English and Welsh sparkling wines that are fermented in bottle now have a new official hallmark, Classic Method. But what does this new initiative from Wine GB mean for the future of our sparkling wines? Will it increase exports, be understood by customers abroad and even be understood by customers on home soils? Justin Keay ponders all of the above while tasting eight top examples of Classic Method – some well known and some new to him – and providing an update on how the 2020 harvest has gone in relation to the previous two vintages.
“The idea is to promote what GB Wines Chairman Simon Robinson calls “the hero style” – the traditional method or Methode Champenoise – which accounts for around 65% of GB wines sold in the UK,” writes Keay.
2020 really is a year to forget. A combination of the Covid pandemic, the sharpest economic contraction on record, widespread unrest, and the spectacle of second-rate politicians signally failing to manage successive crises have made this a year of horror.
For English and Welsh wine producers, however, 2020 is proving to have more than a few silver linings. Covid-19 is, of course, having a significant though as yet unmeasured impact, notably on sales in the battered on-trade, and there are some long term concerns about an industry where costs are high and prices consequently far from bargain-basement. Shelling out for £25-30 for home grown fizz or £12-20 for a local still wine, will be beyond the reach of many more people this Christmas than last. With economic uncertainty likely to worsen, this may pose a serious concern for the UK wine industry, even if growing economies of scale help reduce some costs.
On the bright side, however, this year has seen many things come together for our wine industry after successive years of growth and investment. According to industry body Wine GB, 2018 and 2019 were key, the former yielding a bumper harvest that made many UK producers serious players for the first time, the latter year one in which the industry saw serious growth: by year-end some 3.2m hectares of vines had been planted, double the 2018 figure, whilst the number of vineyards and wineries reached 770 and 165 respectively.
This year has seen a consolidation of those trends, with confidence sustained by a good harvest (lots of small, concentrated bunches of high quality fruit seems to be the broad consensus) with Mother Nature not playing any major blinders: unlike in 2019, there were few devastating frosts or poorly timed heavy rains. Another plus has been Champagne’s fall from grace, speeded by the continued poor performance of sterling against the Euro and by the traditional view of the drink as a celebration of good times – which these most emphatically are not. Although evidence is circumstantial – and includes my wine-loving neighbour stacking English wine into his wine rack alongside Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Malbec – it would seem that well-healed consumers tiring of Prosecco seem increasingly inclined to turn to GB fizz rather than French.
“Increasingly – and especially with climate change – it is becoming clear that this is a perfect country in which to make sparkling wine,” says Nyetimber winemaker Brad Greatrix, noting that the wine industry here has been winning increasing international recognition whereas only a few years ago it was pretty under the radar. And he should know: in 2018 Cherie Spriggs, Nyetimber’s head winemaker and his wife, became IWC International Sparkling Winemaker of the Year, the first person outside Champagne to have ever won that prestigious award.
And with people desperately looking for a fun day out, wine tourism is becoming a big thing, especially in Kent, the South Downs and Dorset, where many of the UK’s more established wineries are based. Langham Wine Estate has converted a huge barn into a hay bale-filled outdoor space for picnickers and tasters, facing across from an old dairy converted into a cafe, and other producers are doing similar things. As well as providing an income source through back-cellar sales and lunches, this is boosting these wineries in consumer consciousness, building important brand loyalty.
Classic Method – a new British hallmark
To consolidate all this, Wine GB is now launching the Classic Method hallmark. The idea is to promote what GB Wines Chairman Simon Robinson calls “the hero style” – the traditional method or Methode Champenoise – which accounts for around 65% of GB wines sold in the UK, all reflecting our “unique, nervy, cool climate terroir.”
“Our sparkling wines are driving sales at home and abroad. This campaign (helps) ensure that our classic method wines are more positively recognised amongst the finest wine regions of the world,” he says.
At a Zoom press tasting, Wine GB – working with Swirl Wine Group – showed eight wines from different parts of southern England, all made by what we must now call the Classic Method. They were: Ridgeview Bloomsbury NV, the Grange Estate NV, Simpsons Wine Estate Classic Cuvee 2017, Henners NV, Busi Jacobsohn Classic Cuvee Brut 2017, Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2014, Albury Estate Biodynamic Wild Ferment Blanc de Blancs 2015 and Digby Fine English 2014 Vintage Rose.
