One morning on the tube, I saw a guy reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. As I rose to leave, I said, “You can’t learn that by yourself.” It’s the same with wine. You need to read, taste and talk. For the reading part of that equation, two books have been my emotional brassieres: English Wine by Oz Clarke and Wine from Another Galaxy (pictured top) by Dan Keeling and Mark Andrews. Clarke’s book about English sparkling wine filled a genuine need, what with vineyards springing up all over Britain and no book dedicated to them. With insider information, first-hand experience of those vineyards and a lot of bottles, it’s breezy and informative, very much like Oz himself.
As environmentally friendly as you can get, this is a wine for the very fussiest drinker
Oz is no pushover and has an immaculate shorthand. About Albury he writes, “If I were asked to recommend a really good marketing ploy for an English wine, I think I would say, ‘Being served on the Royal Barge for the celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012’.” Albury was indeed served on the Royal Barge. The vineyard is dedicated “to producing organic fruit without the use of chemicals such as herbicides and fungicides” in the production of quality wines. Albury has been biodynamic – think super-duper organic – from the start. As only 600 bottles of Albury Estate’s Biodynamic Wild Ferment Blanc de Blancs were produced, I opened it with great anticipation – each bottle is like a little soul to be consumed. A blend of Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc, I smelled apple, fresh pear, herbs and gooseberry floating around. The taste, at first lightly floral with a touch of brioche, is what I would expect from wine having spent 48 months on lees. Allowed to breathe overnight in my miracle fridge, it opened to a fuller flavour, keeping that light and clean tone which pairs well with rich food. As environmentally friendly as you can get, this is a wine for the very fussiest drinker. Even orthorexics can appreciate a good wine.
One of the big boys, Gusbourne’s Blanc de Blancs 2014 – an anticipated vineyard year – is a highly integrated wine with a balanced Chardonnay swoop. Sleek and slick, its Chardonnay grapes hail from 14 different vineyards. Fermented in old oak casks, it spent 42 months on lees. The longer something spends on lees, the more savoury, toasty flavours it may have, although lees-ageing can also make a wine more age-worthy, more resilient. Fruitier, with a good balance of mineral – that flinty dry sensation – you get the dryness of a BdB along with flavours that often come with sweeter wines.
Tasting with other people, I’m always looking anxiously in my glass, asking, “What are you smelling? What is that flavour? What are you feeling?” I think the real answer would be, “For you to leave me alone.” Not everyone wants talk about fruits and flowers, I get it. But for those who do want to get experty, two chaps I ain’t met yet, Dan Keeling and Mark Andrews, wrote Wine from Another Galaxy. They’re the Noble Rot chaps, and the magazine has some of the best wine writing I’ve read for a long time. The book tends to tip into self-satisfaction (who wouldn’t with so many great bottles), but can also sum up wine’s magic: “…even if you think you know that Barolo smells of roses and tar, or Chablis tastes like it has trickled through ancient oyster beds, great bottles always have an originality that begs the question: how can this be made just from grapes?” I didn’t know about the tar and stuff, but I believe this also happens with lesser bottles. Hey, if you want to spend thousands on a great bottle, that’s very easy to do. I go along with Phillippe, manager at my local Marylebone Nicolas, “You learn something from every bottle, no matter what.”
So yummy wine isn’t always pricey or hard to find. Take Digby Leander Pink, the official sparkling wine of world-renowned Leander Club. Those rowers have won more Olympic medals than any other UK sports club. Every bottle sends a bit of money to their academy, for training and nice gear, etc. So while the wine is charitable, pretty, has a fun label and funds fetching athletes, it also tastes of the summer. Really, one sip and you’re wearing a boater, eating strawberries with your best person at your side. It could be a kind of wine for your own version of Dejeuner Sur L’herbe, if you want to go as far as sitting naked in woodland. This is an English sparkling stuffed with summery flavour. Its shining countenance might even be at your local Waitrose.
Finesse and mystery you say? Try Henners. The vineyard, founded in 2007, is hardly five miles from the East Sussex shore and has some wines named Fiennes and Native Grace. The bottle I tasted, Henners Brut NV, is very English, with a biscuity nose, fine mousse and a crisp dry finish not strong but long. It doesn’t have a lot of texture and needed a bit of time for the more honeyed notes to come out, but it would amplify any dish you spent hours making. Plus it has that, “What, you didn’t know about Henners?” factor, which is always fun. This is a great wine to drink when you’re feeling insecure.
Now, some believe English sparkling can’t beat champagne. It’s not a race. But if you want to do a home taste comparison test, stampede for The Grange. Of all the bottles I loved and purchased, this one from a relatively small – 10 hectares – vineyard is a bottle I implore you to try. I have yet to taste the rosé but their Classic Brut is a sensational champagne-like English sparkling that somehow never betrays its identity. It feels like it could speak perfect French if it wanted to. What does that mean? Well, it tastes like champagne, with all the fun of the fair, but it tastes distinctly English. Could it be that The Grange is the herald of a whole new English sparkling world? Pop a cork and let me know. C