UK sparkling wine tasting highlights challenge to high street Champagne

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  • Monday 10 March 2008

English sparkling wine has shown that it has the potential to challenge highstreet Champagne, a Decanter tasting has proved.

In the first tasting of its kind at Decanter, over 60 sparkling wines from England, Wales and the Channel Islands were tasted by some of the world’s pre-eminent critics.

Decanter’s contributing editor Steven Spurrier drew positive comparisons with Champagne in the 1970s.

‘Very encouraging,’ said Spurrier. ‘A generation ago, Champagne was dodgy. Here, 90% of the wines were drinkable – not the case in Champagne in the 70s.’

‘If you had to say it, there were certainly a dozen with a good Champagne comparison,’ said Oz Clarke. ‘But I marked wines up if they had “Englishness” – a lovely hedgerow style and grassyness.’

The top three wines overall were Theale Vineyard Founder’s Reserve 2003, Meopham Valley rose and Plumpton Estate’s The Dean, in that order.

The tasters included UK wine expert Stephen Skelton MW, Champagne specialist Tom Stevenson, Oz Clarke, Benoit Gouez (chef de caves at Moet & Chandon), Waitrose’s Dee Blackstock MW, award-winning wine writer and Decanter columnist Andrew Jefford and Decanter’s contributing editor Steven Spurrier.

For added interest, three non-vintage, high street Champagnes and one Sparkling wine from Napa were included in the line-up, which was tasted blind.

Duval-Leroy was the top-scoring Champagne, ranked joint seventh overall. It was beaten by UK offerings from Camel Valley, Ridgeview, Nytimber, Denbies and Balfour vineyards.

Although all agreed that the tasting was ‘encouraging’, Skelton, who chaired the tasting as research for his forthcoming book, said there were problems.

‘Acidity was always a problem with English sparkling wines and I don’t see that improving,’ he said. ‘That was the real problem with the good wines.’

Despite a rose wine coming second, he said there ‘certainly were some horrors [in the category].’

He added that in many cases producers had ‘jumped on the [sparkling wine] bandwagon’. Others agreed, citing winemaking faults and a lack of elegance in some wines.

‘Some from the non-champagne varieties would have been better without the bubbles,’ said Stevenson.

‘I was hoping we’d got over this,’ said Jefford, who terminated on a more positive note. ‘There were some quite good wines,’ he added. ‘We should keep trying. Had we done this 10 years ago, it would have a lot worse.’

Stephen Skelton MW, is updating his UK Vineyard Guide this year. It is expected to be published in April.

  • Full results and more analysis of the tasting will be published in the July issue of Decanter magazine, out June 4.
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