You may be surprised to learn that winemaking in England isn’t a new phenomenon. Although there’s been a meteoric rise over the past few years — especially for english sparkling wine — the practice dates back to Roman times.
And while you may immediately think of Champagne when you hear the words “sparkling wine,” the first documented evidence was, in fact, written by Englishman Christopher Merrett, who presented a paper to the Royal Society in London in 1662 outlining the process of making traditional-method sparkling wine. This was a fair few years before Dom Pérignon, the French monk, started his experiments at the Benedictine Hautvillers Abbey.
The industry has come a long way over the past few hundred years. There are now nearly 900 vineyards in the U.K. and almost 200 wineries, ranging from incredibly small patches of land with just six vines to larger estates of around 100 hectares. The classic Champagne grapes — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier — account for the top three varieties planted, with 8.95 million bottles produced in 2021.
Sparkling is by far the most popular style of wine made in the U.K., making up 68% of total production, and while much of the wine produced in the U.K. is consumed there, 4% of sales in 2021 were for export markets, with the lion’s share going to Scandinavia, the U.S., and Japan. It seems other countries are finally getting a taste for the quality fizz being produced in England.
Although Champagne may still have the most prominent reputation, English sparkling wine is catching up, and in some cases overtaking its French rivals. A few years ago, several English sparkling wines were rated more highly in a blind taste test conducted by London-based food and wine publication Noble Rot.
It wasn’t the only time English fizz came out on top, with another blind tasting in 2020 rating wines from Westwell, Nyetimber, and Hambledon in the top three spots against Champagnes. The tasting was led by wine expert Neil Walker, along with sensory scientist Dr. Heber Rodrigues of Plumpton College and Professor Nicolas Depetris Chauvin from the Geneva School of Business.
The market shows no sign of slowing down. Quite the opposite, in fact. In September 2022, Gusbourne Estate released Fifty One Degrees North, the most expensive sparkling wine ever produced in the U.K. It highlights the ambition of the country’s producers and the potential future for further prestige wines down the line. The 2014 vintage wine costs $235, with just 2,000 bottles produced. It’s made from 64% Chardonnay and 36% Pinot Noir grapes, with 10% of the base wine fermented in oak. Bottled in April 2015, it stayed on its lees until December 2021, and was then disgorged with an 8g/l dosage.
Gusbourne’s Fifty One Degrees North isn’t the only ultra-premium English sparkling to be produced. Chapel Down released Kit’s Coty Coeur de Cuvée 2013, which was the first to retail at £100 ($120), and Nyetimber released its 1086 prestige cuvées in both white and rosé, which cost $180 and $210.
It will be fascinating to see how the English sparkling wine industry develops over the coming years and decades. If you’re looking to expand your sparkling horizons and try something different from your usual glass of Champagne, here are five fabulous English sparkling wines we recommend.
Five English Sparkling Wines You Need to Try
Gusbourne planted its first vines in 2004. It grows Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes across 60 hectares in Appledore, Kent, and 30 hectares in West Sussex. Its Blanc de Blancs is made with 100% Chardonnay grapes, hand-selected from Gusbourne’s Kentish vineyards. The wine is matured for a minimum of 42 months on the lees, and a further six months in the bottle. It’s a very elegant wine, with fruity aromas of tart green apple, citrus, and apple pastry. On the palate, that fresh green apple and pastry continues, with a long, lingering mineral finish.
12% ABV. Find out more from Gusbourne
Louis Pommery is one of the French Champagne houses investing in English sparkling wine. Its 2017 wine incorporates 10% reserve wine into a blend of 50% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir, and 20% Pinot Meunier. There are around 20,000 bottles made each year, with plans to double this to 40,000 for the 2018 release onward. The nose is full of apples, pears, white peach, citrus, and some pastry notes. On the palate it has more of that citrus, mixed with some flinty minerality. Then there’s a really long finish with even more citrus. It’s very well balanced and elegant with great acidity, and it’s fabulously moreish.
12.5% ABV. Find out more from Louis Pommery
Sparkling wine grapes were planted at the Nyetimber estate in Sussex in 1998, so this is an English vineyard with a longer history than most. The vineyard — one of the most iconic names in English sparkling wine — is now under the ownership of Eric Heerema (who took over in 2006), working with head winemaker Cherie Spriggs, who was born in Canada. The wine is crisp, clean, and packed with flavors of citrus and brioche, with some light summer floral notes, too. A little nuttiness, along with fine, soft bubbles, make this a wine to savor. It’s drinking fabulously now, and it will also age very well indeed.
12% ABV. Find out more from Nyetimber
Bluebell Vineyard is in the heart of Sussex, on the edge of Ashdown Forest. This rosé wine is made with 79% Pinot Noir grapes and 21% Pinot Meunier. It’s super fruity, with lovely aromas of cranberry, raspberry, strawberry, and brioche — like a big fruity summer pudding. It’s also very elegant, with a long, dry finish. As you might expect, it’s the perfect picnic wine if you’ve got an excellent cheeseboard filled with goat cheese, other light and creamy cheeses, and a few strawberries to nibble on. It’s also a lovely aperitif. Basically, there’s never a bad time to drink this wine.
12% ABV. Find out more from Bluebell Vineyard
This vineyard, based in Somerset, planted its first parcel of Bacchus vines in 2011, with the main vineyard of Ortega and Pinot Noir vines the following year. Fenny Castle’s Blanc de Noir is delicious. It’s made with 100% Pinot Noir grapes grown on the steepest part of the vineyard. It then had four years on the lees. This basically means the dead yeast cells left over from the fermentation process are left in the bottle for a specific period of time. The particles are very small, and the process helps the wine develop lots of extra flavor and aroma, giving the wine more complexity and body. The flavors you might expect from aging on the lees, such as bready and brioche notes, really come through with this wine, along with some red apple and pear. It’s like tasting the southwest of England in a glass.
12% ABV. Find out more from Fenny Castle