Saturday, 12 March 2011

English Sparkling Wine v Champagne – who will win?

“Judgment of Parson’s Green”

English Sparkling Wine v Champagne – who will win?

The Tasters
A stellar line up of tasters (in alphabetical order): Suzie Barrie MW (Winchester Wine School proprietor who wrote her MW dissertation on Champagne), Dee Blackstock MW (Champagne and sparkling wine buyer for Waitrose), Sue Daniels (MW student and wine technologist for Marks and Spencer) Michael Edwards (journalist and author of several books on Champagne), Victoria Moore (journalist, wine columnist for the Daily Telegraph), Jancis Robinson MW, OBE (journalist and wine-polymath), Julia Trustram Eve (English Wine Producers), plus myself.

The Wines
52 English Sparkling Wines – all from award winning producers – against six non-UK sparkling wines (four Champagnes and two others). The wines were arranged in three flights: 11 Blanc de Blancs inc. Sainsbury’s excellent BdB Champagne (£18.49), 15 Rosés inc. Sainsbury’s Etienne Dumont NV £18.99) and 32 blends inc. 2 Champagnes – Moët & Chandon NV (£30.99), Sainsbury’s Defontaine Premier Cru Champagne (£19.99), Pelorus 2006, Cloudy Bay’s New Zealand vintage sparkler (£17.99) and Codorniu’s top Cava (£12.99).

All wines were served blind, the RidgeView magnum was decanted into a standard bottle and tasters were free to (and did) taste the wines in any order they wished. The Champagnes were carefully chosen; the Moët because it is the world’s largest Champagne brand, the UK’s favourite and considered by most to be the benchmark for NV Champagnes, and the Sainsbury’s Champagnes because the Blanc de Blancs is a truly excellent wine and unbeatable at the price, and the two others because they are recognised as offering superb quality and value for money. The fact that there was a 25% discount for 6 bottles or more also helped! The Pelorus vintage is one of New Zealand’s best and as it is owned by LVMH they ought to know something about making the stuff. Likewise the Cava – Codorniu – Spain’s top producer with over 150 years of experience in sparkling wine. The wines were also chosen because they were in the same price range as UK-sparklers are selling - £12.90 to £36.99.

The Results

Ranking
Average scores
Vineyard
Wine
Vintage
Varietal blend
 Retail price
1
17.17
Ridgeview
Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs
2007
Chardonnay 100%
 £21.95
2
16.82
Ridgeview
Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs in Magnum
2000
Chardonnay 100%
 £63.00
3
16.65
Sainsburys
Etienne Dumont Rosé (Maison Burtin)
NV
???
 £18.99
4
16.64
Gusbourne Estate
Brut Reserve
2006
Chardonnay 46% Pinot noir 41% Meunier 13%
 £21.99
5
16.50
Nyetimber
Nyetimber Rosé
2007
Chardonnay, Pinot noir
 £34.95
6
16.46
Ridgeview
Bloomsbury
2008
Chardonnay 54% Pinot Noir 26% Pinot Meunier 20%
 £19.95
7
16.43
Plumpton Estate
The Dean
NV
Pinot noir 90%, Chardonnay 10%
 £20.00
8
16.42
Sainsburys
JS Blanc de Blanc (Duval Leroy)
NV
Chardonnay 100%
 £18.49
9
16.36
Moet & Chandon
Brut Imperial
NV
Pinot noir 50%, Chardonnay 10%, Meunier 40%
 £30.99
10
16.32
Sainsburys
Defontaine Premier Cru (Maison Burtin)
NV
Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Meunier
 £19.99
11
16.25
Plumpton Estate  
The Dean Blush
NV
Pinot noir 94%, Chardonnay 6%
 £20.00
12
16.20
Chapel Down
Pinot Reserve
2005
Pinot Noir 70%, Pinot Blanc 30%
 £24.99
13
16.05
Nyetimber
Classic Cuvée
2006
Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Pinot Meunier
 £25.99
14
15.92
Laithwaites
South Ridge Cuvée Merret (RidgeView)
2008
Chardonnay 60%, Pinot noir 28%, Meunier 12%
 £19.99
15
15.86
Jenkyn Place
Jenkyn Place Brut
2006
Chardonnay 61%, Pinot noir 23%, Pinot Meunier 16%
 £25.00
16
15.81
Hush Heath Estate
Balfour Brut Rosé
2006
Pinot noir 55%, Chardonnay 40%, Pinot Meunier 5%
 £26.99
17
15.80
Davenport
Limney Estate Blanc de blancs
2005
Reichensteiner 100%
 £16.50
18
15.78
Camel Valley
Pinot Noir Brut
2009
Pinot noir 100%
 £24.95
19
15.73
Nyetimber
Blanc de Blancs
2001
Chardonnay 100%
 £28.99
20
15.70
Breaky Bottom
Cuvée John Inglis Hall
2006
Seyval blanc 100%
 £20.05

