It was 1980 and rivulets of rainwater meandered down through the dots on my bedroom window. I focussed beyond at the land sloping towards the sodden Pevensey Marshes, once a seaward bay and landing point for William the Conqueror, now reclaimed and home only to grazing sheep.
The door swung open behind me and I thrust the magazine I’d been reading beneath my pillow - too late. My mother placed the sandwich she’d brought on my bedside table.‘Francis, what was that?’
‘Let me see,’ she insisted, beckoning me to lift the pillow. I reluctantly slid the magazine out and sheepishly proffered it, blushing.
‘It’s Decanter magazine, about wine.’
‘Oh… Good!’ she said, and cheerily left the room. Her apparent relief at my underage interest in alcohol left me wondering what she had thought, but at twelve the images of rolling vineyards and aged bottles had sparked an interest potentially more unhealthy than the one she’d feared. I might become a wine snob! I returned to staring out of the window, little knowing that one day one of England’s finest sparkling wines would from within view, a little way further along the same ancient ridge our house stood on.
The volume of wine made in England has doubled in the last ten years, to over five million bottles, and it is set to double again by 2020. Almost all of the increase is down to sparkling wine made from the three noble Champagne varieties: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with a little Pinot Meunier. To keep up with the trend, I recently toured the South East (where the majority of England’s vineyards lie) to seek out, for the purpose of our tastings at Taste of the Vine, the finest home-grown sparkling wines. Here are a few recommendations, listed alphabetically. Prices are those on the company’s website, where information on stockists can be found.
Exton Park: Rosé Vintage 2011. £60.00 Aromas of passion fruit, hazelnut and spice. Deliciously creamy. An unusual wine in that it’s exclusively Pinot Meunier from the estate’s oldest vines, made in limited quantities.
Gusbourne: Blanc de Blancs 2012. £39.99 Sherbet and vanilla notes on the nose with ripe apricot and pastry flavours. Made from 100% Chardonnay. An excellent wine from a difficult vintage.
Hambledon: Premier Cuvée. £42.50 Rich and nutty with a mouth filling palate, redolent of dried fruits and citrus. Hambledon’s top wine, a blend of 60% Chardonnay, 24% Pinot Noir and 16% Pinot Meunier.
Hattingley Valley: King’s Cuvée 2011. £65.00 Soft, ripe, white stone fruits and a hint of vanilla from partial oak ageing. This luxury bottling was voted No.1 English sparkling wine by Decanter.
Henners: Vintage Reserve 2010. £34.00 Sweet lemon and honey notes with a rich, biscuity palate. From a (superbly situated!) vineyard on a ridge overlooking the Pevensey Marshes.
Herbert Hall: 2013 Brut. £27.00 Lime, sweet apple and brioche notes with a palate of bright citrus fruit. A masterful bottling from a small producer in Marden, Kent.
Hoffman and Rathbone: Classic Cuvée. £36.00 Pineapple, white peach and grapefruit, with a creamy palate layered with spiced cake notes. Made by Uli Hoffman, one of England’s most dynamic winemakers.
Hush Heath: Balfour Brut Rosé 2013. £35.99 Warm berry nose with a balanced palate of crunchy stone fruits and hints of nut. Now in its twelfth vintage, this has become one of England’s most reliable quality rosés.
Sugrue Pierre: Trouble with Dreams 2013. £39.00 A highly complex wine with mouth-filling ripe apple and spiced fruit palate. Made by Dermot Sugrue, from two small vineyards at the foot of the Downs to the north of Brighton. The 2010 would be my desert island wine.
Whilst these are top end, and so may not be at the forefront of your thoughts when looking for an everyday sparkler for your event, they do compete favourably with luxury Champagnes. Moreover, from these producers listed, as well as several others (such as Nyetimber, Ridgeview & Chapel Down), there are also excellent less expensive sparkling wines that make impressive alternatives to similarly priced non-vintage Champagne.
I’m off to Sussex to plant vines in Mum’s front garden.