And now for something completely different, from me at least: A piece about actual wines I recently tasted! Sometimes I do find my way out from behind the counter and in this case, it was to host a wine dinner focused on English Sparkling Wines and Coteaux Champenois – two wine styles that are big winners in the world of climate change and global warming.
English sparklers have been on my shop shelves for over ten years, for about as long as they have been available stateside. A bit of wine minutia: English wine is not British wine, which is a distinct, legally defined category. British wine is generally made from grape concentrate, typically cheap and not terribly cheerful, while English wine, especially the bottles we see here, are generally sparkling and very rarely inexpensive.
The quick soundbite is that those white cliffs of Dover are made from the same chalk soil that the Champenoise make such a big deal about on their side of the channel. Combine that with an average temperature that’s been eeking up ever so slightly, making the southern bits of England finally warm enough to ripen the usual Champagne suspect grapes, and voila (or whatever the English phrase would be) – you have a region poised for Champagne-style greatness! A marketer’s dream!
In reality, the story isn’t quite so simple. Those chalk soils do exist – but a lot of the grapes aren’t planted on them. And the climate is similar, but it’s not exactly the same. In general, the southern parts of England, where most of the vines grow, is cooler than Champagne in the summertime, but have longer growing seasons. And of course, this being England, there’s more rain. All of these factors mean that while the wines are similar, English sparkling isn’t, and will never be, a clone of Champagne. Which may make for marketing style that doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily, but it still does make for some very good wine.
As it’s getting warmer in jolly England, it’s also getting warmer in Champagne. That razor’s edge acidity that’s so crucial to the style isn’t going to disappear anytime soon, but it is a topic of discussion among the more forward-looking growers. Seven years ago (which means it was probably closer to ten), I scribbled down notes as a young producer mentioned his experiments with Petit Meslier, one of the four under-the-radar legally-allowed grapes that typically only show up in obscure geek-bait wine trivia memes. It’s a grape that retains its acidity in very warm weather – and he wanted to be prepared.
One of the results of more reliably warm growing seasons has been an increase in Coteaux Champenois – the legal catch-all for "still wines made in what would otherwise be called Champagne if they were sparkling." They are delicious, always expensive, and made in tiny quantities, rarely seen outside of the Champagne region, let alone France – because everything one wants in an insider wine.
Once upon a time (let’s say that mythical seven-to-ten years ago), it might have been warm enough to produce a decent bottling a couple times a decade. Now, it seems more and more bottlings pop up here every year. Part of this is because the demand for insider wines has increased exponentially – but much of the increase is because the warmer climate has made them easier to make. The last time I gathered up all the Coteaux I would find, I found a grand total of six bottles: five red and one white. This time around, I could have done two dinners focused entirely on this style.
On to the wine notes!
ENGLISH SPARKLING: Dermot Sugrue
Dermot is an Irishman who has trained in Champagne, spent many years leading winemaking at Nyetimber, perhaps the biggest and grandest name in English bubbles, as well as many other properties. His own bottlings are lean, intense, geeky, and could go to head-to-head against many a Champagne – in terms of both price and complexity. He was supposed to be Stateside the week before my dinner took place, but some sort of paperwork snafu kept him from getting over here. (There was paperwork, he didn’t fill it out, so they wouldn’t let him on the airplane. Given this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I wasn’t really able to dig up solid tech sheets on these wines. Oh well – I would rather drink them than read about them!)
Sugrue Trouble with Dreams Cuvée Brut 2017
I do love this wine. It shows the level of geekiness, complexity and savory character that English bubbles can achieve. I’m still getting a handle on the microclimates of the subregions of the English wine regions, but I think this particular vintage of this particular wine comes from the Jenkyn Place Vineyard in Hampshire, one of the sunnier subregions. And that ripeness shows here like a glimmer of sunshine piercing a grey, spring day. There’s sunbaked apple, a savory biscuit/flinty character and that caramel/butterscotch note that you get with age and dosage that isn’t terribly trendy, but is absolutely delicious. I backed into the tech sheet after the tasting and wasn’t surprised to see the Chardonnay in the base wine is aged in oak… which just adds to the character.
Sugrue Boz Blanc de Blancs 2015 (special order)
Blanc de Blancs = 100% Chardonnay. Delicious. It’s showing some of that caramel/butterscotch character that I just adore, but still maintains cut and precision, tension and energy. I bet there’s oak involved in the base wine. And I’m sure somewhere there’s a tech sheet I could dig up to confirm it. But I would rather spend my time just drinking this gorgeous savory, salted lemon, sea salt-sprinkled bottle of goodness.
Sugrue Zodo Zero Dosage MV
For the record, I am not a huge fan of zero dosage Champagne. Which would translate to also not being a huge fan of zero dosage English sparkling wine. But when it’s good, it’s good. And this is good. Technical specifications on these wines are sketchy – not that anyone is hiding anything, but as with many small production bottlings, more time is spent on what’s in the bottle than what’s on the page. I’m fairly sure the base in the 2014 Trouble with Dreams mixed with a bit of 2009 and 2011 wines. Zero Dosage, as the name implies, so this isn’t destined for caramel-tinged goodness, but it has gorgeous ripeness (the lack of which is the bane of so many zero dosage wines) and tastes like a baked lemon pastry sprinkled with sea salt eaten while sitting on a sunny patio. It is dense and concentrated but manages to pull of the linearity and energy you expect from great Champagne…just translated to English.
