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Column: English sparkling takes on New York wine scene

New York city was 'inundated' with English fizz last autumn, says local Elin McCoy. Here's her report of how English producers are doing in their bid to crack America...

English wine in New York

This column first appeared in Decanter magazine’s April issue, out now. Subscribe here

The Queen in Andy Warhol’s famous print (blue version) seemed to be taking in the tasting scene at the British consul general’s residence in New York.

You could interpret her slight smile as a nod of approval that four English wine producers were pouring their bubbly cuvées for the city’s wine cognoscenti.

Sipping and spitting against the backdrop of a spectacular view of Manhattan through the tall windows, I found myself wondering how long it would take the Big Apple to fully embrace the flood of English wines that finally started arriving last October.

We love bubbles in New York, and we’re adventurous about where they come from.

I offer as evidence the dozens of obscure grower Champagnes on restaurant lists, sommeliers’ fixation on ‘pét nats’ (pétillants naturels), and the buzz that greets the week of tastings during La Fête du Champagne each autumn.

Even during the 2008 financial crash, when everyone walked around with a face of doom, we knocked back modestly priced Prosecco.

As English sparkling wines started scooping awards in global competitions, sommeliers and critics here who pride themselves on knowing the latest were curious and built up expectations.

After a Ridgeview rosé won a gold medal at Texsom, the influential annual sommelier conference, New York sommelier palates were on high alert.

But only a few quite good cuvées from Ridgeview were available, and they were tough to come by.

‘The city was inundated with English fizz’

Then, in the space of a single month last autumn, the city was inundated with English fizz.

During October I sampled cuvées from eight producers arriving in New York for the first time. More are coming.

Is there market room for them all? Amanda Smeltz, head sommelier at Bar Boulud, said she wouldn’t list more than two, ‘because there’s so much good sparkling wine being made in so many other places’.

But the producers were flying high at the huge interest. Red Johnson of The British Bottle Co, who brought in the sparklers from Digby, Bolney Estate, Camel Valley and Hush Heath that were poured at the consul general’s residence, is surely on the right track by stressing the importance of creating an entire category.

‘We wanted to show a range of distinctive styles,’ he said, ‘so people see that English bubbly is diverse, not just one thing.’

In other words, put more than one on your shelves and lists.

Johnson’s four producers are very different but their best cuvées were from the 2010 vintage; notably the steely, elegant Digby, Reserve Brut and lemony-bright Bolney, Blanc de Blancs.

All the rosés had strawberries-and cream charm – I’d single out Hush Heath’s fragrant, intense 2011 Balfour Rosé Brut.

Many of the 5,000 bottles The British Bottle Co shipped were pre-sold; Hush Heath was already sold out and a three-star Michelin restaurant is now pouring Digby by the glass.

Two delicious Gusbourne cuvées also arrived in October, imported by Bartholomew Broadbent.

He, too, reported that sommeliers’ response had been ‘overwhelming’. I found the 2011 Blanc de Blancs a particular stunner.

The appeal of being a pioneering English fizz importer even inspired Briton Ian Penrose, who used to work for Hess Oil in Texas, to bring in another two brands: Exton Park and Hindleap.

The latter’s toasty, mineral Classic Blend would be a fine aperitif.

Worth the price?

My take on the three dozen bubblies I tried?

They have a distinctive English character – very zingy acidity, lightness and a Champagne like chalkiness, but with more fruit and a bit less complexity.

The overall quality was impressive but, sorry to say, the Champagne level prices of $35 to $75 a bottle (£28-£61) – despite a weaker pound and Brexit – are less appealing.

New Yorkers will try anything once, but it still took years for grower Champagne to carve its own place on restaurant lists.

Most surprising was that one of England’s best producers, Nyetimber, was missing.

A spokesperson said yes, the wines were coming in 2017, and yes, that would include single vineyard and luxury cuvées.

I’m keen to taste what will be the most expensive English fizz in New York so far.

If the US stock market keeps climbing, they could become Wall Street’s latest insider drink.

Elin McCoy is an award-winning journalist and author who also writes for Bloomberg News as well as Decanter. 

This was taken from her Decanter magazine column in the April 2017 issue, on sale now. Edited for Decanter.com by Eleanor Douglas. Subscribe to Decanter here.

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