Monday, 3 October 2011

Rugby World Cup Quarter Final Wine: England vs France


It's not really a vine-growing nation, England, being half a degree north of the typical wine-growing latitudes between 30 and 51 degrees (N). England only makes two million bottles itself.

To put that into context, the nation is the world's largest importer, bringing in 1.6 billion bottles of wine.

Almost uniquely amongst winemaking countries the English buy and drink very little of their own wine. Viticulture is labour intensive and this makes English wines very expensive to make and, like all alcohol, wine is also very heavily taxed so that too acts as a deterrent to local would-be buyers. 

What's more, winemaking in England has historically therefore been very much the preserve of enthusiasts, many of whom were hobbyists not dependant on the income from their wine sales for a livelihood.

Consequently distribution of wine made in England is really poor.

Very few wine merchants or supermarkets (by far the biggest retailers of wine in England) even stock English wines: most are sold at the wineries, many of which are also forced by circumstance to be managed as visitor and tourist attractions.

However.

There is one wine style at which England excels. Really excels. And it’s French.

Champagne. 

It can't be called Champagne of course, but to all intents and purposes that's what it is. 

Crafted from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, it's made from the same three grape varieties using the same méthode traditionnelle – traditional method – as Champagne. And the grapes are even grown on the same layer of chalk soil that extends geologically beneath our feet all the way from England to Champagne.

To name it correctly, English Sparkling Wine, is now world class. 

Surely there isn't a better nor more patriotic way to toast success at a game invented at, and named after, an English public school than with a drink whose possibilities owe so much to the English. 

For it was the English who brought together the scientific understanding of sparkling wine and the durability of glassware that could withstand the pressure inside a sparkling wine bottle. The English are also credited with the re-discovery of a piece of cork as the perfect bottle stopper.

Top of my list of English Sparkling Wine producers, and virtually on my own doorstep, is RidgeView Winery, high up on the rolling South Downs of the English county of Sussex. 

The wine names themselves are redolent of Englishness: Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Fitzrovia, Knightsbridge and Belgravia.

Bottles can be found in the food halls of London's top department stores Harrods and Fortnum & Mason and on the shelves of leading wine merchants like Berry Bros & Rudd plus England's upmarket supermarket chain, Waitrose.

RidgeView offers all the styles. Grosvenor is a 100% Chardonnay Blanc de Blanc; Fitzrovia a Brut Rosé. 

South Ridge Cuvée Merret  is named after Christopher Merret, the Englishman who in 1662 published one of the first known scientific papers on the production of sparkling wine. 

As I write, The Sunday Times Wine Club, itself something of an English wine institution, has Cuvée Merret 2008 on offer at just £16.99 a bottle, which prices this vintage English Sparkling wine right alongside non-vintage Champagne, when you order half a dozen. Probably enough for a modest celebratory lunch or dinner. If England win.

That's a big If. Because while in winemaking, England has mastered the Champagne flair of the French, on the rugby pitch France has mastered the game made in England.

Which is odd.

Year on year the English may never drink a bottle of their own sparkling wine, but in France the French will drink virtually nothing but their own. 

The wine shelves of my ‘local’ French supermarket tell the story, devoid of any imported sparkling wine. A section is dedicated solely to the 'other' French sparkling wines, the cremant, mousseaux, blanquette and clairette but even these are kept well away from the Champagne

Now I'm actually quite a fan of cheap Champagne. The cheapest. Bargain bin. Non-vintage of course.

The French appellation system ensures even cheap non-vintage Champagne comes with its own guarantee of quality, almost every week you can find it on special offer somewhere and everybody is your friend when you've got some.

You must've experienced that?

You offer somebody a drink, meaning alcohol, and they say 'no thanks' and they proffer one of the usual excuses and explanations: I'm driving, I'm pregnant, I'm on antibiotics. 

Then when you enquire of the greater gathering whether it's Champagne all round? suddenly your teetotallers are sidling up to you as you fill flute after flute with the French fizzy stuff: 

Actually I think it's Clive's turn to drive today 

and 

Well one won't hurt and some research did suggest light drinking in pregnancy could in fact be good for boys in the womb and I've got a feeling from the kicks this is an alpha male probably

or 

It's not really the antibiotics per se, just doctor's orders 

accompanied by a knowing and conspiratorial wink from your dodgy uncle, or sometime 'uncle'.

Your best bet is to buy it in France of course, typically at around the £10-a-bottle mark 'everyday' (if only) Champagne can be found on the shelves of all French supermarkets but if that's not possible just keep an eye on the UK supermarkets by signing up for their email offers as they have the buying power when there's a glut. And there often is. 

No need to be embarrassed either. 

I have no qualms whatsoever about filling a trolley with NV Champagne and nothing else and nor have my erstwhile wine merchant colleagues. 

On one occasion when word got around of a heavily discounted household name on offer at the local supermarket the shop manager urgently had to introduce a limit of five cases per person such was the rush of wine trade insiders and restaurateurs eager either to fill their boots or just cash in. 

What the former knew, wine buyers, traders and winemakers amongst them, was that even such huge volume, big brand non-vintage Champagne has one unheralded quality that earns it its place in many a cellar.

It gets better with age.

So much so that in just a couple of years or three it acquires qualities comparable with vintage Champagne.

Which means that when you do encounter a genuine bargain half-price offer you can afford to indulge yourself secure in the knowledge that you don't have to hurry to enjoy it by drinking it with every meal, marking obscure saints days or even share it with friends. 

Just keep it, open a bottle when you fancy it. Compare it with your tasting notes from 18 months ago. Have fun with the changing flavours and texture, the increased elegance then eventually the inevitable drift towards maderisation through oxidation.

Of course you could drink it to celebrate a French win in the rugby. But not right now.

England 24 France 16

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© 2011 John Alexander

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