If you live outside the UK you might not know that the 23rd of April is St George’s Day, Georgie boy being the “patron saint” of England. Celebrations are so muted that, in general, you might not even know about the day if you do live in the UK.
But there’s no one quite as patriotic as an ex-pat, so I was determined to quaff some quality English sparkling on the day!
100% Chardonnay (of course). Of all of the three tasted, this was the most “English” in style, if there is such a thing; it’s the racy acidity which really stands out, making it perfect as an aperitif. Fresh Granny Smith apples dominate the nose, joined by citrus and minerality on the palate. This is the current release but I think it will keep on developing for years to come.
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009
55% Chardonnay, 26% Pinot Noir and 19% Pinot Meunier. Probably the best Classic Cuvée (i.e. traditional Champagne blend) so far, this was on promotion at the ridiculously low price of €45 at Ely Wine Bar (where the above snap was taken) as part of Dublin Wine Festival.
Red fruit from the two Pinots arrives first followed by citrus from the Chardonnay. For research purposes I tried it both in a Champagne flute and in a normal white wine glass. It seemed fizzier in the first but a little softer and fruitier in the latter – an interesting experiment.
Ridgeview Grosvenor 2007
With a wine-making history almost as old as Nyetimber, Ridgeview are part of the establishment. For those who have heard Moët & Chandon’s fairytale about Dom Pérignon, here is Ridgeview’s take on sparkling wine:
Ridgeview’s trade mark MERRET™ is in honour of Englishman Christopher Merret. In 1662 he presented a paper to the Royal Society in London which documented the process of making traditional method sparkling wines. This was 30 years before the technique was documented in champagne. To celebrate Merret’s achievements Ridgeview has kept a London connection when naming our range of wines.
This was a different thing entirely. Amazing layers of tropical fruit and sweet brioche competed for attention. I would never have imagined that something this exotic was made in England. I can’t see this improving any further, but there was still underlying acidity to keep it all together. If you see any of this in your local wine shop, snap it up!
Despite not making a personal trip to Champagne in 2014, it was an excellent year for fizz, rounded off by a big fizz tasting on New Year’s Eve.
During the year I observed that nearly all retailers in Ireland have very good Champagne and sparkling wine on their shelves, whether from a recognised big producer or not.
More and more countries are now making top rate sparklers to satisfy the increased international demand for bubbles: old favourite Cloudy Bay Pelorus from New Zealand was joined by Roederer Estate Quartet from the USA and Quinta Soalheiro Alvarinho Espumante from Portugal.
Despite my intentions at the beginning of the year, I didn’t taste any excellent Cava during 2014 and Franciacorta remains an enigma – more tasting needed on both fronts! I also hear of sparkling Arneis from north west Italy which I will endeavour to seek out.
So what were the hits in 2014? As you will see, I tried some outstanding new (and established) English sparkling wine plus some excellent Champagnes.
10. Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011
Just like that crappy advert for Shake n’ Vac from the 80s, this English fizz really puts the freshness back! As hinted at by the term “Classic Cuvée, this is made with the three main Champagne grapes. As the blend is 71% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir and 9% Pinot Meunier it has a fresh and lively aspect to it – a great start to a party!
I would be interested to taste the same bottle with a bit of age to see how it develops.
9. Nino Franco Prosecco San Floriano 2012
Or to give it its full name Nino Franco Vigneto Della Riva di San Floriano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superior DOCG. If that sounds a mouthful, it is – but in a good way. I was keen to try it at the James Nicholson tasting after hearing it had been recognised by Mr Fizz himself, Tom Stevenson.
As I often say, when trying most Prosecco one glass is enough for me, a second means a really good wine – well this is “give me the bottle and I’ll finish it on my own” good. In case that wasn’t quite obvious enough – I really like it!
This single vineyard bubbly is made by the Charmat method like all other Prosecco, but has four months on the lees while in tank, and therefore picks up a little autolytic character. It’s also dry and savoury, so it tastes like a serious wine – you could easily drink this with a meal as well as the usual aperitif.
8. Wiston Estate Blanc de Blancs NV
Several people who like Champagne but aren’t that well-acquainted with English sparkling wine have been surprised by the proportion of English fizz that has a vintage, i.e. made from grapes harvested in a single year. Given the vagaries of the English climate – even more unreliable than that of northern France – you might expect many more non vintage wines where reserve wines have been used to smooth out less than perfect years.
