With many of you heading for the store for some sparkling wine this week, it’s a good occasion for a history lesson.
You probably have heard that Dom Perignon invented Champagne. We all have, but it’s technically false. The Benedictine monks stumbled upon champagne when their efforts to make still wine were foiled by a secondary fermentation that occurred unexpectedly in the bottle. But it was nearly a century later when in 1662 English physician Christopher Merret added sugar to finished wine to create the methode champenoise style used to make Champagne today. And it was the English who developed a bottle that could withstand the pressure created during secondary fermentation.
Alas, the English were dependent on the French for their Champagne because they couldn’t make it themselves. How times have changed, thanks to global warming that has made England’s cool, rainy climate more hospitable to vineyards. Now there are more than 400 vineyards in southeast England and some of them are growing grapes for English sparkling wine.
Once the primary market for Champagne, England now favors locally made sparkling wine. Sales of Champagne are off 11 percent and British restaurant owners are reporting that English sparkling wines are outselling Champagne. The French have noticed the trend – Taittinger is the first Champagne maker to plant vineyards in Kent.
Besides gaining a more hospitable climate for grapes, England’s Kent region, for instance, is blessed by having the same chalk soil that is ideal to making flinty champagne with balanced acidity. Unlike Spain and Italy which have introduced new grape varieties to sparkling wine, the English wisely rely on Champagne’s exclusive use of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.
We recently tasted two English sparkling wines from East Essex alongside a Champagne and were duly impressed.
Mark and Chris Roberts launched Ridgeview in 1995 when sparkling wine was in its infant stage. They chose a ridge with a view of Southdowns, a string of hills along the southeast coast of England. Its winemaker, Matt Strugnell, was named “Grower of the Year” in 2017.
Although the English sparkling wines compare well to inexpensive Champagne, their subtle differences are due to the variations in climate and terroir. We loved the French Henriot Brut that we tasted alongside the Ridgeview sparkling wine – it was quintessential Champagne. But it didn’t diminish our appreciation for the two Ridgeview wines. However, since the Henriot was $45 and the Ridgeviews were $55, cost savings is not part of the equation in choosing which to buy.
Most stunning was the Ridgeview Bloomsbury Non-Vintage Brut. Its dominance on chardonnay made it a more elegant wine than the Cavendish Brut which is 70 percent red grape varieties. Both were good sparkling wines but the citrus, melon and apple notes in the Bloomsbury were really fresh and graceful.
This wine scored more than 90 points in reviews by the Wine Advocate and Wine Enthusiast.
Finding these wines in time for New Year’s Eve may be a challenge. It might be best to grab a plane to London.
Easier to find is the Henriot Brut Souverain ($45). In a sea of expensive Champagnes, this is actually a great value and one from a reliable house we have respected for decades. It is well-balanced with a subtle floral and almond bouquet and apple, cherry flavors. It is a blend of chardonnay (50 percent), pinot noir and pinot meunier. Thirty percent come from reserve wines and two-thirds of the composition is represented by grand cru vineyards.
Henriot’s Blanc de Blancs ($59), made entirely from chardonnay grapes, is more complex with layers of fruit and understated elegance and little price difference.
Mulderbosch Chenin Blanc Block A 2016 ($33). From the Stellenbosch region of South Africa, this delightful wine has good length and viscosity. Floral aromas and mango, melon flavors.
- Lasorda Family Wines Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($24). Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda is the latest luminary to put his family’s name on a wine label. The oldest living Hall of Famer, Lasorda probably is not involved in making wine but his family has come up with a decent, medium-body wine for the price. The beautiful label includes a baseball diamond where Lasorda spent most of his career as a pitcher and manager of the LA Dodgers.
- Chateau de Saint Cosme “Les Deux Albion” Cotes du Rhone 2016 ($22). This is one of the best wines we’ve tasted in the last several months. It is a blend of syrah, grenache, carignan, mourvedre and clairette – the usual suspects in most wines from southern Rhone Valley. The producer makes excellent gigondas, but this blend from three communes just blew us away. Dense, dark in color, it sports generous garrigue and floral aromas. The flavors range from black cherry to plum. For the price, you can sock this away for several years – a good wine to start a cellar.
Hanna Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($39). Blended with a bit of malbec and merlot, this luscious and extracted cabernet is pure pleasure. Blackberry and blueberry notes with dashes of cocoa and vanilla. A decently priced cabernet that over delivers and would make a good match to a holiday rib roast or lamb.
- Torbeck Woodcutter’s Shiraz 2017 ($25). Made entirely from shiraz grown in Australia’s rich Barossa Valley, this wine is simply delicious. Medium body with loads of youthful blackberries and raspberries and hints of spice and vanilla.