Can The English Make 'Champagne' ?
Within this post lies the answer to Quiz Question #6
Regular readers know that I am often fighting my own little self-made war to try and convince the rest of the world that English food isn't all bad. Despite recent news that the French are invading England in an attempt to buy up all the British vineyards, my own recent, but less than exhaustive research has revealed that although the Champagne region doesn't have to worry too much about the competition from Blighty just yet, it might have a little trouble from somewhere else.
On a visit to England last Summer, one of my mates told me about English 'Champagne'. I didn't even know it existed. "It's the darling of the press", she said, "It's the Queen's favourite drink". Well, what does the Queen know? And can you trust the British press? It was too late to try it, then, we were on our way out of Europe, but I kept the information in the back of my mind for the next time. In March, when I made an unexpected trip to the UK, my memory of this conversation was jogged when we saw English wine on the menu at The Pump Room in Bath. After lunch, I dragged my mum and dad to a nearby Waitrose to purchase a bottle or two of Nyetimber.
When I arrived back in San Francisco, I knew everyone would just laugh at the idea, so without any hint of what I had in store, I arranged a blind champagne-tasting event for a dozen of my most champagne-loving friends of all nationalities. I went to K & L Wine Merchants to elicit some help buying some alternative contenders for my contest to see if sparkling wine is any match for real Champagne.
It was fun choosing the 3 wines to pitch against the British version. K & L are committed to selling lesser known champagnes from smaller grower producers in France. I spent about half an hour with the very patient and helpful assistant choosing comparable sparkling wines from Italy, France and California. (No, of course they don't sell the English stuff, are you kidding?)
On the day of the grand tasting the wine was chilled, the dinner was prepared and four sturdy brown paper bags were already hiding the mystery bottles. I handed everyone a Questionnaire I had prepped where they could make notes, give each taste a score out of ten and guess which country it came from. Here follows a summary of the results...
2000 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine $23.99 68/110 from California
K&L Notes:First produced in 1965, Schramsberg's blanc de blancs was America's first commercially produced chardonnay-based sparkling wine. This 2000 edition is dry and crisp with abundant flavors of lemon, apple, pear and pineapple. Small lots of malolactic and barrel-fermented wines are added for complexity. The wine is aged on the lees in the bottle for about three years prior to disgorgement. With its bright fruit and crisp characters, this sparkling wine is ideal with a variety of fresh seafood. It is also delicious by itself as an aperitif.
Our Notes: Fizzy tongue, subtle sweet | Surprisingly dry finish | Crisp | Citrusy | Slightly sweet, yeasty toasty finish | Musty barrels, sherry, tastes old, strong, mouldy | Poire assez tongue, mais le gout?
Guesses as to origin: France 3 Australia 1 Spain 1 California 3 + Shramsberg 1 (smart ass)
2003 Col Sandago Prosecco Extra Dry Valdobbiadene D.O.C. $13.99 50/110 from Italy
K&L Notes:A Prosecco for Champagne drinkers, this wine is dryer than most Prosecchi with a creamy mid-palate and a finish that is perfectly balanced between ripeness and acidity. There is no better way to begin an Italian feast than with this sparkler, and we are the only place you'll find it in the Bay Area!
Our Notes: Light, hint of sweetness | mold, no yeast | sweet | herbaceous, basil & apricot water combine to form a trainwreck | apples & pears | flat, sour bite.
Guesses as to origin: Peru? 1 Italy 4 USA 4
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée Brut 1996, Sparkling Wine £19 43/110 from England
Waitrose Notes:Mainly Chardonnay-based, this Sussex grown and made sparkling wine has been mistaken for Champagne by wine experts and royalty alike. Hardly surprising since the climate and geological soil structure is similar. Also the previous owners, the Mosses, used grapes, equipment and a consultant winemaker all hailing from Champagne. Andy Hill, the new songwriter owner, is carrying on the same tradition, and this vintage has won a trophy for best English Wine.
Our Notes: Piss | butter | tart | fruity, dry,| Oaky, woody, complex and strong | chalk, liver |crisp, green | lots of vegetable | slight barrel, cloying, bitter after taste .
Guesses as to origin: Australia 2 Germany 1 USA 3 France 1
Visit the Nyetimber Website here.
Ariston Fils Carte Blanche Brut Champagne price currently unavailable 68/110 from France
K & L Notes:The Champagne is made of 40% chardonnay, 30% pinot noir and 30% meunier. A balanced cuvee in every way, it is clean and powerful at once. The length of this bottle of bubbles proves to me the class of its origin, the small commune of Brouillet in Champagne. Don't settle for an imitation.
Our Notes: slight sherry, rounded | almonds, concord grape to start and apple | lime, floral | sweet, burnt hazelnut | currant | dry with fruit | flowers | long, perfect.
Guesses as to origin: France 5 USA 1 Germany 1 Italy 1
Conclusion: It looks like France and the USA finished neck and neck, although most people seemed to say that they preferred the French Champagne during the actual tasting. No one was in the least expecting an English wine to be amongst the crowd, so no one guessed it as a country of origin. At one point, for a joke, someone (an English friend who will remain nameless) was heard muttering "this one is so bad it is probably English".
It was interesting to see just how different different peoples' perceptions of the various wines actually were. And intriguing to note how a French friend confidently selected the Champagne, not only as her favourite, but as French, too, while my Texan wine-buff pal immediately recognized the Shramsburg, by name.
As for me, personally, the English came in third with the Shramsburg at the bottom. Because we tasted blind, I had no clue which bottle was which either, although I was aware of the four countries of origin, obviously which may have swayed my own judgement. I did pair each country with each bottle correctly. The Italian was the odd one out. In terms of taste it was far removed from the general style of the other three.
I really wanted the English Champagne to be a surprise hit so that I could wow and dazzle all my friends. No such luck. Hopefully they forgot all about England's miserable failure at making sparkling wine once they'd eaten some delcious dinner. Maybe we just had an off bottle.? I have another one in the fridge. Maybe I need to do this test all over again with a new set of people, just in case this result was nothing more than an abhoration...?!
[Note: There is a small chance the Shramsberg was a different vintage or even the Blanc de Noirs, because I can't find where I noted that information. Either way - it was definitely some kind of Shramsberg in the $20-something dollar range]