I’m not sure why this is the case – it could be that so many English wineries are new and haven’t had the time or spare cash to lay down lots of reserve wines – but here’s an exception to the norm.
Irishman Dermot Sugrue has done a wonderful job with the Wiston Rosé, but the combination of creamy bubbles, refreshing lemon sherbet and hints of tropical fruit blew me away. If you like your fizz and you haven’t tried this yet, sort it out!
7. Leon Launois Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006
As I mentioned in the introduction, the big retailers in Ireland have put a lot of effort into their house Champagnes as there were some very creditable bottles tasted this year.
Among the best were Jean Comyn “Harmonie” Brut NV (from Molloys), Bissinger Premium Cuvée Brut NV (from Lidl) and Beaumont des Crayères Grand Réserve NV (from O’Briens).
However, my favourite – and one that exceeded my expectations of a house Champagne – is Aldi’s Léon Launois Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2006. From the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger in the Côte des Blancs, this 100% Chardonnay has spent half a decade on the lees giving it lovely brioche character supporting refreshing lemon.
6. Gusbourne Estate Blanc de Blancs 2009
First, an admission: on meeting a well-presented chap at the James Nicholson tasting with the hand-written name badge “Charlie Holland-Gusbourne” I leapt to the conclusion that this was an English toff with a double barrelled-name showing the fruits of his ancestral estate. Prior research or even just paying attention would have revealed that Charlie Holland is the award-winning winemaker fromGusbourne. I’m still blushing.
Anyway, trying Gusbourne’s wines for the first time impressed me, and the Blanc de Blancs was my overall favourite. Fairly young still but with three years minimum on the lees behind it, this will continue to improve and add layers of complexity over the coming years. 2009 was an excellent vintage in England!
5. Varnier-Fannière Cuvée St-Denis Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs NV
This is a non-vintage, but as a “prestige cuvée” it deserves the more fitting moniker “multi-vintage” as used by Krug for their Grande Cuvée, for example. I took this as an interloper to Morgan Vanderkamer’s Grower Champagne tasting and it was tricky to guess (almost) blind
It had much more body and texture than usual for a Blanc de Blancs. But rather than maturing base wines in oak, it’s the extended ageing on the lees (five years minimum) and the excellent fruit that give the oomph. Denis Varnier eschews oak and blocks MLF to keep the wines as fresh and pure as possible.
The grapes for this bottling are grown in a walled vineyard in Avize called Clos du Grand-Père, named after Denis’s maternal Grandfather Jean Fannière who moved on from “just” growing grapes to being a fully-fledged Champagne producer when already in his 50s.
4. Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009
I had three opportunities to taste Nyetimber’s “best vintage yet” over the course of 2014.
Firstly with the nice people of Liberty where it showed well.
In the middle of the year I took my wife to Ely Wine Bar for her birthday. After a few bubbles at home she wasn’t in the mood for any more when we arrived at Ely, but she changed her mind when she saw Nyetimber on the list.
Then finally I popped a bottle on New Year’s Eve – and it was better than ever! Perhaps the bottle on my wife’s birthday hadn’t really shone as much as it should have done after a heavyweight rosé Champagne (so heavyweight that I put it in my Top 10 Reds of the year!) But in a more sympathetic context it was magnificent, and the Pinot really shone through.
3. Dom Pérignon 1995
You know how when you’re having a ball of a time at a party, and you open a bottle that, in a more sober frame of mind, you might have saved for a special or at least contemplative occasion? If you’ve been there, did it feel like a waste?
Sometimes, it’s not a waste! Thus it was when I popped my oldest bottle of Dom Pérignon, from the excellent vintage of 1995 – it was just sumptuous!
As part of the drinks group Moët-Hennessey (itself part of luxury goods group LVMH), Moët et Chandon NV is much more about marketing than wine quality. Unfortunately, the Moët vintage was also a disappointment this year. But the prestige cuvée is still the real deal, in my opinion, despite the large quantities produced.
I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned this year is that even Champagne has to be kept until the right age and the right moment – whenever that comes – and then it can be a transcendental experience.
2. Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 1999 (Magnum)
This modest co-operative-produced Champagne was a delight over Christmas (I think I had a magnum to myself on Christmas morning) and the star of the night at the NYE Glasnevin Fizz Fest.
