English sparkling wine is relatively new to most consumers. Its production traces back to the early 1600s, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s when the first designated Champagne grape vines were planted in the U.K.
Since then, the category has seen its consumption and reputation rise in tandem. This is thanks in part to producers like Ridgeview Winery in East Sussex, which began planting vines in 1995, and whose Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs won Best Sparkling Wine in the World from Decanter in 2010. It’s thanks, too, to U.S. importers and distributors making the category more available to U.S. consumers.
“The English sparkling wine industry is at a really exciting point in its trajectory,” Simon Roberts, head winemaker for Ridgeview Wine Estate, says. “We have always made wines of the highest quality, but it is only now we have the volume to share this secret with the world.”
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Roberts may be one of the region’s premier producers, but critics and consumers agree that bottles from the region rival those from Champagne in taste, quality, and price.
The style also owes its recent success to a combination of good soil and bad economics. Due to the pound weakening, English producers are selling their wines to foreign buyers at a cheaper rate, with the U.S. being the biggest export market, according to an industry report from Wines of Great Britain.
Additionally, the region has benefited from its similar terroir to the Champagne region, with fewer obstacles. The South Downs region and its mainly south-facing slopes have similar chalky soil to Champagne, with wines from each region yielding similar flavor profiles, structures, and characteristics. While Champagne has taken considerable hits due to rising temperatures, with heat waves destroying almost 20 percent of the region’s grapes in 2019 alone, South Downs has not seen these negative effects.
Many producers in the region are using the three primary Champagne grapes in their production: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Ridgeview is one of the larger sparkling wine producers in England, with more than 250,000 bottles made per year. “The winemaking starts in the vineyard, so we want to make the fruit to be the star of the wine,” Roberts says. “The Chardonnay brings citrus and lychee, the Pinots show black cherries, red fruits. Our cool climate gives us a long growing season, allowing the grapes to show a crispness and freshness from the acidity, alongside the fullness of ripe fruit, making the wine great to share with friends or just as good to accompany a good meal.”
Access has also been a driver of the category in the U.S. Now more than ever, English sparkling wines are being imported and distributed in many states with the onset of the rise in sparkling wine consumption. Consumers are always looking for the next big thing, and these sparkling wines may be it.
Sommeliers and retailers are on board, too. Speaking about the 2014 Ridgeview Blanc de Noirs, Alpana Singh, master sommelier, restaurateur, and host of “Check, Please!” says: “It would land on a wine list at around $95 a bottle, which puts it in the ‘hand-sell’ category, and a good fit for a customer who wants to try something different and unique. As a sommelier, I’m always on the lookout for these types of wines, as it creates a memorable souvenir experience for our guests rather than giving them something they’ve had before and are likely to soon forget.”
And, it doesn’t hurt that “Jancis Robinson referred to this as the granddaddy of English sparkling wine,” she adds.
As more restaurants approach sparkling wine offerings in new ways, adding styles such as pét-nat to their lists, English sparklers are edging in to be the next by-the-glass contenders. After all, the beauty of wine exploration is to evolve, to change, and to grow. Like our palates, sparkling wine is always evolving, and more regional developments mean more labels to enjoy. And who doesn’t like to hear a bottle pop?
FIVE ENGLISH SPARKLING WINES TO TRY
Concentrated fruit and elegance; practically screams to be paired with seafood. Average price: $49.
Crisp and lush, with rich salinity; perfect as an aperitif. Average price: $69.
An excellent choice for a variety of foods and palates. Average price: $39.
Great to enjoy now, but has potential to age exceptionally well. Average price. $51.
Fruit-forward rosé with hints of spice that balance the oak-fermented wine. It doesn’t need food, but will pair well with a variety of pasta dishes. Average price: $40.