The Price of English Sparkling Wine
Firstly I have to admit that as a taste-off, it wasn’t fair. Producers in their first year were pitted against others with a massive pedigree, but that in itself produced some interesting debate. It wasn’t intended as a ranking exercise, but inevitably a bit of that creeps in. The event was the Early Swirlers, our fortnightly tasting group in Guildford. We take it in turns to lead the group in a six-bottle blind tasting, with the theme of our choice. Obviously the guys have realised that when my turn comes around, it’s going to be English.
I promised them some good fizz, but it wasn’t until quite late in the day that I got out the bottles I have bought from vineyards and wine merchants to see which made the most coherent theme. The final cut was 3 white sparkling English wines all made with the traditional Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. These were followed by 3 rosé (various grapes). I also tried to get in as many wines as I could that were really local – I like to keep them on their toes, so not only did they have to guess the grape variety, but the “wine miles” too.
First up the whites, High Clandon Queen’s Jubilee 2008 which had travelled the least distance, was yeasty on the nose with grass, strawberries & candy. The overwhelming palate note was lime! (with a deliberate exclamation mark), it was considered quite acidic, mouth-filling with ripe green apple. It was too acidic for some, but I felt that was a question of taste rather than quality – and that was before I knew it was made by Bolney. Susan & I had first tasted the High Clandon at an event at Albury Vineyard and loved it, which was why I had bought it. I still feel it’s an excellent wine, but maybe with a good food match rather than as an easy-drinker.
Next was the Ambriel Classic Cuvée, their very first wine – lemon, brandy, sherry, pineapple, melon and brown apples on the nose had Jo raving about the Jura-style, with the rest less sure. It tasted as it smelt, very different from the High Clandon, bacterial & musty. At this stage it was definitely “marmite”. Later we came back to it and found it more rounded – it went from “obscure & interesting” to “mainstream and interesting”.
Finally for the whites was the Jenkyn Place Brut 2009, from down the road in Hampshire and made by Dermot Sugrue, the palest and fizziest of the 3 – lemon sherbet and linen drying in the sun on the nose. It was pronounced nice and refreshing, with lime, lemon and gooseberry on the palate with a slight bitterness at the end and “more classic” than the other two in flavour.
Looking back over the 3, there was surprise that all were made from the same grapes on similar chalky soil, so that was an interesting learning. Someone much more expert than me, who probably wouldn’t want to be named, said prior to the tasting that he felt the first two hadn’t been on the lees long enough, so maybe that had an influence too.
Next up were the pinks, the first of which was the Greyfriar’s Rosé 2011 (Pinot Noir & Chardonnay). Another first vintage and made by the new owners of the vineyard from grapes grown by the previous owners. Again, this was a wine that Susan & I had previously enjoyed. This was the darkest of the three, with hot cross buns on the nose – sounds weird, but that was the summary of toast, bread, dried fruit, candied peel, with a bit of cream soda. On tasting it was quite light and lacked length. This vintage is sold out, though, and we’re expecting great things from the next one with their own care and attention lavished on the grapes.
Then came the Bolney Estate Cuvée Rosé 2009 (100% Pinot Noir) This was clean and restrained on the nose with tinned strawberry, slight sherbet, cream soda. On the palate there was depth, body, length, balance and a hint of raisin. It held its fizz really well.
Finally the Sharpham Sparkling Pink 2009 (Pinot Blanc, Seyval, Pinot Noir), another wine I had thoroughly enjoyed in the sun at the vineyard. There was a spiciness on the nose – coriander seeds, perhaps, with apricot and peach. It was fruity on the palate with Haribo and spicy flavours reflecting the aroma.
At these sessions we split the cost of the wine between us. Although some of these had been bought on offer, essentially they were pretty much £25 a bottle each. I recalled Ian & I previously having a conversation at English Wine Lovers about how it’s hard to tell between the quality of English wines on the basis of price and that was the case here. Jo felt that the English wine industry “can’t continue to be dependent on generosity and national pride”. This group, who I would characterise as more knowledgeable than the average wine buyer, while not being experts, but prepared to pay a reasonable price for a bottle concluded that the Bolney and the Jenkyn Place were priced reasonably, but that they would be “pretty miffed” if they had paid £25 and got any of the others – being pleasant and well-made simply isn’t enough at that price point.
To me, it all comes back to knowing the story behind the wines – becoming engaged with your local supplier and understanding enough about the costs involved to pay a slight premium – and to trying before you buy, people just are not prepared to commit that kind of money for an unknown quantity, which may or many not justify the price. All interesting stuff – the guys aren’t converted just yet, but they were really happy to taste some new wines and I’d be surprised if there aren’t a few purchases from Bolney & Jenkyn Place before too long.
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