Why English Sparkling Wine is So Damn Good

It is the year 1652, and Christopher Merret  an English Scientist, Physician, Naturalist

and Mettalurgist – has just documented how to put the fizz into English Sparkling wine. 

This is over 30 years before the French monk Dom Pierre Perignon was alleged to have discovered the method champenoise at the abbey of Hautvilliers in 1697, famously exclaiming “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars”. 

Dom Perignon has his own statue outside the Moët and Chandon champagne house in Epernaywhile their prestige cuvée is also named after him. 

Meanwhile the only dedication to Christoper Merrett is on a blue plaque on the side of a house in the village of Winchcombe, on the edge of the honey coloured Cotswolds that reads: 

Birthplace of Christopher Merrett 1614-1695In 1662 he documented how to put the fizz into sparkling wine’ 

It was yet another English man, Sir Kenelm Digby, who was responsible for inventing the modern wine bottle around 1633. It allowed sparkling wine to be bottled and stored without exploding, as previous wine vessels were much too delicateSir Kenelm, used coal-fired techniques rather than wood to invent a much stronger glass, thus enabling the production of wine containing bubbles. 

So if the English had the method of production and the method of storing way back in the 17th century, then why is it only in recent years that they have been producing English Sparkling wine to rival the best champagne houses? 

wine grapes

“Simply put it’s climate change”

says Dermot Sugruestanding amongst the plump, almost ready to harvest vines at the picturesque Storrington Priory in the South Downs in Sussex, on a somewhat drizzly summers day in back in August. He is an acclaimed winemaker and recent winner of Boutique Producer of the Year for Sugrue South Downs at the WineGB awards 2020.  

“We didn’t have global warming back then” He goes on to explain. “We can now plant noble grapes, the traditional Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier varieties. The ‘champagne’ grapes. In the 60s, 70s and 80s people could only plant Germanic grapes, other varieties just wouldn’t grow”. 

He goes on to explain not only climate, but something called terroir is the key to producing exceptional sparkling wines. 

It can’t be too warm, otherwise the acidity is out of balance. Too cold and the grapes won’t ripen. The summer of 2020, with its above average temperatures, means the harvest is early, as hot weather makes the vines advance, which again produces too much sugar.

winemaker and dog amongst vines

All of this I understand but just what exactly is terroir 

According to the  Oxford Dictionary Terroir is defined as:  

The complete natural environment in which as particular wine is produced including factors such as soil, topography and climate.  

All of which affect the quality of the grapes produced and the taste of the finished wine. 

In the South Downs many of the vineyards lie along its chalky ridge, and according to Dermot: 

“Chalk gives unbelievable finesse. Ageing potential and finesse comes from the chalk”. 

Another Sussex wine producer, with a perfect view of that chalky ridge from their wine tasting garden is the aptly named Ridgeview. Although the story behind the name isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. 

“We were called Ridgeview instead of say ‘Downs View’ for a reason and that was to confuse people” says Mardie Roberts, wife of head winemaker Simon Roberts, who is the son of founders Mike and Christine. “We wanted to get people to taste it who had never tasted English Sparkling wine before. We wanted people to taste it blind, and we would line it up with Champagne and New Worlds. It wasn’t to say that we were better but that we could stand alongside the giants of the best sparkling wines of the world.  And our first label had a tiny UK on it. Now 20 years later, England is at the forefront of sparkling wine and it’s our biggest USP, and all those wonderful accolades that we have received, we can now be really proud.” 

The Roberts family and the team at Ridgeview can indeed be proud, having been served at the Diamond Jubilee, Barack Obama’s state visit and are now exporting across the globe, recently finding a place on the wine list of the world renowned French Laundry by Thomas Keller. While in 2010, at the Decanter Awards, they were awarded best international sparkling wine, at the time, the only sparkling wine other than champagne to have won. 

ridgeview wine garden

 My award however for best named wine has to go to the whimsical sounding, Sugrue South Downs ‘ The Trouble with Dreams”. But what exactly does it mean? 

“Well in 2008, a few years after planting at Storrington and two days before harvest, birds ate 99% of the grapes. So obviously, my long held dream of producing my own wine would just have to wait…” 

Not too long though. His 2010 vintage was listed in the top 50 wines in Decanter magazine in 2015, while his 2011 won the regional trophy for UK Sparkling wine, again in DecanterHis latest release, ‘The Trouble with Dreams’ 2014 vintage, also won gold at the International Wine Championship (IWC) and gold at the Wine GB awards 2020. 

He is certainly one of the best, if not the best, sparkling winemakers in the UK at the moment. He has spoken a lot about the climate, soil, the perfect terroir but it is his knowledge and passion, the time he takes, that enables him to create a wine that lingers not just on your palette but in your mind. A wine to be savoured. As he says, 

“Wine is a people story. Wine isn’t made by oak barrels or stainless steel. It’s made by the people” 

And with a growing number of award-winning English Sparkling wine producers, it seems the people certainly know how to make fantastic wine. 

Sugrue South Downs

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