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Hugh Johnson: ‘Sheer curiosity drives me to taste every English bubbly I come across’

A self-confessed 'Champagne addict' - but is Hugh Johnson's loyalty wobbling?

I stood in the vines pinching myself, one hour west of London, counting the crop of perfectly ripe Pinot Noir in a Marlow vineyard. Marlow? Appellation Thames Valley? I still can’t get used to the idea, or rather the fact, that the south of England has produced a huge and near-perfect crop of incipient bubbly.

I’ve been a Champagne addict for half a century. My deliveries go back to 1959. I’ve often described my favourite White Foil as ‘mother’s milk’. Now my loyalty is wobbling: sheer curiosity drives me to taste every English bubbly I come across. Curiosity, and local pride, patriotism, chauvinism – call it what you like.

I appreciate acidity in everything I drink. My favourite clarets would rarely appeal to Parker fans. Every wine, in my view, benefits from a proportion of not-quite-ripe grapes. English bubblies (I’m talking about the class acts – and they are surely in the great majority) have exhilarating briskness as their USP.

Certainly it’s not enough on its own. It can be (and has been) allied to simplicity. Now, in many cases 10 vintages in, there are reserve wines to play with for complexity, deeper roots in the vineyard, more experience of handling, fermenting… and above all, there is blending. A lot of vintners are fermenting, at least partially, in oak. The range of possibilities, in other words, has expanded exponentially, and the notion of house style, sketchy at first when it was all trial and error, has become reality.

Regional style – let alone county style, as some vintners in a hurry have proposed – hangs in the air. An AP for Dorset or West Sussex might one day seem reasonable – but only when people can distinguish the wines blind. Hampshire, the Sussexes and so on are after all purely political entities. But names will always be contentious. Nobody seems to like my own, cheerful proposal of Bubbly for the whole category, but I haven’t heard better. As for WineGB, how would the Scots like whiskyGB, I wonder.

Should Champagne be worried? Quality competition is surely always a good thing. Did the Prosecco craze worry them? I hope it reduced the temptation to trade down- market. New World sparklers have great local markets, but the appeal of Champagne, its style and quality, is quasi- universal.

Bubbly? Perhaps one day.


See also: Premium English wines to try

Hugh Johnson: When bottles surprise you


Hugh Johnson OBE is a world-renowned wine writer.