It is still odd to think of England as a wine region; it's too cold, too foggy, too wet, too outlying to be anything more than marginal as a place to make wine. But a confluence of circumstances — advances in viticulture, climate change, accidents of geography and, perhaps most of all, an insatiable global thirst for bubbles — has made the country one of the most compelling wine regions on the planet.
In the last 20 years, vineyard projects have sprung up across the southern coast from Plymouth to Dover, mostly given to sparkling wine, forging a collective style that pays homage to Champagne (just 300-odd miles and one English Channel away) even as it remains entirely distinct in character. It's a case where what was once marginal isn't — and compelling evidence that the margins will have to be redrawn altogether.
England is, in fact, not a new wine region at all. The Romans practiced viticulture there, and there's evidence of a heyday about 800 years ago, when the last great epoch of global warming overtook the planet. But the current warming trends have gotten vignerons to start planting again: At present, there are 5,000 acres of vines in the ground and 500 vineyards, managed by more than 130 wineries.
More than two-thirds of the country's production is given to sparkling wine, and for good reason — the climate here is too unpredictable to grow much else.
Spring frosts can disrupt flowering and fruit-set; rain in the fall can threaten the crop with rot and mildew. (In England, as in Champagne, chaptalization, or the addition of sugar to achieve alcoholic strength, is often necessary.) But perhaps the real reason producers have been compelled to produce sparkling wine is that much of the region's soils are composed of chalk — the same geological formation that makes much of Champagne such a unique growing region. It's called the Paris Basin, and it confers on English fruit the same nerve, energy and mineral tang as it does the fruit in France.
Not surprisingly, Champagne houses are taking interest, with Taittinger and Pommery investing in properties across the Channel. Already there is fluid cultural and intellectual exchange between the two regions: many winemakers in England are French, and many English winemakers do work stages, or internships, in Champagne.
These wineries may emulate Champagne, but despite being part of historic properties, many are scruffy affairs with the look and feel of start-ups, like Ridgeview, housed in a corrugated structure that looks like it went up yesterday; or Wiston Estate, which is in fact part of a 6,000-acre property owned by a family of landed gentry in South Downs, complete with a manor house that rivals Downton. The winery is housed in an old turkey abattoir.
As with any wine region, there are variations in flavor and texture among these wines. But in many there's a distinct character that seems quintessentially English.
For starters, they're fresh. Insanely fresh, bright, mouthwatering and laser sharp, with a fruit character that's bright and tangy, flirting with the citrus spectrum, ranging toward passion fruit and crisp apple in some instances. Champagne is also fresh of course but English wines often feel kicked up a notch, owing partly to the cool climate and white soils, and partly because, unlike Champagne, the English houses have fewer old base wines with which to compile their multi-vintage blends.
The other feature is a pristine texture, linear and fine, with an elegance and a firm tone that's quite consistent and pronounced. Whether or not you believe that a wine can convey minerality, these English sparklers will make you think of the chalk soils from which many originate.
Here are five brands to get acquainted with. Routinely difficult vintages mean that these wines don't come cheap: Expect to pay at least $40, but the quality is there.
Ridgeview, South Downs
Founded in the early '90s, Ridgeview is managed by Robin Langton, who worked in the U.S. with, among others, Patz & Hall. These are fine, classic cuvees, with the 2013 Blanc de Blancs an especially sexy and lifted wine, with scents of green apple and pomelo, citrusy flavors bearing a hint of toasty lees, and a lemon-rind finish.
Wiston Estate Winery, South Downs
An irrepressible Irishman named Dermot Sugrue makes the wines at Wiston Estate Winery, in a repurposed turkey farm. The estate's NV Brut is in fact all from the 2013, since 2012 was such a dreadful vintage. The aromas are fine and lifted, almost delicate. The flavors are nothing of the kind: assertive and resolute, with fruit tones that run from lemon to passion fruit, with remarkable persistence and length.
One of the country's more visible wine brands, Nyetimber winery was established in 1992; the estate itself is old enough to be mentioned in the Domesday Book. Nyetimber makes a NV Classic Cuvée of exceptional elegance, with a fine, delicate mousse, a lemony scent and detailed flavors that angle toward yuzu and lime, with a coyly tangy and mineral grip.
Hush Heath Estate, Kent
Hush Heath Estate is a relatively new winery, devoted largely to rosé wines, from Kent, southeast of London. Proprietor Richard Balfour-Lynn blends Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in his Balfour Brut Rosé, a wine with the scents of green plum and white cherries, and a firm, appley acidity lent some grip by the red grape tannins.
Gusbourne is another ancient estate in Kent (dating back to 1410) with relatively new (2010) aspirations in fine wine. Gusbourne works with properties from both Sussex and Kent. The 2013 Blanc de Blancs is remarkably pithy and dry at the outset, with scents of lemon rind and a smattering of fresh herbs marking citrusy flavors; there's a stirring core of acidity and a talc-like finish.