Home News > November 2019 > Not your basic English Fizz

‘We need to understand there’s more to English wine than Champagne Varieties…’

Christine Parkinson Head of Judging at the Sommelier Wine Awards, has issued a passionate defence of English sparkling wines made with non-Champagne grapes, and told sommeliers and the press that it’s time to move on from thinking only of British fizz made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

‘There’s an assumption that all the English sparkling wines are made from Champagne grapes,’ she said. ‘The press are always talking about that ‘thrilling acidity’. But it’s only half the story. I really think it’s time for the on-trade to talk about some of the non-Champagne variety wines.’

English wine has been one of the big success stories of the Sommelier Wine Awards over the last five years, with many entries and a high proportion of medals. Many of these, of course, have come from méthode traditionelle wines, made using Champagne grapes. But that’s a relatively recent wine style in the UK, and Parkinson is concerned that some of the traditional wine styles – often made by smaller producers, with older vineyards, might be getting lost.

‘You have wines made from Champagne varieties that set out to do a lot of what is done in Champagne, but there are also producers doing something different, using traditional English varieties. No other region does that, and it can be a problem when you’re judging,’ she said.

To illustrate the point, our teams were presented (blind) with a selection of sparkling wines that ranged from a 100% Seyval Blanc and a 100% Bacchus to mixtures of Champagne grapes and English varieties, and classic Chardonnay/Pinot/Meunier sparklers.

‘The different varieties all have different flavour profiles, but also the lees character will be different,’ explained Parkinson. ‘Chardonnay and Pinot Noir both express lees character strongly, but wines made with non-Champagne varieties might not do that.’

There’s also the issue that traditional English white grapes, such as Seyval, Bacchus and Ortega are planted here because they work well in Britain’s cooler climate. As a result, they tend to be both riper and with lower acidity.

Teams, in other words, might not be justified in marking down a sparkler because it has lower acidity. What might be considered too low an acid level for a wine made with Chardonnay could be entirely appropriate for one made with Reichensteiner.

‘You have to understand which wines are meant to have that kick of acidity - because they’re champagne grapes – and which are not, because they’re made with English varieties,’ explained Parkinson. ‘You can’t mark wines down because they don’t have high acidity.’

The Camel Valley Annie’s Anniversary Brut was a good example. A fine example of a 100% sparkling Seyval, its structure and mouthfeel were very different from what many of our panel thought of as ‘classic’ English fizz.

There was a similar message for our judges in a specially curated flight of still wines, too. Most of them were familiar with Bacchus.

‘It’s done for English still wine what Sauvignon Blanc did for New Zealand,’ said New Street Grill’s Tanguy Martin. ‘It’s an iconic variety.’

But they were less au fait with Ortega, multi-varietal English blends and the growing number of Pinot Gris/Blanc combinations.

Oak, too, was something they were not expecting – and need to be prepared for.

‘We are starting to see more English whites with oak ageing on them,’ explained Parkinson. ‘But it’s the Bordeaux, not the Burgundy model – more of that waxy, high-acid profile than rich and toasty.’

A range of reds, featuring a crimson Gamay, a Regent/Rondo blend and two very different Pinot Noirs was received with surprise and positivity.

Team’s top picks from the tasting

Sparkling

Annie’s Anniversary 2016 (Camel Valley)

Camel Valley Cornwall Brut 2015 (Matthew Clark)

Fitz sparkling wine (Bibendum)

Gusbourne Brut Reserve 2015 (Gusbourne)

Still

Bolney Estate Bacchus 2018 (Bibendum)

Bluebell Vineyards Ashdown Ortega 2018 (Ellis of Richmond)

Biddenden Gamay Noir 2018 (Biddenden Vineyards)

Bolney Estate Pinot Noir 2018 (Bibendum)

Gusbourne Pinot Noir 2016 (Gusbourne)

Entries are currently open for Sommelier Wine Awards 2020 – enter your wine today