One thing is certain: the best UK sparkling wines can more than hold their own with Champagne. Although Champagne occupied four of the top ten places, that still meant that six were English and with only one point separating the top twelve wines, it was all very close. RidgeView undoubtedly were the stars of the tasting and with their wines (I include wines they made for both themselves and their clients) occupying ten out of the top thirty wines, there is no doubt that the team is on a roll. Their win at the Decanter World Wine Awards last year (Best World Wide Sparkling Wine over £10) with the Grosvenor 2006 was no fluke. I rated their 2001 Grosvenor in magnum as my personal favourite when I tasted it at the EWP St. George’s Day tasting last year (and promptly ordered six bottles to be kept for me for a future occasion) but now having tasted the 2000 Grosvenor in magnum, I am not so sure! I need to do a comparative tasting.

The other Top Twenty winners were the other serious players – Breaky Bottom (with the only Seyval blanc-based wine in the top 20), Camel Valley, Davenport (with a great 100% Reichensteiner), Gusbourne, Hush Heath, Nyetimber, Plumpton, Chapel Down, Jenkyn Place – all regular medal and award winners and capable of making good sparkling wines in a range of styles and over different vintages.

Of course no tasting is without its losers and this one was no exception. Whilst not wanting to single out any vineyard in particular, there is no doubt that on the basis of this tasting, wines made from non-Champagne varieties fared poorly. Apart from the Reichensteiner and Seyval blanc already mentioned, ALL the non-Champagne variety wines were placed at position 26 or below and whilst there were plenty of Champagne-variety blends in the bottom half of the tasting, these tended to be the younger wines suggesting that wines made from Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Meunier often (although certainly not always) require longer in bottle to come around. Older bottle-aged wines also tend to have a better nose – scoring points even before they have been tasted – whereas a short-aged bottle-fermented wine often lacks this attribute. All of the non-Champagne multi-variety blends scored badly (all in the bottom ten) and were probably best forgotten

The Conclusions
The best producers, those using the right varieties and clones, making their wine with care, ageing them for an appropriate length of time, and putting them on the market with a dosage that both respects the wine and the sector of the market they are aiming at, can produce wines that are truly world-class and at prices that are in no way out of line with the competition. With the UK sparkling wine industry barely out of nappies, what can we achieve over the next 25 years? When you consider that Dom Pérignon was perfecting the blending and assemblage of Champagne over three hundred years ago (he died in 1715) I think we can be pleased at the progress so far. As my teachers often wrote in school reports: “good work this term, but could do better” (usually with “--- if he paid attention/stopped larking about/applied himself” added on!). So it is with English Sparkling wine. In my opinion this is only the start. As both vineyards and growers mature, as winemakers learn from their past results, the quality of English Sparkling Wines can only improve. Many, many thanks to all those growers and winemakers who supplied wines and to the tasters who crowded into my flat. I hope to make this an annual event, so watch this space.

Stephen Skelton MW
12-03-11

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