Did I have favourites? Of course I did, but frankly they were all good.
Ridgeview Bloomsbury NV from West Sussex is a modern classic, a benchmark wine that deserves its place at the forefront of our wine industry.
I was particularly impressed with The Grange, currently being produced by nearby Hattingley Valley but soon to get its own winery: this a remarkably full-bodied and rich but precise style, made all the more astonishing that Grange vines are only 10 years old. This Hampshire-based producer is one to watch.
So is Kent-based Simpsons, now just eight years old but already making incredibly complex, crunchy and approachable wines like the Chalklands Classic Cuvee, 60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay. Very fruit forward, with pear, apple and citrus flavours working together to produce a wine with impressive length.
I admit I’d never heard of Henners Brut NV, from an East Sussex-based producer located behind Eastbourne, four miles from the sea. This proximity probably explains the freshness of the wine, made from all three Champagne varieties.
Nor, indeed, of Busi Jacobsohn, a Kent-based Swedish-Italian family-owned producer committed to single estate wines of which this is the flagship, made from 60% Chardonnay and 20% each Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Great length, acidity and balance.
The last three wines were an impressively diverse bunch led by Kent’s Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2014 which was very mineral, classy and well-balanced, a complex expression of the local terroir, and the very different, nervy but rich wild ferment Albury Estate Blanc de Blancs 2015, from the Surrey Hills, at £49.95 retail the second most expensive and most idiosyncratic wine here, reflecting its certified biodynamic status and the 48 months on the lees spent by the hand-picked Chardonnay grapes. The final wine was an absolutely delight, the Digby Fine English Rose 2014, vibrant pink strawberry flavours, and very rich reflecting the fact 20% of the Pinot Noir is oak fermented. A very rich and moreish wine from the fast growing West Sussex-based negociant.
All these wines are head and shoulders above what would have been produced five or seven years ago and were remarkably diverse, despite being chosen to highlight the new Classic Method hallmark. They showed the ambition and commitment to excellence which has become increasingly apparent in English wine-making. Labelling has come on almost as much as the wine: producers have gone for clear, generally colourful designs that make these bottles attractive must-have additions to the table.
What does the future hold for Classic Method?
Going forward though, Wine GB’s elevation and showcasing of bottle-fermented wines does raise some questions. Like Cap Classique in South Africa, “Classic Method” isn’t a bad term – and doubtless appeals to those Brexity producers for whom the phrase Methode Champenoise is just, well, too French – but will it help us sell more wine abroad? Exports account for just 10% of production and clearly need to increase but will a diner in Tokyo or New York really know what “Classic Method” means? And what about Brut, Cuvee, Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs? Can a proud British industry really allow itself to be held hostage by such pesky foreign nomenclature?
As a wider point though, our wine industry – having made a name for itself with Classic Method Sparkling – needs to demonstrate it can do other things well. There is surely a market for Charmat wines that because they do not require lying down can be sold much cheaper, say around £15 a bottle and maybe made using varieties like Bacchus and Seyval Blanc to further distinguish them from Classic Method wines made using international varieties?
The likes of Bolney Estate, Lyme Bay and Kingscote Estate have prioritised well priced still wines, including some great Bacchus, Pinot Noir and increasingly, Chardonnay. Meanwhile producers like Litmus Wines have built up a market for attractive more off-piste wines, including winemaker John Worontscak’s superb White Pinot 2016 and his delicious, truly moreish Orange Bacchus 2019. However there is clearly a vast and untapped market for English wines around £10-12.
And then there is regionality. Although bigger producers who take fruit from a number of vineyards across county lines are opposed, should English and Welsh wine be defining itself more by origin? This could be by county or maybe better, by area along the lines of the seven wine regions already defined by Wine GB. Knowing more precisely from where your wine come has big appeal, and not just for wine writers.
But these are questions for the future. Objectively, this seems to be an increasingly coherent industry with a well honed sense of purpose, whose producers have had a good 2020.
I’m really glad somebody did.