--Josh Donaghay-Spire, Winemaker at Chapel Down
In a blind tasting in Paris in 2016, English Sparkling Wine defeated Champagne in two categories, tying in a third. Bubbly from England? Yes, and in a relatively short time it has been marking its mark and is now starting to reach the shores of the U.S.
We must remember that the Romans brought viticulture to England though it didn't catch on there as it did in many other countries. In the 1950s, wine making became popular in England for a time, and then again in the 1980s and 1990s. However, it is only in about the last five years that a more serious effort has begun. There is now even a university of wine-making in the country. England used to rely primarily on hybrid grapes but that has changed and now they have chosen to rely much more on traditional Champagne grapes.
In 2015, England produced approximately 5 million bottles of Sparkling and Still wine, with bubbly comprising about 70% of that total. This annual total is less than 1% of their domestic consumption so it is still a very small industry. There are now over 500 commercial vineyards, occupying about 5,000 acres, and over 130 wineries. England is also exporting their bubbly to 27 countries, up from 19 the previous year.
Much of their success is attributed to their chalky soils as well as their climate, which has been getting warmer due to climate change. England has a maritime climate, with slightly warmer springs and cooler summers, rather than the continental climate of Champagne, but they are actually only 1 degree cooler than the Champagne region. Essentially, England now has a similar climate to what Champagne did in the 1960s to 1980s.
I recently had my first opportunity to taste some English Sparkling Wine, at a media breakfast event at Bar Boulud. Bubbly for breakfast? Why not? The event was hosted by Chapel Down, an English winery which produces a number of Sparkling and Still wines, as well as beer, ciders and spirits. Two representatives of Chapel Down attended the event, including Josh Donaghay-Spire, their wine maker, and Mark Harvey, the Managing Director, Wine. It was a fun and tasty event, and I was impressed with the two Sparkling Wines we tasted.
Chapel Down's winery is located in Tenterden, Kent and their grapes are sourced from vineyards in Kent, as well as the region from Essex to Hampshire. Kent is the top region for English wineries, with Sussex in second place and Essex in third. Chapel Down's focus is the "North Downs," chalky escarpments similar to the limestone soils of Champagne. They grow grapes included Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc (which grows very well in England) and Bacchus. There are few organic wineries in England as the high humidity makes it more difficult. At Chapel Down, their yields are very low, about 2.5 tons per acre, which is partially because they plant at lower densities, allowing them to have more canopies.
Though they produced their first wines back in 1977, it has only been in the last 15 years that they have made a serious effort. For example, back in 2001, they sold only about 25,000 bottles though by 2012, they had sold about 250,000 bottles of Sparkling Wine. The winery currently produces 600K-800K bottles annually, a roughly equal split between Sparkling and Still. They see a big opportunity for bubbly and they produce at least 7 different Sparkling Wines, made by the Méthode Champenoise, and priced from 25-100 English pounds, including Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noir, Non-Vintage Brut, Vintage, and Rosé.
Chapel Down is also very proud that "innovation is their ethos." For example, they were the first winery in England to produce an "orange" wine, a skin-contact Bacchus, and they were also the first to make a single-varietal Albarino. In 2014, they initiated a crowdfunding effort to support their winery and raised a record-breaking 2.5 million pounds in only two weeks.
Josh Donaghay-Spire, the winemaker for Chapel Down, was born in Kent and originally began in the restaurant industry. In his early 20s, he decided to move to South Africa and get involved in the wine industry. He eventually spent time working in Alsace and Champagne, before returning to England and joining Chapel Down in 2010. He is extremely personable, very passionate about wine, seems to embrace innovation.
The Brut is made in an aperitif style and had a pleasing golden color with lots of tiny bubbles and a pleasant fruity aroma. It has a clean and crisp taste, with prominent apple flavors, hints of citrus, and a streak of minerality. An easy-drinking, yet complex, and elegant sparkling wine, this certainly would be an excellent aperitif, though it also would pair well with lots of different foods, from seafood to chicken.
Like the Brut, the Vintage had a pleasing golden color with lots of tiny bubbles. There are fruit notes on the nose but with a touch of toast. And also like the Brut, it has a clean and crisp taste, lots of freshness. On the palate, there were tasty apple flavors and hints of citrus, but with more brioche elements and a lengthy, pleasing finish. It is more complex than the Brut, an elegant Sparkling Wine which is delicious and intriguing. It too would pair well with lots of different foods. This Vintage Sparkling Wine is only about 10% of their overall production, about 20,000 bottles.
Locally, Chapel Down's Sparkling Wines are being distributed by the Carolina division of the Martignetti Companies. These wines are now available in a number of local restaurants and I've also learned that the Wine Press in Brookline is selling these Sparkling Wines. I was impressed with the Chapel Down Brut and Vintage Sparkling Wines, enjoying the elegant, complex and clean flavors of each. If these are an example of the quality of English Sparkling Wines then I certainly need to drink more of them.