“Come quickly! I’m tasting stars!” Dom Perignon famously declared after his first sip of champagne.
For years, French champagne was unrivalled when it came to quality. There was no other bubbly worth toasting with. But English sparkling wine is becoming an increasingly popular choice for discerning wine buffs.
Can English sparkling wine compete? Can the two even be compared meaningfully?
To be called champagne, a sparkling wine has to be made from grapes harvested in the Champagne region in France. The land here is highly expensive and the cool climate and chalky soil is prized for being ideal for producing champagne. Listening to a producer from Champagne talk proudly of their grapes, you get the feeling that the land contains almost mythological qualities.
Once the grapes have been pressed and turned into wine, a liqueur de tirage (a concoction made from yeast and sugar) is added to the wine bottle which is then sealed, producing carbon dioxide and those delicate and characteristically smooth bubbles we love.
Standards are strict: champagne has to be aged for at least 15 months to allow the complex flavours to develop. Generally speaking, the longer the bottle has been aged, the better the result. The Champagne houses act as custodians of quality and many date back to the 1700s, so they’ve had long enough to hone their skills and earn their reputations.
And as we learned on the night, there are over 200 vineyards in the Champagne region and the bottles are classified according to the village they come from. The Échelle des Crus has only awarded 17 vineyards Grand Cru status – the ultimate marker of quality.
Champagne certainly has its devotees and many are keen for it to lose its stuffy reputation and for people to be less scared of experimenting with different varieties or pairing it with something unexpected. Popular London eatery Bubbledogs has paved the way, serving champagne alongside gourmet hot dogs — a popular combination with their diners.
English sparkling wine
For a long time English sparkling wine has suffered from an image problem, and there are some sub-par ones on the market letting the rest down. But Dover, Dorset and Kimmerage have a similar cool climate and soil quality as Champagne, and producers argue that the end product is akin to what comes out of the Champagne region.
2012 saw a wave of patriotism sweep Britain and on the Jubilee weekend itself, producers saw a 1000% increase in sales of English wine. And while it only accounts for 1.6% of the sparkling wine industry right now, its share is almost doubling every year, wine journalists are starting to warm to them and many producers are scooping up awards at prestigious industry events.
Perhaps all that’s needed is a rebrand and a catchier name, as some of our guests suggested on the evening.
Can we compare them?
Wine expert Steven Spurrier famously held a blind tasting of New World (which came out on top) and French wines at the now-famous Paris Wine Tasting of 1976. Inspired, we hosted our very own wine tasting evening at The Charing Cross hotel on 20 June.
But instead of seeing it as a competition, we wanted to show our guests that there’s no need to pit sparkling wine and champagne against each other and the battle was illusionary.
We got together Michelle Cartwright from Mathew Clark (whose day job involves getting to know both sparkling wines and champagnes) and our very own Miles Robottom, who hosted the event and quizzed the panel on all things fizz-related.
The panel – along with the great and the good from the food, travel and drink blogging world – were then led into a blind tasting. Andrew Webb, the editor of lovefood – the online compendium of food recipes, tips and stories – was also present to put our wines to the test.
Could they tell the difference between the two? Were there any surprises?
Blogger Holly Black was pleasantly surprised by our Chapel Down bottles after being put off by an Apprentice episode which featured English sparkling wine, while Katie Collins liked all of the sparkling wines with one exception – proving that what’s good is largely a matter of taste.
Italian photographer Giulia of the mondomulia blog clearly had one of the best palates in the room and guessed all the wines correctly, but many others were surprised when the names were finally revealed.
Most left agreeing that there is a huge amount of diversity both in English sparkling wines and French champagnes and vowed to be more open-minded in the future.
Here’s what our tasters sampled on the evening…
Flying the flag for English sparkling wine were:
• Jenkyn Place Brut
• Jenkyn Place Rose
• Chapel Down Blanc de Blancs
• Chapel Down Three Graces
And our champagne representatives on the evening were:
• Pommery Brut
• Pommery Rose
• Pommery Summertime (Blanc de Blancs)
• Pommery Vintage 2004
So next time you’re inside one of our hotel bars, why not take yourself out of your comfort zone and try something new? And if you’re not an expert, don’t let it put you off: our sommeliers are more than happy to give you a few suggestions about pairing wine or bubbly with your food and you’ll soon learn what you do and don’t like. There are no wrong answers.
Do you enjoy champagne and English sparkling wine? What food do you like to pair with your tipple? Join the debate by posting a comment here or tweeting us @charingcrossLDN.