Tuesday 8 May 2018

Ridgeview Leads the Way for English Sparkling Wine

Producer: Ridgeview Wine Estate

English Sparkling Wine has been on my radar for a few years now, ever since I discovered a shelf of these treasures at Waitrose in London. They are not available locally, which is a crime, as these are wines of extremely good quality. English Sparkling is positioned as a challenger to champagne, using the same production method (a secondary fermentation in bottle) and comprising the grape varieties Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The chalky soil in southern England is similar to the soils of Champagne, and the climate is even cooler than the Champagne region due to the more northerly latitude.

This is an industry very much in its infancy. To trace the beginning of English Sparkling, I headed over to Ridgeview Wine Estate, one of the pioneers of the current generation of English wine producers. The journey from central London proved easier than expected, and within one and a half hours I found myself in the tasting room of Ridgeview shaking hands with Mardi Roberts, the Marketing and Communications director for Ridgeview. Hailing from Australia, Mardi relocated to the UK in 1999 to help her husband and family with the running of Ridgeview. It was her in-laws Mike and Chris Roberts who established Ridgeview in 1995. Mike Roberts made his start in the computing industry in the 1980s, during which he caught the wine bug over many dinners and events with corporate clients. Being a chartered accountant, he imposed fiscal discipline over the fledgling business and ensured that its growth would be sustainable. From the beginning there was a focus on quality over quantity. Mardi says, “Before we started there was a perception that English wine wasn’t very good, so we had to go above and beyond and prove our dedication to quality.” Ridgeview now produces nearly a quarter of a million bottles annually from estate and contract grapes, with a view to increase this to 500,000 bottles by 2020.

The marginal climate makes grape-growing in England extremely challenging. During the course of our walk around the vineyards and winery, the weather changed from bright and sunny to an abrupt patter of rain. Just a few months ago, Britain was battered by icy storms that sent temperatures plunging below freezing, dubbed the “beast from the east”. “The thing about cool-climate is that we’re always susceptible to frost,” explained Mardi as she inspected newly formed buds on a branch. Pointing to what looked like cans of paint interspersed throughout the vineyard, she said, “What we have in preparation are these paraffin candles – if the temperature does dip down we will then go out and light all these candles individually and warm up the vineyard.” As England is often wet, mildew is also a threat so the workers have to work extra hard to ensure an open canopy and good air-flow between the vines.  “Cool-climate viticulture is fun, really, because you never quite know what you’re going to get and it does mean that we can make for really creative, fantastic wines but there’s that struggle in the meantime. Never resting, is what we say.”

It is the maturation process which accounts for the most significant difference between English Sparkling and champagne. The period in which the wine ages in contact with the yeast in bottle results in the rich, bready flavours we associate with vintage champagne. The minimum ageing for non-vintage English Sparkling is nine months, but Ridgeview ages theirs for at least twelve months, which is the same minimum requirement as non-vintage champagne. Ridgeview’s vintage champagnes are aged for at least three years. English Sparkling wines tend to emphasize primary fruit flavours, along with hallmark acidity rather than notes of toast and pastry. Says Mardi, “We’re probably the first region that’s emerged internationally that can stand side-by-side (with champagne), but we can stand on our own two feet as well. What England excels at is that fresh, fruit-driven profile because we can leave the grapes on the vine for so much longer, so the phenolic ripeness of the grapes really comes through.” The UK is Champagne’s largest export market by volume, and surely the success of English Sparkling must be of some concern for champagne houses. Pommery and Taittinger have both invested in UK vineyards, perhaps hoping to hedge their bets.

Given how new this category is, we can expect that there will be more changes as the industry settles onto a clearer definition of what constitutes an English Sparkling Wine. For now, the name seems to have been agreed upon. Coates and Seely have been pushing for it to be called Britagne, and for a time Ridgeview was championing Merret, after the English scientist who documented the process of making wine fizzy. Ridgeview has since abandoned the idea of using Merret, although they maintain a trademark on the name. Mardi says, “There’s still a lot of people who want a name, but I think that one of our biggest unique selling positions is the fact that we are English, so that’s what makes us stand out.”

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