas. Palate quite waxy and with a touch of spice. Interesting dry, tangy herbal style. 17/20
Bluebell Estates Blanc de Blancs 2009, £25.00 (100% Chardonnay, 12% ABV) – lifted fresh yeasty aromas. Palate is dry, lean, steely and lemony. Very high acidity. Quite challenging to drink but pure, elegant and spine-tingling. 17/20
Jenkyn Place Rosé 2009, £27.00 (79% Pinot Noir, 21% Chardonnay, 12.5% ABV) – rich, ripe, plummy aromas. Palate is similar with a real Pinot Noir character. Quite like a fizzy red Burgundy in a lightish style. It’s full and fruity but all in balance. 17/20
Chapel Down Rosé Brut NV, £24.99 (97% Pinot Noir, 3% Pinot Meunier, 12% ABV) – salmon pink colour. A mix of bready, spicy and floral notes. Palate is similar, nice soft red fruit character. A little bit simple and high in dosage but very drinkable. 17/20
Ridgeview Fitzrovia Rosé 2010, £26.95 (64% Chardonnay, 32% Pinot Noir, 4% Pinot Meunier, 12% ABV) – very spicy / bruised apple aromas, quite oxidative. This carries through to the palate but it does work on a certain level. A rustic and full-on style. 17/20
Meonhill Réserve NV, £21.95 (50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir, 12% ABV) – closed, reticent nose. A little yeasty. Palate is very tangy and citric / juicy lemony, very young. Not bad at all, very invigorating. 17/20
Henners Reserve 2009, £29.00 (70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir, 12% ABV) – mute aromatically. Yeasty. Palate is dry and serious. Tangy and yeasty. Lots of racy acidity. It’s an elegant and racy UK fizz, lacks complexity but it’s balanced and good. 17/20
Langham Wine Estate Blanc de Noirs 2010, £24.00 (85% Pinot Noir, 15% Pinot Meunier, 12% ABV) – pink hue. Oxidative aromas. Interesting – would be good with a chunk of terrine or paté and toasted country bread – a really rustic style. Not complex but rounded and very drinkable. Good stuff. 17/20
Upperton Nebula 2010, £25.50 (37% Chardonnay, 37% Pinot Noir, 26% Pinot Meunier, 13% ABV) – restrained bready aromas. A rich but savoury style. It falls away a bit on the back palate but it is a very engaging wine. Champagne-like and yeasty. 17/20
OVERALL TOP 20 RANKINGS
NB: While the two Laithwaite’s wines were clear winners, the scores for the next 20 were within half a point of each other
- Wyfold 2009
- Theale Blanc de Blancs 2007
- Breaky Bottom Cuvée Princess Colonna 2008
- Ridgeview Cavendish 2010
- Wiston South Down Cellars Bin 3 2009
- Ridgeview Grosvener Blanc de Blancs 2010
- Roederer Estate Quartet Brut NV (California)
- Bluebell Estates Hindleap Rosé 2010
- Camel Valley Pinot Noir Rosé Brut 2009
- Waitrose Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV
- Henners Vintage Reserve 2009
- Henners Vintage 2009
- Plumpton The Dean Blush Brut NV
- Champagne Taittinger Brut NV
- Chapel Down English Rose NV
- Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2008
- Jenkyn Place Rosé 2009
- Meopham Sparkling Brut 2008
- Chapel Down Rosé Brut NV
- Ridgeview M&S Marksman 2009