As you might gather from the name, it’s another excellent aged Blanc de Blancs from Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger, one of the top few villages for Chardonnay in Champagne. It has the trademark yeasty, bready characters on the nose., followed by a sumptuous palate of citrus and soft stone fruit. Just delicious.
1. Charles Heidsieck Cuvée des Millénaires 1995
Even in the context of all the excellent sparkling wine I tried in 2014, there was only ever going to be one winner for me.
The Charles NV is pretty good, but this is on another level entirely. Almost two decades maturing in the cellar has brought aromas and flavours of brioche, nuts and candied fruit in addition to refreshing citrus. It has the voluptuous texture without sweetness of salted caramel. It’s time to sell a kidney and buy a case.
Liberty Wines are a wine importers based in the UK and Ireland with an exciting range of Italian, Australian, New Zealand and other quality wines which are sold to restaurants and independent wine merchants. As well as the quality of their wines they are renowned for the quality of their service to customers and for the representation they give to the producers.
Although it is difficult to select only a few of their wines – as the average quality level is so high – below are my favourite sparkling wines shown at their February and October tastings.
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2009
If you’ve read much of my blog before you might have gathered that I’m quite a fan of Nyetimber – not (just) for patriotic reasons but because I really rate it as a sparkling wine. And thankfully, I’m not in a minority, as the increasing quality level has been recognised in several competitions – and the 2009 is the best yet.
55% Chardonnay then 25% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier gives it a balanced assemblage of the classic (!) Champagne grapes. It really is fresh and creamy with a bit of soft flesh behind it. I can’t wait to try the Tillington Single Vineyard bottling from the same year!
Hattingley Valley Classic Cuvée 2011
A relative newcomer to the English sparkling wine scene. 71% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir, 9% Pinot Meunier. Spent time in old Burgundy barrels – though fairly young so obviously not that long!
Very fresh and zesty lemon flavours from the Chardonnay, with a creamy finish. Would be great as an aperitif but could partner well with white fish and seafood.
70% Pinot Noir from the Côte des Bar and 30% Chardonnay from the Côte des Bar, Côte des Blancs and Vitry. Only the first pressing juice is used and 20% of the reserve wines were kept in large oak casks. Malolactic fermentation (MLF) was blocked for a third of the base wine to preserve freshness. It spends three years minimum on the lees, more than double the stipulated period. The key tasting note for me was apples – all manner of apples – stewed apple compote, baked apple pie, fresh apples off the tree. Just delicious!
Champagne Devaux “D de Devaux” La Cuvée NV
60% Pinot Noir from Côte des Bar and 40% Chardonnay from Côte des Blancs and Montgueux. This is a more prestige cuvée but still not from a single vintage; at least 35% of the reserve wines was aged in large oak casks. Spends a minimum of five years on the lees then a further six to nine months post disgorgement.
Although a fairly similar assemblage to the Grande Réserve NV this is a step up in quality and is a different style – altogether more sumptuous and rich, decadent almost. Hell, if you can’t be decadent drinking Champagne now and again, what has life come to?
Champagne Devaux Vintage 2004
97% Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs and 3% Pinot Noir from the Côte des Bar – so this is almosta blanc de blancs. It spent 7 to 8 years on the lees (gives it a lovely creamy character) and then a further year post disgorgement before release (which helps it settle down and integrate properly). Fantastic lemon citrus flavours come through from the Chardonnay.
Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV
Founded by the original “Champagne Charlie”, this house is now one of the most respected in the whole of Champagne – Tom Stevenson gives them rapturous praise. The Brut NV is one of the strongest on the market this side of luxury cuvées such as Krug. Since coming into common ownership with Piper-Heidsieck (originally founded by an uncle of Charles) a few years ago, quality continues to rise.
40% of the blend is made up of reserve wines (the maximum permitted amount) of up to ten years old. The precise assemblage isn’t disclosed but is undoubtedly Pinot heavy given the richness. Three years maturation on the lees gives some lovely brioche notes.
Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995
As much as I love the quality sparklers above, mature Champagne is in a different category entirely. This is 100% Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs – 4 Grands Crus and 1 Premier Cru village. The nervy acidity it had at bottling served to preserve it as it took on new aromas and flavours over the years. Simple lemon has been replaced with brioche, nuts and candied fruit. It has the voluptuous texture without sweetness of salted caramel.
This is a complete Champagne which doesn’t need anything else with it, and in fact is so satisfying that it doesn’t need anybody else with it – I’d want to drink it all by myself!