The English are known for many great contributions to the world: Delicious ales, hilarious comedy, the Beatles. Even the local cuisine, the butt of bad-food jokes for decades, has recently become a point of pride for the Brits.
But wine? Surely the English should leave that sort of thing to their neighbors across the Channel in France, right?
While that may have been true 20 years ago, it appears that the tide is turning.
English wine production dates back to the Middle Ages, and it continued through the 19th century until World War I brought it to a halt. It wasn’t until after World War II, in the early `50s, that new vineyards were planted and winemaking resumed. The wines during the post-war period were largely hit or miss, as vintners experimented with different grape varieties and vineyard techniques.
In the 1990s England saw a surge in vineyard plantings as vintners rushed to beat a rumored vine ban that would prevent future expansion.
Meanwhile, lots of lousy wine made from imported concentrate was being churned out, factory style, under the label designation of “British wine” -- a holdover from the days when locally grown grapes weren’t available. (To be labeled as “English,” a wine must be made in England with grapes grown within the country.) People’s encounters with these cheap supermarket wines didn’t do much to convince them that England was capable of producing serious wines.
The last several years, however, have marked a promising turn for the English wine industry. Growers have begun taking a more scientific approach to vineyard development, and a handful of ambitious, committed vintners are squarely aiming for the high end of the market. The results are inspiring English wine drinkers -- and even some outside the country -- to take a second look.
The most successful wines -- not surprising given England’s wet, chilly climate -- are dry sparklers made from grapes grown in the southern coastal counties of Sussex and Kent, just across the English Channel from France. Along with climatic similarities, these English regions share similar soil profiles with Champagne.
Among England’s sparkling wine producers, Nyetimber, Chapel Down, Ridge View Wine Estate and Hush Heath Estate are the names most often evoked by the country’s wine critics as leading the country’s charge toward quality.
But just what are these English vintners trying to achieve? Do they really think their sparkling wines will be able to compete with those from Champagne, or other top sparkling wine regions?
I had the opportunity to find out for myself earlier this month when I visited Hush Heath in Kent. The winery makes only about 2,500 cases a year, divided between two rosé wines: A sparker called Balfour Brut Rosé and a still wine called Nannette’s English Rosé. Despite the winery’s tiny production, owner Richard Balfour-Lynn is taking the venture very seriously.
Like many winery owners these days, Balfour-Lynn made his fortune in another industry before turning to the wine business. He’s the chief executive of property investment group Marylebone Warwick Balfour (MWB), which owns two boutique hotel chains. He is also chairman of the Alternative Hotel Group.
The winery venture took shape several years ago, after Balfour-Lynn bought a 400-acre estate in Kent. After his wife Leslie suggested that he plant a vineyard on the property, he brought in Stephen Skelton, one of the UK’s most respected vineyard and winemaking consultants, to help.
In 2002 the Hush Heath crew planted the estate’s first vineyard, which included four combined acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The following year he added Pinot Munier, and in 2004 Hush Heath had its first commercial harvest.
To make the wine, Balfour-Lynn hired Owen Elias, who had been Chapel Down’s head winemaker for 10 years.
That first vintage of the Balfour Brut Rosé won a gold medal in 2007 at the International Wine Challenge in London, one of the world’s largest and most influential wine competitions. The 2005 vintage won a gold medal and the first trophy ever awarded to an English wine in the 2009 Decanter World Wine Awards.
Just before I visited Hush Heath in mid-September, Balfour-Lynn unveiled his new self-contained, state-of-the-art winery facility.
As we sat down for a vertical tasting of Balfour Brut Rosé with Stephen Skelton and a group of British journalists, Balfour-Lynn laid out his goal for Hush Heath.
“Our aim is simply to take on the best rosé Champagne producers,” he said. “I know that’s very arrogant, and I know we have a long way to go.”
It’s not only the quality of Champagne that he wants to rival at Hush Heath, it’s also the approach. “The great Champagne houses were created over centuries by families that were totally committed to what they were doing,” Balfour-Lynn said. “And I think that although we’re a very young version, we need to show that same energy and enthusiasm.”
The advantage for English wine producers these days, he noted, is the public’s interest in artisan-made local products. “People are keen now to put an English wine on the wine list, which they previously haven’t done.”
Although he views the French Champagne houses as his main competition, Balfour-Lynn says he’s not trying to imitate the region’s wines. Rather than having people mistake Hush Heath sparklers for Champagne, he’d rather have them identify them as being from Kent.
“We’re not Champagne,” he said. “I think (our wine) has its own distinct flavor and taste, and I think we should look at it that way.”
In general, Skelton said he’s beginning to see a slight difference emerging between English sparklers and those from France.
“I don’t know whether it’s because they’re being released earlier, but what you’re getting is slightly higher acid and slightly more aromatics (with the English),” Skelton said, “because you’ve got this longer growing season here.”
Balfour-Lynn also described the difference in terms of acidity.
“If you think about great English fruits -- apples raspberries, blackcurrants, strawberries, even things like rhubarb -- they’ve got great acidity,” he said. “And it’s really this balance between really great acidity and sweetness that gives you this sort of fantastic English flavor. When you really compare the acidity between English sparkling wines and non-English, it’s the acidity to me that actually leaps out as being spectacularly different and, in that sense, English.”
When we finally got around to tasting the wines, I found I had to agree with Skelton’s and Balfour-Lynn’s assessments. In sampling the 2004-2008 Balfour Brut Rosé (£31/$48), I found the wines to be very dry, with quite a bit of acidity. They were all a pale salmon color, had lots of fine bubbles, and showed aromas and flavors of red fruits, like strawberries and currants, along with citrus notes.
The Hush Heath sparklers didn’t have the sort of yeasty, bread-dough characteristics that Champagnes typically display, nor did they have the roundness of California sparklers. What they did have was freshness, and plenty of it.
A couple of the wines had a bit too much acidity for my taste, but I may have thought differently about them if I’d tasted them with food. Overall, I enjoyed the Hush Heath wines and found them to be well made -- and not just for English wines.
The question is, of course, is whether or not we’ll ever see these wines in the United States. With production under 3,000 cases a year, the wines aren’t currently being exported. However there is hope; Balfour-Lynn said he plans to increase production to just over 8,000 cases in the coming years.
The Classic Cuvée from Nyetimber -- which reminds me a bit of a higher-end California sparkler -- can occasionally be found in the U.S., so keep your eyes open for that one.
With more than 100 wineries now operating in England and vintners like Balfour-Lynn challenging the industry to raise the bar higher, sparkling wine producers in other parts of the world might need to start looking over their shoulders.