How well aware are you of the growing phenomenon known as English sparkling wine? Chances are…you aren’t. Commonly referred to as “English Fizz”, these wines have also got my head in a twist; sparking both my curiosity and an inkling to better understand this utterly foreign concept.
The difficult part is that these wines are nearly nonexistent here in the US market, unless you live in New York that is. Within the Big Apple, well-known wine merchants such as Zachys, Crush Wine & Spirits, Frankly Wines, Astor Wines, and Millesima offer anywhere from one to a few different kinds of English Fizz. But even so, from what I have seen almost all of these wines offered are from one producer, Ridgeview. Not to discredit anything about the quality of Ridgeview, but it is quite a shame that so many more are out there and have yet to make their journeys across the pond.
To start off, I’ll provide a bit of background on the matter. But before I dive into intricacies, I just want to clear up one vital detail. British wine is not English wine, and English wine is not British wine. Got it? Okay, good. The infamous British wines are produced from lower quality bulk grapes imported from outside of the UK that are often brought over in the form of concentrate. On the other hand, the superb English wines are produced only from high-quality grapes grown in local vineyards. Furthering that thought, the English sparkling wines are also produced via the traditional method; identical to that of Champagne.
Alright, now we can move on. So despite the reputable quality of English Fizz, several of which have beaten out well-known Champagne houses in competitions, these wines have had quite the sluggish start throughout the 20th century. In addition to producers really striving to get a grasp on how to grow their grapes in the most effective way while battling England’s unforgiving climate conditions, the government has notoriously charged a rather high duty for these wines. Ironically, even higher than what the government was charging for duty on these obsolete British wines. As a lover of all things Full House, “How rude.”
Despite this miner suppression, the UK now has over 400 vineyards spread throughout the counties of Kent and Sussex, as well as all around the southern portion of England and even into Wales. Due to the country’s extremely distant proximity to the equator, the most crucial aspect of its wine industry is meticulous vineyard selection. For both success and survival, grapes must be planted in south facing slopes over well-draining soils in areas that are protected from strong winds, frosts, and have a lower annual rainfall average. Sounds pretty easy right? Wrong. But if executed correctly, these vineyards result in superior quality terroir-driven wines with bounteous acidity and refined minerality.
During my short stay in London this past June, I made it a point to become more acquainted with these wines and their current status in the UK market. Hungry for answers and insights, I met with award-winning wine buyer Joan Torrents. Based in London and the former Head of Wine for Mitchell & Butlers, a company which operates over 1,600 restaurants and pubs throughout the UK, Joan has spent several years working with the UK wine market and was the perfect person to ask.
According to Joan, the decreasing demand for entry-level Champagne is basically doing two things. For one, it has proven that things are on the upswing and the English are becoming more and more willing to cough up the quid for premium quality wines. Secondly, this feasibly opens the window for the pricey, yet highly profitable, English sparkling wines to gain more of the audience they rightfully deserve. What jerks could possibly get in the way? The Spanish and Italians, that’s who. Okay, in reality I have nothing against Italy nor Spain. In fact, I’m quite infatuated with both. But with increasing awareness of the premium quality Cava and Prosecco, English Fizz will certainly have to fight for its spot at the top. Oh and let’s not forget, Champagne is still in this game as well. Joan ended the conversation by mentioning one inevitable truth about English sparkling wine. The production of these wines is still small scale and the supply will most likely not keep up with this uprising demand.
But hardships aside, we should all focus on the miracle that what once seemed like an implausible part of the world for grapes to successfully grow and reach the necessary ripeness levels is now producing wine. Amazing wine I’d go so far as to say. And just what is it that made this miracle possible? It’s simple, climate change. And who knows, once more Americans become exposed to the splendid wonders that are English Fizz, perhaps we’ll all see Al Gore pop up on C-SPAN voicing a nice big, “I told you so!”
Here is a prime example of an English sparkling wine that I enjoyed and what my thoughts were on it…
Like a perfect Sunday picnic in the gardens of Hyde Park with a spritz of citrusy zing, this wine exposed delicate aromas of lilac, yellow rose, sage, unripe pear, crisp green apple, kumquat peel, and a rather pleasing squirt of blood orange. The well-integrated beads and vivacious acidity were seamlessly matched by the wine’s hints of dried almonds, smoked ham, and delightful yeast on the finish.