ENGLISH SPARKLING: Ridgeview
I made a tactical error showing the Sugrue wines before the Ridgeview wines. Those wines are a totally different style – dense and uber complex making use of dosage and oak fermentation and specific site selection to make intellectual, thought-provoking wines.
This is not to say that the Ridgeview wines are thoughtless. NOT AT ALL!!! They are delicious and charming and my very first English sparkling wine love. And their prices are super charming as well. At dinner, we did a Champagne roll call and there are probably only five Champagne bottlings at this price that could compare to these bottles at this price. So, I am kicking myself that I didn’t show the Ridgeviews first because they are wines to fall in love with in terms of price/value/charm – the golden triangle of wine shop geography.
Ridgeview Cavendish Brut NV
The Cavendish is a classic blend, led by Pinot Noir, with expressive red fruit (hello cherries!), tiny, gentle bubbles, and a proper touch of leesy-biscuit. Charm in a bottle – and a blind tasting nightmare! I brought an older bottle of this to an anything-but-Champagne tasting and it was a brutal stumper. It had classic aged notes of mushroom and butterscotch backed by racy, serious acidity. It couldn’t have been Champagne…because we weren’t allowed to bring Champagne…but what else could it be? It was the first bottle of English bubbles many of my tasting mates had ever tasted – and it’s still seared in their brains.
Ridgeview Fitzrovia Brut Rosé NV
The Fitzrovia is a very charming rosé. S ubtle berry fruit mingled with biscuit and a touch of brioche and a gorgeous pale pink color. It’s the sort of wine that will make you want to put your day on hold so you can step out for a proper afternoon tea with a glass of bubbles on the side. Go ahead, be decadent – drink it from a coupe. No, it’s not the proper glass for good bubbles, but whatever – it sure is fun!
All of these bottles except the last one hit $100 or just over in a wine shop – because still wine from Champagne will never be inexpensive. Especially when you think these are essentially single-plot bottlings. If they were great Burgundy – or single vineyard bubbly bottlings, they would cost much more. So, the prices start to make sense. Price aside, the wines are lovely – combining purity, elegance, and serious drinkability. Tech sheets were sparse, but my sense is that there’s a good deal of new oak involved. I think this will change with future vintages as those theoretical new barrels become older barrels. I’m looking forward to testing my theory.
Marguet Coteaux Champenoise Ambonnay Blanc 2019 (Chardonnay)
This wine is my happy place. I couldn’t find a tech sheet, but I would bet that there is a new barrel involved. The wine is showing juuuuuuuuuust a little too much oak in its youth, but it has the subtly intense, pristinely ripe lemon curdy, apply fruit to pull it off as it ages. We didn’t decant it at the dinner (the hazard of trying to get through ten bottles + a couple bonus BYO treats) but we probably should have. That would have given us a sneak peek as to where it will go with a bit of age. And it’s going to go to a very good place!
Marguet Coteaux Champenoise Bouzy Blanc 2019 (Pinot Noir)
This one is a white wine from Pinot Noir grapes – it has just the very slightest pink cast – almost not noticable in sexy/dim dining room lights. Silky subtle white cherry fruit and a whiff of oak and flinty reduction all wrapped around a steely core of cool climate acidity. I couldn’t find a detailed tech sheet, but I would bet there’s a newish barrel involved. It’s not fashionable among a certain set of wine geeks to adore new oak, but on this sort of minerally, pristine, subtly fruited wine…. I do adore it. This is built to age.
Marguet Coteaux Champenois Ambonnay Rouge 2019 (Pinot Noir)
If I’m reading the tech sheet correctly, this wine is 60% whole bunch + 19 months in oak (I’m guessing new, but not toasted in any way.) Usually that whole bunch would show up as a certain spicy green character and an extra hit of tannins. But not here – the wine is remarkably silky, with rich, dark cherry fruit and a wee touch of chocolate. A bit of flinty reduction, but the fruit shines through, with the vibrational energy and tension that is classic Marguet.
Tarlant Rouge Grand Picou-St. Agnan 2018
This wine was easily the sleekest of the lot. Dark, dense, silky fruits and a hit of chocolaty/flinty reduction. Sexy, spendy oak. We decanted this one and to my nose at least, the reduction was well on its way to blowing off. In another year or two (or a day or two…I will report back as I still have a bit left and re-bottled) I think it will be absolutely shell-shockingly gorgeous. $150 is admittedly a lot of money to spend on a “see if I’m right” bottle, but if I were in the market for a $150 bet, this would be a bet I would happily take.
Champagne Lelarge-Pugeot Rouge de Meuniers 2014
I’ve had these bottles hidden away for a few years…and their low price (yes, this is Coteaux Champenoise, so “under $60” is low!) reflects the geology of the last ten or so years in the wild world of the wine industry. Tariffs, evolution in importer/distributor partnerships, decreasing yields thanks to hail and frosts and all sorts of wild weather, and increasing demand have led to prices that are often, typically (and I can make a case for justifiably) twice this amount. So, consider this a throwback to the way back days when still wines from Champagne were even more under the radar than they are today. The wine is lovely – Pinot Meunier (now just known as “Meunier” is a little softer, gentler, plumper than Pinot Noir while still reveling in red plummy, cherry, berry goodness. The almost ten years of age have added a touch of autumn leafiness and a tiny hint of brett adds a touch of barnyard/leather. Gently rustic and very happy-making.