Friday, June 03, 2005

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.

photograph picture of a laser-lit champagne glass

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...

picture 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)

picture 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

picture 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.

picture 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]

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Can The English Make 'Champagne' ?


  • At 3/6/05 10:48, Blogger Sam said…

    thank you andrew, advice appreciated
    I can leave it a couple of years no problem

    and I will do. There are plently of other things to drink in the meantime.

    I, too, am looking forward to seeing what Lenn thinks. I wondered if it was the Nyetimber you sent him when I saw his comment on Vinography.

    How do you send the wine aboroad? Do you do it through a friendly importer?

  • At 3/6/05 13:12, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    What a coincidence, I was searching for English Champagne on the web when your site popped up in the search.

    Were you aware that the English invented Champagne? Here's some info:

    I am taking a wine class and we've been discussing the change from cork to screwtops (even for Champagnge), One English champagne maker is using the type of caps used on beer bottles. That's what I was searching for.

    Haven't found that brand yet, but there really are quite a few English Champagnes. One brand won a competition in 1999 that had over 4000 different champagnes including the French. Did not note the name because that's wasn't what I was looking for,

    So, English Champagne can be good and even excellent according to web sitings,

    This is a pretty good site about English wine in general

    So my search goes on. There is one company (not English) selling chapagne in a can (Sophia), We tried it. Yuck.

    Thanks for the intersting article about your tasting, BTW, I love English food and I liked the Pump Room last time I was in Bath.

  • At 3/6/05 16:42, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I must admit to my dismay that if the French Champagnes were good, they were not the best ever.
    Champagne is a construction very difficult to preceed, and a small compny will never be able to do it ( and I say so from my own Champagne family )

    Let's say if we make another blind test, I shall bring a bottle of de Venoge, or my favourite, Ruinart. They are less fruity than our dear Veuve( and specially the one made for exportation), but I'm sure you'll like them if you don't know them already, for your have a great taste in perfumes....

  • At 3/6/05 19:03, Blogger eat stuff said…

    Hi Sam,

    You should have included an Australian Sparkling wine :)

    Have you tried an Australian Sparkling Shiraz?

  • At 3/6/05 19:21, Blogger Sam said…

    Krys - thanks for the long post - I can't wait to tell my French friends that the English invented champagne!
    I was aware it was the English who made the French stuff popular in the 1800s (?) I have been on champagne tours twice in France and they didn't ever ever tell us about the English making bubbles first.
    Del - I am for another blind test any time - or even a non-blind one !
    clare - I just heard about the shiraz last week, there was an article sparkling reds so I am certain it is about to become the next trendy thing here in SF!

  • At 4/6/05 08:13, Blogger eat stuff said…

    I like that article, especially the free thinker part :)

    My favourite is the Brown Brothers but it is only avaliable at the cellar door and it is along way away(even from me).

    The article is alittle wrong, we can get a really decent sparkling shiraz for between $9 - $10. although there are a few at the $20 mark as well (this is where the BB is).

    They have a gorgeous boquet of berries which tend towards blackberry and cherry with the spice of a good shiraz. Whilst they are much sweeter than a shiraz (we love shiraz down here) it is not at all like a sweet white wine which can be cloying ( I find). They match really well with seafood, pizza, pasta pretty much anything except thai (or hot and acidic).

    I wish I could send you a bottle, if you try one let me know as they are my favourite! (especially in summer)

    But BE WARNED: DO NOT SHAKE AT ALL they are known to explode and they also make you tipsy really quickly, but best of all they are heaps of FUN!

  • At 4/6/05 08:18, Blogger eat stuff said…

    This is the wine I was telling you about.

    All of there wines are really good :)

  • At 5/6/05 19:54, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Actually I think it was a Nyetimber that won the big tasting. And it looks from their website, that they make several different versions and tend to age them. I haven't had one yet, but am interested in trying such.

    I've also had Chapel Down, which seems to be easier to find in the UK -- would compare it to a run of the mill but not bad Californian sparkler.

    We also have now had an unusual one from Chilford Hundreds made from Muller Thurgau. Pleasant but certainly not to be compared with champagne. Interestingly this winery is up near Cambridge. Picked it up in late April at a shop by Borough Market.


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