Champagne vs. English sparkling wine
When it comes to celebrating an event or special occasion with family or friends, we can’t think of anything more iconic that the sound of a cork popping from a bottle of bubbly. Most of the time, many would assume that this would be from opening a bottle of Champagne, the “wine of kings, and the king of wines”.
However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that fantastic sparkling wines are produced all around the world. But it’s on English soil where sparkling wines is seeing a significant rise in popularity and on an international scale, winning multiple awards along the way for some truly world class wines.
Whereas the origins of Champagne can be traced back to the 16th century, English sparkling wine has a far more recent history, first appearing in 1984 when David and Linda Carr-Taylor first experimented with producing sparkling wine off the back of an exceptional vintage in their vineyards in East Sussex. Today, there are over 100 wineries in England producing sparkling wine.
So, how do English sparkling wines compare to Champagne?
Well, there are many similarities between the two. Firstly, both are made using the same key grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), although small amounts of Pinot Meslier or Pinot Gris are occasionally used.
Secondly, the cool continental climate of both the Champagne region, and the principal UK wine regions (the counties of Kent, Surrey and Sussex) allow for these cool-climate grapes to retain high acidity and low sugar levels, making them both ideal locations for producing sparkling wine. What’s more, the limestone chalk soils found in both regions provide excellent drainage during wet seasons, as well as retaining enough water during dryer seasons.
Significantly, both Champagne and the majority of English sparkling wines are made using the ‘Traditional Method’ where a still base wine is bottled before additional yeast and sugar is added (known as ‘liqueur de tirage’). Here, the yeast ferments, raising the alcohol levels, producing CO2 and creating the fizz we all know and love.
The now-sparkling wine is aged on the lees, adding texture, complexity, and those classic notes of brioche, butter, and cream. The bottle goes through a process known as riddling where it is frequently turned and repositioned at various angles until the sediment rests in the neck, before it is disgorged to remove the lees sediment. Finally, a ‘liqueur d’expedition’ (a blend of sugar and wine to determine sweetness level) is added before the wine receives its finishing cork and is further aged.
So, what exactly are the differences between the two?
Despite their similarities, Champagne and an English sparkling wine can taste different, with the latter sometimes displaying distinct notes of green apple and a greater level of acidity compared to Champagne.
Due to being significantly older than its English counterpart, the vines in the vineyards of Champagne are also far more established within the soils, picking up greater complexity from reaching down deeper layers.
But possibly the greatest difference between the two is that for a Champagne to legally be called Champagne, the sparkling wine must be produced in the historical region of Champagne (90 miles north-east of Paris and conveniently accessible in 40 minutes via TGV from the French capital!) under strict laws. Some of these rules include:
- Maximum permitted yields per hectare.
- Minimum periods of maturation on lees: 15 months for non-vintage Champagne and three years for vintage Champagne.
- Use of permitted vine pruning methods.
- Minimum potential alcohol content of newly harvest grapes.
Looking for that something special? