Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Study in Bubbles

Since I'm in England and have heard much about the creation of sparking wine in this nation, I decided to track some down and give it a try. Why sparkling wine in England? The land in England's south-east corner, Kent in particular, is made of the same kimmeridgian chalk that Champagne sits upon. This vein of chalk is responsible for the famous sparkling wines of France and the white cliffs of Dover. The climates in Champagne and Kent are similar, but not the same. Kent is on the English Channel, 180km north of Champagne as the crow flies, and subject to very different environmental influences. However, it's not a totally inhospitable growing area, and so people decided to give winemaking a shot.

English wine is not widely available in Canada (or really anywhere outside of England), so this seemed like a chance to try something new and fun. Off to Selfridges I went, to browse their wine cellar. There's all kinds of stuff there that we don't see much of in Canada, and I had to exert significant self-control to stop myself from buying many bottles. I settled on two bottles of English sparkling wine in different price ranges, one brut rose, and one brut blanc des blancs.

First, the blanc des blancs. This is Gusbourne Estate's 2010 sparkling wine. The estate itself is in Kent, a bit inland from the English Channel, about equidistant from Hastings and Dover, though the winery's website states that grapes are sourced from vineyards in Kent and nearby West Sussex.

The top of the box states that the wine is 'methode anglaise.' Suspecting that this probably meant that it was a traditional-method sparkling wine - that is, the Champagne method of letting the second fermentation to produce bubbles happen inside the wine bottle - it took me FOREVER to confirm this. In fact, I can only claim to have mostly confirmed it, because the winery website never actually clarifies what is meant by methode anglaise. The description they give is clearly that of a traditional method of production, and since Champagne successfully lobbied the European Union to not permit wine from any other region to use the term 'methode Champegnoise' on wines, wineries have had to come up with a new way to state that they've used this production method. Typically, people use the term 'traditional method' in English or French to convey this message. Seeing 'English method' on the bottle made me wonder if the winemaker had done something different from the traditional way. It seems that they didn't, so maybe using the name 'anglaise' is just a political move to irritate the French, but regardless of intentions I found it unclear.

After the first sip, my Latvian roomie, Mady, said, "I like." I had to agree; I liked it. It was crisp, clean, yeasty and green-appley. A very fine wine, indeed. But... it wasn't overly remarkable, besides being a good champagne-style sparkling wine. There was nothing about it that spoke to me of England. That was a bit disappointing. I was hoping for a little bit of the English countryside in the glass, but I got a textbook French champagne. I have a feeling that's what the winemaker was aiming for, but it seems unfortunate. If traditional-method sparkling wine can demonstrate terroir, this one doesn't do it.

The rose brut sparkling is from Chapel Down winery, in Tenterden, Kent. It's just a 20 minute drive from Gusbourne Estate. Chapel Down has their own vineyard, and they also source fruit from other vineyards from as far away as Essex to the north and Hampshire to the west. Though they say that they grow chardonnay in their own vineyards, it's unclear whether the grapes in the rose brut come from the Chapel Down vineyards or a combination of their own and other vineyards.  

This wine smelled yeasty-verging-upon-cheese-rind when first poured, and was fruity though coarse on the first sip. It settled down in the glass after a few minutes, and presented a dry, fruity, easy-going character. It was cheerful in its simplicity and eagerness to please. Mady observed that it tasted like the seaside, which was conceptually a lot closer to Dover than the Gusbourne wine tasted. I thought it was like a sunny day, having a picnic in an orchard. Even though this wasn't as fine a wine as Gusbourne, I thought I could taste more of England in it.

I wonder if this was a result of the winemaking, as this wine was in a lower price class from Gusbourne. I would expect that the winemaker at Chapel Down would go for a finer style of wine with the greatest grapes of the pick, and preserve the second-level grapes for the brut rose. It's interesting that perhaps this lesser style of wine shows more of England than the finer, more stylish level of sparkling wine.

In sum, both of these were good wines. The Chapel Down had a little England in it, and the Gusbourne was very fine sparkling wine. I give them each two thumbs up, and for very different reasons.

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