On English Fizzzzzz
London is a place I have passed many times en route to places with more vineyards and colder beer. Early last year with whispers of wine tides changing for years now, I decided to come to RAW - the world’s largest convergence of natural wine producers. What the fuck is a natural wine producer and why I would fly 10.5 hours to find some later.
With plotting in place the question became how best to craft a wicked trip around it. I am used to living in a country that makes epic amounts of delicious wine no one has heard of. Canadian wine, which is dry, plentiful and delicious is ice wine and ice wine only in the eyes of most of the world.
I was intrigued by the wines of England and knew little else than it was mostly sparkling. Expensive sparkling. Expensive sparkling that only British WSET students must be aware of for their Diploma exam. I must admit I approached the category with skepticism.
It made sense for the domestic market, sure. I mean, every state in America makes wine. People are thirsty! People like local! Or perhaps, in some cases, people like cheap. In my mind English sparkling was like 60% that. Yeah yeah yeah okayyyyy sparkling in this wet cold terrible place. Cool guys, if you can’t ripen anything else, who doesn’t like a bubble. Needless to say assuming things is dumb. English fizz is here, delicious, improving fast and not going anywhere.
Traditional wine countries are steeped in history: the triumphs, turmoils, successes and heartbreaks of centuries. I love it. It is what transcends wine from drunkening tool to cultural artifact, liquid history. But in the wise words of Australian rapper Iggy Azalea “fuck love give me diamonds”. History is great, but the sparkle of a burgeoning place teetering on breakthrough is exhilarating. [that's probably what she meant, right?!]
So why now? Nicholas Coates of Coates and Seely, put it nicely. Within the last ten years England has moved from the wrong to the right side of marginal. Thanks global warming. Put simply, England used to be a bit too cold. Now it isn’t.
Grapes love to be on the edge. Some of the world’s best wines are made in the most impermeable soils, the coolest conditions. From struggle comes greatness. In the last ten years Champagne has seen temperatures rise every year. So has England. This trend of worrying temperature rise in classic regions and growing production in once inhospitable regions is happening around the world.
This is particularly exciting for the English as the area around Hampshire is chalked full of chalk (lolz, sorry). Like fancy chalk. Like the exact type of chalk found in Grand Cru Champagne. This is really good Chardonnay soil (Champagne’s noblest grape along side Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). It is also commercially exciting as the Brits are way into fancy bubbles. They drink 33 million bottles of Champagne a year making them the world’s largest market. That is 10 times the volume consumed by the United States. What if they could make the same quality of sparkling wine at home? What British organization, royal event or UK restaurant wouldn’t prefer it to an import?
We visited three of the regions stars to find out more: Hambledon, Nyetimber and Coates and Seely. A quick run down.
Hambledon in chalk rich Hampshire is gorgeous: complete with south facing vineyard, a state of the art winery and a regal Rhodesian Ridgeback. Owner Ian Kellett is whip smart and fiercely ambitious. You just want to be on his team. He sees English sparkling as on the tipping point. He has the soil, England’s oldest vineyard - first planted 50 years ago - and the best equipment and expertise money can buy. He is looking for the industry as a whole to take 25% of Champagne’s market over the next decade. He is making phenomenal wines and wondering when Champagne will start paying attention. If they haven’t yet, I have a feeling he will make them with dreams of the industry increasing to 6-8 million bottles.
Nyetimber is another star and the region’s most internationally known name. They were the first to plant Chardonnay in 1988 and dedicate themselves wholly to sparkling. Their first vintage, 1993 won them top prizes in blind tastings with Champagne and people stopped teasing - ‘Chardonnay will never ripen, those fools!’ - and started paying attention - ‘how much Chardonnay can we plant.' Nyetimber is mostly produced on Greensand, the soil of Sussex, that brings perfume, brightness and fruit to the blend, while their chalk plots in Hampshire bring minerality and texture. We had a wicked vertical tasting with winemaker, fellow Canadian and fellow Queen’s graduate Brad Greatrix. If that isn’t the best name I do not know what is. The wines are precise and joyful and the packaging is killer.
Our last stop was Coates and Seely, the days small-town hero. We were late as all hell and had the immense pleasure of meeting Nicholas Coates and his lovely wife Virginia at their family home I would like to like out a Jane Austen novel in. Nicholas and Christian Seely were school friends in the 80s. Over a lot of wine in Bordeaux they hatched a plan to make England’s finest bubbles on chalk soil with the best French winemakers. They make only 65,000 glorious bottles they cheekily label ‘Methode Britannique’ with no plans to expand. Their wines have true personality, quite characterful and meant to be paired with food. They sell to some of the finest restaurants around the world and regularly welcome top sommeliers to their home for freshly hunted deer carpaccio, the perfect match for their savoury, piney, perfect Rose I forgot to spit. Yes.
Big thanks to best wine friend Jamie for being the driver and making the best schedule. While I did lose my iPhone in the English country I mostly blame not spitting and jetlag. Look out for these wines. I can’t wait to see what’s next.