Welsh Sparkling Wine Tasting

The debate over naming of sparkling wine made in the United Kingdom will probably never be fully resolved to the satisfaction of all parties. Britagne? Merrett? British Fizz? This is not helped by the fact that "British wine" is already an existing designation for wine made from imported grape concentrate.

The one term which does seem to have stuck more than any is the lengthy but straightforward English sparkling wine. The extravagant use of five whole syllables aside, the one major flaw of this is, of course, that not all sparkling wine made in the UK is made in England.

There are currently around ten active commercial vineyards in Wales, and about half of these produce sparkling wine.

From the perspective of protected terms, the solution seems to have been to double everything up. The PDO and PGI specifications for English wine have counterparts for Welsh wine (PDO and PGI), and these are word-for-word identical except, of course, all of the instances of "England" or "English" being replaced with "Wales" or "Welsh" respectively.

So English sparking wine has a close cousin in Welsh sparkling wine - a term afforded equal protection under UK and EU law, and bound by the same stipulations on grape varieties, method of production and so on.

However, for the most part the sparkling wines of Wales seem to be largely unknown outside of their homeland. This seemed like a good justification for a tasting session!

Earlier this year I did a tour of the vineyards of Monmouthshire - which seems to be the main hub of wine production in Wales - and visited Parva Farm, Ancre Hill, White Castle and Sugar Loaf, picking up a bottle of their sparkling wine at each. I also managed to find a bottle from Monnow Valley, which is now closed, bringing the lineup to five Welsh sparkling wines. There's only one other Welsh vineyard making a sparkling wine that I'm aware of - Glyndwr - but since that's in the Vale of Glamorgan rather than Monmouthshire I didn't quite make it there on my tour.

The tasting was held - appropriately enough - in the London Welsh Centre on Gray's Inn Road. The bar is open to the public Tuesday to Thursday evenings, and although they don't (yet!) serve any Welsh wines they do have a selection of Welsh beers and it's rather special to be able to hear Welsh being spoken in central London.

The other members of the tasting panel were John Mobbs of GreatBritishWine.com, Alex Ram who is prolific on Vivino and reviews a large number of English wines, Alex Taylor who I attended the Plumpton College viticulture course with, and Kyle Maddison, a friend and fellow wine enthusiast.

Interestingly, although five different producers are represented here, only one of these vineyards (Ancre Hill) actually has its own winery. The rest all send their grapes over the border to Three Choirs in Gloucestershire, and so quite possibly on the winemaking side of things the majority of these wines below are the handiwork of one man - Martin Fowke. Seyval Blanc is also a running theme here, being at least part of the blend in four of the five, with two being wholly Seyval.

Sugar Loaf “Hiraeth”
100% Seyval Blanc
ABV 11%

I suspect this hadn’t been stored well - or was maybe just past its best - it was on the shelf in the vineyard’s cafe / shop, and in hindsight I suspect it could have been there a while. It had lost some of its fizz, lacked acidity and didn't have much fruit character. A bit flabby, and that slightly soapy quality you sometimes get from Seyval when it is not at its best. Much of this may have been down to condition rather than what the wine may have been when in better shape as it seemed a far cry from the vineyard's own tasting notes: “Sophisticated and elegant fizz with a crisp dry palate, good acidity, well balanced with a long lingering finish.”

Tintern Parva "Dathliad"
80% Seyval Blanc, 20% Huxelrebe
ABV 12%

This was in much better shape than the previous wine, and was doing more what you'd hope and expect from a (predominantly) Seyval Blanc sparkling. Citrus and some green apple - with perhaps the Huxelrebe bringing just a hint of rhubarb to the party. Others on the panel thought the apple notes were heading in a slightly cidery direction, and I would sort of agree with that. This was apparently lees aged for 3 years, so I would have expected a bit more autolytic character - perhaps this manifested itself in that cider-esque intimation but other than that it wasn't so much in evidence. That said I'm not sure a lot of autolytic notes would have been right for the style of wine either, given that predominantly citrus character.

White Castle Brut
60% Phoenix, 40% Seyval Blanc
ABV 11.5%
Primarily elderflower from the Phoenix and some citrus notes, presumably bolstered by the Seyval component. Also I thought I caught some occasional brief flashes of struck matches, whilst others on the panel found hints of petrol (Phoenix does have a bit of Riesling in its ancestry). Light and pleasant, albeit perhaps not hugely complex, but very drinkable. 18 months on the lees.

Ancre Hill Blanc de Noirs
100% Pinot Noir
ABV 10%

Surprisingly well balanced acidity considering this has zero dosage, although the lower ABV may also have a role to play there. Light, elegant, Pinot character perhaps slightly subdued, more red apple than red berries. Some creamy notes, which made me regret not having brought some Perl Wen to have with it - this was an excellent pairing at the vineyard. The primary fermentation for this wine is carried out using wild yeasts, and presumably as a result there were occasional glimpses of what appeared to be Brettanomyces influence - in a good way - hints of things like cough sweets. Two years aging on the lees which threw some subtle autolytic hints into the mix. Seemed to have something different to offer every time you brought your nose back to the glass.

Monnow Valley Brut
2004 (!)
Seyval Blanc
ABV 11%

This was heading into uncharted waters. Not only was the vineyard an unknown quantity (having stopped production some time around 2015), but there was a big question mark over how well a sparkling Seyval would respond to 15 years of aging. I was surprised and delighted to find this still being sold at the excellent Fingal Rock wine shop in Monmouth. Tom Innes, the owner, knows a thing or two about wine, so I trust this bottle would have been stored correctly at least during the time it has spent in his shop. The cork was a bit dried out though, and it quickly became apparent this was well past its best. It had transformed into an oddly sweet wine for a sparkling Seyval - perhaps dosage levels had been at the higher end of the brut range but now that much of the acidity had fallen away, we were left with sweet Sherry, dried fruit notes and hard candy (some wonderfully colourful descriptions from the panel: ground up Love Hearts and Refreshers). It didn't stop there though - there was a spectrum of honey like notes: beeswax, mead, even furniture polish (specifically Pledge). This was pretty far from generally held ideals about how Brut traditional method sparkling wines should be but it certainly had a lot of character and engendered a lively debate.

Conclusions then? For me the Ancre Hill Blanc de Noirs was the star of the show. Yes, the Pinot character was a bit restrained, but this is still a sophisticated wine, with a lot going on, the sort of thing you can sit and mull over for a good long time. 

I'd put the White Castle as runner up. I think this might have actually been the favourite for others on the panel. It's not quite as nuanced or complex as the Ancre Hill in my opinion, but it is a very pleasant wine, and that elderflower character from the Phoenix is very agreeable.

As a postscript, a few weeks after this tasting we celebrated my Grandmother's 100th birthday, and as it happened the venue was very close to White Castle vineyard. It seemed fitting therefore to have some of the local wine at the party, and alongside some other UK sparkling wines, and some Champagnes, the White Castle stood up extremely well - with some guests commenting it was their favourite wine of the event.


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