Friday, 8 June 2012

France vs England. Euro 2012. Wine by Wine.

Champagne owes much to the English
They don’t have much truck with outsiders, the French. The wine shelves of my ‘local’ French supermarket (I holiday nearby at least once a year) tell the story.

Among reds some 60% of shelf space is given over to Bordeaux – half of which is simple Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superior.

The 'other' great French red, Burgundy, claims about 30% of the red wine shop window, and, as with so much Burgundy, much of it is of disappointing quality, although in this case it's more to do with the labels – the store's chosen winemakers – rather than the usual problem of the contents not living up to the name of the bottle.

The rest of the reds sit under wooden signs indicating Rhône or Sud (south), which bizarrely includes a few from supposedly lesser red appellations such as Beaujolais and mostly lightweight reds of the Loire and Alsace.

It's a similar story on the opposite side of the aisle, where the whites hold sway. Wines are arranged by region, including a section dedicated solely to Champagne.

Chablis, Burgundy and the Loire, including a couple of stray rosés, dominate here, with a positive display too from Alsace and a minor showing from the Rhône. No Sud, but the end of the row carries quite a selection of better-positioned rosés from Provence.

But what's this, in the corner over there, a narrow shelf devoted to, what? Is that really a Rioja? It is, a Faustina.  Presumably smuggled in through Andorra. In fact, there are a couple of Riojas on the shelf. Plus some Chianti and Barolo. Most odd of all, there's a Chilean Merlot. But nothing sparkling at all. No Prosecco nor Sekt. Rien. Pas une saucisse.

A section of shelving is dedicated solely to the 'other' French sparkling wines, the cremant, mousseaux, blanquette et clairette but even these are kept well away from the Champagne.

With good reason. Because 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 and they say 'no thanks' and proffer one of the usual 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 wink from your dodgy uncle.

Your best bet is to buy it in France of course. Typically at around £10 a bottle 'everyday' (if only) Champagne can be found on the shelves of all French supermarkets. Otherwise keep an eye on UK stores 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 Champagne name on offer at the local supermarket the shop manager had to limit sales to five cases per person such was the rush of wine trade insiders and restaurateurs eager either to fill their stomachs or their boots.

What they knew was that even such huge volume, big brand, non-vintage Champagne has one often unheralded quality that earns it it a 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.

Champagne by any other name

In stark contrast to French insularity, almost uniquely amongst winemaking countries the English buy and drink very little of their own wine.

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.

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 we local would-be buyers.

What’s more, winemaking here 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.

 Cuvée Merret honours Christopher Merret
who documented the traditional
method sparkling wine process
30 years before Champagne.
Consequently distribution of wine made in England is really poor. Very few wine merchants nor supermarkets (by far the biggest retailers of wine here 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. Coincidentally, it's 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 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.

Which should come as little surprise, as traditionally-made sparkling wine, including Champagne, is 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. And it is the English who 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 is RidgeView Winery, high up on the rolling South Downs of the very English county of Sussex.

The wine names themselves are redolent of Englishness and therefore ideal to celebrate any victory over the French: Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Fitzrovia, Knightsbridge and Belgravia. And I understand RidgeView bubbly was served at the Queen’s 80th birthday party.

No wonder. 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 plus 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, Laithwaites, itself something of an English institution, has Cuvée Merret 2009 on offer at just £15.99 a bottle, which prices it right alongside Champagne when you order half a dozen. Probably enough for a modest celebratory dinner or lunch.

Other notable English Sparkling Wine producers include Nyetimber, whose 2001 Brut Chardonnay is exceptional and creamy, Gusbourne Estate, Hush Heath from Kent, Camel Valley in Cornwall, Chapel Down and Carr-Taylor.

Majestic stocks the Chapel Down range of English sparkling wines from £14.99 a bottle along with the vintage Nyetimber Classic Cuvee 2004 at £24.99.

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© 2011 John Alexander