I was in England earlier this year and managed to pay my first visit to a local vineyard. Chapel Down in Tenterden, Kent is our largest producer at around 1 million bottles of wine, roughly a sixth of the country’s total produce.
On a cloudy and bitterly cold March morning I went on a very informative guided tour of both vineyard and winery. The vines were still dormant but it’s always interesting to get a feel for the terroir regardless of the season.
The majority of English Quality Wine is sparkling, made in the Traditional Method as used in Champagne and from the classic grape varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. By a happy coincidence, and possibly with a little help from climate change, both climate and soil in the south of England share similarities with those of the Champagne region in northern France.
Traditional method wines go through a second fermentation that takes place in the bottle, this helps create the bubbles, then the wine rests on the dead yeast cells (known as lees) for a minimum of 15 months, the longer the better to allow autolytic characteristics of biscuits, brioche and acacia honey to develop giving added complexity.
The Champagne houses have many years of reserves wines which they can draw upon to add to the current year’s harvest to create their all-important “house style”. These reserves can make up to 45% of the blend. The UK wine industry is still in its infancy and has not yet built up such vast reserves for blending. Chapel Down are currently only going back as far as their 2010-11 vintages. This doesn’t seem to have hampered the UK wine industry as their Quality Sparkling Wines regularly do very well in international blind tasting competitions against Champagne. The 2009 vintage was a very good one, I tasted Chapel Down’s Blanc de Blancs Cuvee from that year with my students upon my return; we were thoroughly impressed. It is Chardonnay-dominant blend that displays aromas of ripe green apples & pears along with acacia honey and freshly baked bread; its flavours were intense and concentrated following 4 years on lees. A price-tag of £26.99 is more than acceptable for a vintage traditional method sparkling wine of this quality. I can’t see it appearing on shelves in KL soon unfortunately but next time you are in Kent I would really recommend a visit. As an added bonus they have a wonderful restaurant with a menu based around locally sourced produce. It was full on that cold and grey March weekend, I imagine it is amazingly popular in the summer when you can sit on the terrace overlooking the vines, those green and pleasant English (yes English) vines.