"I hear you make wine in England now, what's it like?" You get used to the sardonic nudge and wink from foreigners as this question is lobbed like a hand grenade. How to respond without waving the flag like a demented chauvinist? Easy, actually. Just mention our burgeoning sparkling wine industry and how, because of England's cool maritime climate and chalky soils, our green and pleasant land actually is the new Jerusalem for fizz.
Richard Balfour-Lynn, whose Kent-based Balfour Brut Rosé 2007 has just been selected for BA's first class, raised eyebrows recently by saying that England's "greatest opportunity" lay in sparkling wine, because "our climate is ideal for producing the appropriate level of acidity and mouthwatering freshness, which is vital for good-quality champagnes and sparkling wines". His salmon-pink, elegantly-dry Kent blend, Hush Heath Estate Balfour Brut Rosé 2006, £34.99-£42.94, Waitrose, Harrods, is one of England's finest sparkling rosés.
Ridgeview Estate's Mike Roberts goes further, saying "making still wine in the UK is unsustainable". Ridgeview is a benchmark for English sparkling wine. His 2008 Bloomsbury, £21.99, Waitrose, is a refreshingly crisp, bone-dry and tangy example of the finest English fizz. It's the equal of Nyetimber's 2001 Blanc de Blancs, £24.95, down from £32.95, Berry Bros' Summer Sale (0800 280 2440), crisp, creamy and dry with a lemon-squeeze of acidity.
English rosé fizz is a development whose time has come. I recently tasted and enjoyed Andrew Weeber's Gusbourne Rosé, £31.99, Armit (020-7908 0626), raspberryish on the palate with a full-bodied mousse and a crisp, mouthwateringly dry tang. Another excellent newcomer is the Coates & Seely Rosé Brut Britagne NV, £29.99, Lea & Sandeman (020-7244 0522), Bennetts Fine Wines (01608 661409), Noel Young Wines (01223 566744), Luvians (01334 654820), with its fragrant nose of red berries and super-refreshing palate of crisp, sweet mulberry fruitiness stopped dead in its tracks by an underfoot cranberryish, sherbety tang.
Its co-founder, Christian Seely, has chosen the name Britagne in an attempt to get the name accepted as a term for champagne-method English sparkling wine. This provocative step has brought orchestrated resistance to what's seen as a Frenchification of an English practice.
Mike Roberts wants the name Merret for the very best of English sparkling wine that excludes non-classic grapes such as seyval blanc and incorporates champagne-style practices such as hand-picking and whole-bunch pressing. Merret is named after the Gloucestershire doctor who, in a paper to The Royal Society in 1662, wrote about "wines brisk and sparkling", before even the supposed 'inventor' of champagne, Dom Pérignon.
Mike Roberts claims to have the support of Nyetimber, Hush Heath and Chapel Down. But Camel Valley's ex-RAF pilot, Bob Lindo, would like to shoot the idea down in flames. He sees region and brand name as the priority, pointing to the success of his son Sam, who last month won UK Winemaker of the Year for the third time, and his 2008 Camel Valley Pinot Noir Brut, £29.95, camelvalley.com, one of only 10 gold medal winners in this year's English and Welsh Wine of the Year competition.
The (mostly) good-natured debate looks set to continue for a while yet.Reuse content