English wine is better than champagne, experts declare after taste test

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For decades it has been shunned in favour of its full-bodied counterparts from across the Channel. Treated with derision from those in the know and scepticism from nearly everyone else, English sparkling wine has hardly enjoyed the best of reputations.

For decades it has been shunned in favour of its full-bodied counterparts from across the Channel. Treated with derision from those in the know and scepticism from nearly everyone else, English sparkling wine has hardly enjoyed the best of reputations.

But according to a study published today, sparkling wine produced at England's finest vineyards is no longer a joking matter.

A panel of professional wine experts have rated English sparkling wine above champagne following an extensive "blind" tasting survey.

Three bottles of English sparkling wine were judged to be better than a highly-rated champagne, while four further English brands were graded at the same level as champagne.

The findings are poised to cast doubt on the image of the English as a nation being more adept at downing ale than making a decent bottle of wine.

"English wine has a bad image but the best sparkling wines we tasted had a depth of flavour to rival champagne, and often for less money," Malcolm Coles, the editor of Which?, said.

In the survey, 35 bottles of English wine - 17 still and 18 sparkling - were tested alongside a bottle of Tesco Premier Cru Champagne Brut. While this champagne came top in a blind taste test by Which? two years ago, beating some of the established brands of champ-agne, it was not as successful this time.

Instead, the best wine was judged to be Classic Cuvée 1996, from the West Sussex winemaker Nyetimber, praised for its "complexity and elegance".

In second place was Pinot Reserve 2000 from the Kent vineyard Chapel Down, followed by Cuvée Merret-Cavendish 2000 from the Ridgeview Estate in East Sussex.

The £14.99 champagne, however, was pushed down the ranks behind the English sparkling wines, which cost between £7 and £20.

The champagne scored the same ranking as four English bubblies: Ascot Brut from Valley Vineyards, Berkshire; Cuvée Maman Mercier 1996, from the Breaky Bottom vineyard near Lewes, East Sussex; Cuvée Merret Bloomsbury 2000 from Ridgeview; and Premier Cuvée Blanc de Blanc 1995 from Nyetimber.

While English still wines fared less successfully than their bubbly counterparts, with none meriting a special mention, one taster noted that they demonstrated "an improvement from the average level 10 years ago". Part of the lack of awareness of English wines was attributed to the fact that the majority produced were available only through specialist wine merchants or from producers, as opposed to in high street shops.

The sole exception was the premier-ranking Nyetimber, which is sold by the supermarket chain Waitrose as well as directly from the winemaker.

While there are around 350 vineyards in the UK, the majority of sparkling wines are produced in southern counties. The emergence of regions in the South as producers of premier-class sparkling wine has been linked to the fact that the chalky soil and climate is similar to that found in the Champagne region.

The winning sparkling wine was produced using the same technique as the Champagne houses, according to Andy Hill, the owner of the Nyetimber vineyard near Pulborough.

"Sales are going through the roof," said Mr Hill, the songwriter behind a string of hits for Celine Dion, Cliff Richard and Bucks Fizz's Eurovision Song Contest winning entry in 1981, Making Your Mind Up. "A lot of people are appreciating the quality. There is no longer the stigma that English wine is made by someone in their Wellington boots at the end of their garden with an antiquated grape press."

Julia Trustram Eve, from the marketing body English Wine Producers, said: "There has been an image that English wine is inferior and certainly there were some duff bottles around. But there is now dedication to the craft in this country although production is still on a small scale."

THE TASTE TEST

In a blind tasting on the streets of Glasgow between a bottle of Three Choirs Classic Cuvée from Gloucestershire (£6.96 from Asda) and Asda's own brand champagne (£10.63) produced in France, seven out of eight chose the English wine.

Jamie Duffin, 22, a music producer, said: "I thought the champagne was more bitter and less enjoyable."

Laura Fraser, 18, a student, said: "You tend to think if it's called champagne and its from France it would be better but it is not so sweet."

Andrew Rooney, 23, a security guard, said:"If I had to choose I would take the English sparkling wine as it doesn't seem so heavy and has a smoother taste."

James Gould, 39, from Norfolk, was surprised when he chose the English wine:"It just goes to show that the name champagne automatically makes people think it is better."

Corinne Sweeny, 26, a student nurse, chose the champagne, saying the wine was "too sour".

Susan Forrester, 25, a nurse, said: "I liked the sweetness of the wine rather than the richer, heavier champagne."

Tarquin Allerdyce-Lewis, 44, an artist from Edinburgh, described the French champagne as "disgusting."

Sonia Pena, 32, a street entertainer from Spain, said: "I would not have thought of trying English sparkling wine before but it is very nice."

Paul Kelbie

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