In case this page is read by a French visitor with a slight sneer at the thought of English sparkling wine, let us set out a few facts at the outset. Firstly, the English were making sparkling wine decades before Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon ‘discovered’ the technique. Not only is this documented in a paper presented to the Royal Society in 1662 by Christopher Merret (the goodly monk made his discovery about 1695) detailing how vintners and coopers here used sugar to give still wines sparkle; but these appear to have included still wine from Champagne as Sir George Etherege in his play The Man of Mode 1676 actually mentions ‘sparkling champaign’. In terms of materials we could do this because in 1630 Admiral Sir Robert Mansell improved glass-making techniques giving British glass the strength to withstand the gas pressure of sparklers; and our historic links with Portugal meant we were using cork to seal bottles when the French continued to use wood wrapped in cloth for many years.
The terrain of Sussex and parts of Surrey is very similar to that found in Champagne: chalk bones covered with well-drained sandy and chalky top-soils; rolling hills whose southern aspects are particularly favourable. The climate is not too dissimilar either, though the difference – a bit less sunshine - does perhaps lead to a slightly higher acidity in certain English wines – English winemakers may be some of the few people keen on the idea of global warming. Stories about French and even American winemakers looking for land in the area have been legion of late.
Three great vineyards dominate the stage as regards English sparklers: Nyetimber near West Chiltington in West Sussex particularly with its Nyetimber Classic Cuvée, a regular award-winner; RidgeView Estate near Ditchling in East Sussex who won the International Wine and Spirit competition accolade for best sparkler in the world in 2005 with wine made in 2002; and the largest vineyard in England, the 265 acre Denbies on the North Downs near Dorking in Surrey, regular Gold Medal winners at the aforementioned competition.
English white sparklers have a better reputation than rosé versions, but as the world warms that may change. As English production is so limited, while Champagne is special the best English sparkler (we can’t call it champagne even though we got there first) is rare and very special. Cheers to that.