Sparkling wine was invented by the English. Look it up. This green and pleasant land is just starting to produce some of the best tasting sparkling wine this side of the channel. To coincide with #theBIGenglishwinegoodfriday – which is anytime thanks to self-isolation— it’s totally appropriate to celebrate the over 120 English winemakers who are helping us get through the pandemic. Whether you are English or speak English or you aren’t or don’t, now is best time to try local sparkling. They need you. You need them. If you started drinking English wine before and didn’t like it, try again. Thinking about a bottle of champagne? Leave that until next week’s column and try an English sparkling this week. I am not here to be right: I am here as a friend who wants you to put nice things in your mouth.
Tastings are one thing. Thirst is another
For all the tastings I’ve attended (when there were tastings IRL in London), the real pinch remained buying a bottle when you really need a wine to do its job. To a dinner party where you want the hosts to note your impeccable taste. You want to bring something delicious but not obvious and you don’t want to spend tons. Tasting something amazing makes you feel alive – when you take time to really taste and not just neck it. So now’s the time to do that new thing – get an English sparkling wine that is like that time you did a headstand and didn’t wipe out the Ming vase. Take a risk, get a thrill.
Tastings are one thing. Thirst is another. Cowdray’s farm shop in Midhurst always makes me hungry. This time, though, visiting a friend, I was also thirsty and needy. You can spend your way to a good bottle. But to get something affordable that you can buy regularly that you like, without knowledge, you rely on luck. So, I went for an affordable bottle that I’d not tasted before. Wiston – based in Sussex in the South Downs – has a selection of blanc de noirs, blanc de blancs, rosé, bruts, but non-vintage and vintage all with a welcoming, nicely-designed label. Well-priced too – the same amount you’d spend at Waitrose for a lesser bottle. But the flavour of the Cuvée Brut 2015 is fresh, alive, sophisticated. What I love about writing about sparkling wine is trying to describe it, especially this one with a lovely balance dosage of 8g (between champagne’s brut and extra brut). Yes, there is “English Orchard, nectarines, honey and brioche” as the Wiston Estate website says of the Cuvée 2015. With 45% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay and 22% Pinot Meunier, this has a lingering crispness with a honeyed undertone. This and the Cuvée Brut NV are my go-to if you want an English sparkling wine that makes you say, “Where’s my credit card? I need more of this.” It’s a bottle you feel smart for buying and luckier to drink it.
At a recent tasting, I met Richard Bampfield, a MW and former Chairman of the Association of Wine Educators as well as European Champagne Ambassador for 2009. His opinion of Wiston supported what my “tasting in the field” suggested. Mr Bampfield said 20 years ago English sparkling wasn’t something to look forward to. But the quality is improving vastly. “One of the standout performers in recent years has been Wiston Estate, a relative newcomer but one which has made a real impact… The wines are defined by intensity of flavour, well-balanced dosage and, in the vintage versions, classy use of oak. I am not sure they taste quintessentially English – I genuinely think they have a style all of their own.”
In upcoming columns I’ll be covering other English sparklers such as Gusbourne, Hambledon, Black Chalk and many others, as well as champagne. So for today, buy English sparkling. Get some sent to your home and treat it as you would the finest champagne. Don’t launch a ship with it. Open up the muselet (that’s the wire cage) twist off with the cork (aiming away from eyes and face), pour a 1/3 of a glass, swirl and smell. Take a sip. Taste. Bucko, you’re in England now. Or as my friend said after a couple of bottles of Wiston, “Hey, I’m off my tits on Wiston!” Not a tagline that the estate would use, but certainly something I’d recommend in the privacy and joy of your own home. C