Saturday, 9 March 2019

English Sparkling Wine Prestige Cuvées

The vast majority of English sparkling wine sells around the £30-£40 price range, a similar sort of price bracket to NV Champagne. Only a handful of wines from England currently go above this, and this is a relatively recent phenomenon, an indicator of the growing confidence of the industry. These are the first examples of what in Champagne would be referred to as prestige cuvées. Although no doubt the term would not be agreed on by all the producers in question - agreeing on naming has never been a strong point of the ESW industry!


Nyetimber, as ever the trailblazers in ESW, were the first to test the market for higher priced English wines. Their first foray into this was the Tillington Single Vineyard - a "Brave wine that was launched as England's first ambitiously priced, single-vineyard fizz.", as Jancis Robinson commented at the time. Jamie Goode similarly referred to it as "An ambitious high-end English sparkling wine". The 2009 vintage was announced in 2013, albeit without a huge amount of fanfare or marketing, and sold for around £75.

Between then and 2017 Nyetimber's Tillington remained the most expensive English sparkling wine on the market, and the only one (to my knowledge) to be sold above that £30-£40 range. In 2016 Nyetimber released the 2010 vintage, at the same price point (see Jamie Goode's review), but still this didn't seem to make many waves outside of wine industry commentators, and was mainly the preserve of ESW enthusiasts like me at the time.

Then Chapel Down threw their hat into the ring, with their Kit's Coty Coeur de Cuvée, another single vineyard wine, and the first to break the £100 mark (well technically a penny shy of that at £99.99), finally prompting the mainstream press to sit up and take notice - The Telegraph asked "Would you pay £100 for English fizz?".

A year later, in 2018, Nyetimber pushed the upper limit further still, with the release of their 1086 range - a white at £150, and a rosé at £175 - bringing them into the territory of the likes of Louis Roederer's Cristal, and with some glitzy marketing to match.

Also in 2018 Ridgeview launched a trio of limited releases from their 2014 vintage in the £50 - £60 range, one of these, the blanc de blancs, being a single vineyard wine, from their original Ditchling vineyard.

Meanwhile most other English sparkling wine producers were just leaving the three big names to it, and not straying far out of that typical £30-£40 range. Hambledon's Premiere Cuvée tentatively put a foot just outside this territory at around £45. This is mostly a 2013 vintage, with some 2010 reserve wine. It has an unusually low dosage for an ESW, at just 2 grams / litre, which in Champagne terms would make this an extra brut, and approaching brut nature territory.

The only other exception I'm aware of is Sugrue Pierre Cuvée Dr Brendan O'Regan which goes for around £80, a somewhat "under the radar" offering, having seemingly received a lot less press than Chapel Down and Nyetimber did for venturing into this new frontier of pricing. Sugrue (formerly Sugrue Pierre) is of course a tiny operation - about 3 hectares in total, versus Nyetimber's 170 hectares (or more?) - so you probably wouldn't expect the kind of visibility that the bigger players attract.

So given that there are now three ESW producers selling £75+ "prestige cuvées", I thought it might be interesting to organise a tasting which compared these side by side - a best of the best of English sparkling wine.


The first of the wines we tasted was Chapel Down Kit's Coty Coeur de Cuvee, the 2013 vintage. It's 100% chardonnay, a blanc de blancs. Chapel Down's classic brut NV is a stalwart of ESW, quite widely available, and typically priced at under £30. I wouldn't list it as one of my favourites because I've tended to find it a bit too acidic, but the Kit's Coty was an entirely different wine.

Notes of pastry, apples and cream / custard, with really good balance. Apples were definitely a recurring theme in other tasting notes I read for this wine but I would be inclined more towards baked apples. The acidity which for me is problematic with the regular Chapel Down is completely under control here. I had wondered if this might indicate their classic NV brut does not undergo malolactic fermentation, and this does, but apparently they both do (see here and here). So I assume it's more down to the additional aging, possibly the partial barrel maturation, or maybe it's just the superior fruit quality from Kit's Coty. Or could there be differences in dosage? Whatever the reason, this was a surprise hit with all the attendees at the tasting, most of whom had similarly lukewarm feelings towards the winery's regular sparkling offering, but really enjoyed this.


The second we tried was the Sugrue Pierre Cuvée Dr Brendan O' Regan.  This is a 60% Chardonnay 40% Pinot Noir, a "multi vintage", predominantly 2013 but with some reserve wine from 2009. Sugrue has two vineyards - Mount Harry (near Lewes, East Sussex), and Storrington Priory (West Sussex), with the majority of grapes for this wine coming from the former. 

Unlike the Chapel Down (unrecognisable from their regular offering) this was, to me, a lot closer to "standard" Sugrue - which is always very good. The general consensus was really just "very nice", without being able to pin down exactly why. There was talk in the official tasting notes of complexity, and perhaps that was what we were facing - complexity which was too complex for us to really describe. One note that came up was seaweed, and I thought it reminiscent of hijiki cooked in mirin - a very slight sweetness and a sort of umami character.


Finally, the Nyetimber 1086 rosé, which is a 2010 vintage. The funny attachment seen above is the wine thermometer I was using - I should have removed it before taking the picture! Unlike their Tillington Single Vineyard, Nyetimber aren't very specific about which particular vineyard this comes from - they simply say "West Sussex". This is a 75% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay blend, and thus why it came last in the tasting - it had seemed logical to start with the blanc de blancs and gradually ramp up the pinot.

This position in the billing may ultimately have put it at a disadvantage, as I wonder if by this point our already not very discerning palates were getting a bit overloaded. As a result the 1086 was just a bit lost on us, and we seemed to get very little from it. There was nothing particularly wrong with it: the acidity was certainly well managed as it always is at Nyetimber, but try as we might we just couldn't find the "aromatic hinterland" Anna Krebiehl had promised. Rosé English sparkling wines are already a bit of a hard sell with the group who attended the tasting, a couple of us had tried the regular Nyetimber rosé before and we weren't really into that either. Whereas the regular white Nyetimber is absolutely exemplary - the wine I would always direct people to if they've never tried any English sparkling wine before.

In conclusion: would I buy any of these again?

The Chapel Down Kit's Coty: probably yes. As noted above, a surprise hit. Easily the best wine I've had from Chapel Down, and just overall a very memorable profile, a really nice balance of being refreshing but also rich. Like a sophisticated apple pie.

Sugrue Cuvée Dr Brendan O'Regan: maybe. For me (and probably indicative of my limited palate) it wasn't differentiated enough from the "normal" Sugrue releases, which are all very good, to justify the price hike. So I'd rather just buy more of them instead.

Nyetimber 1086 rosé: probably not, although I don't think it got an entirely fair showing here. I would like to try the white 1086, and predict that will be more my cup of tea.

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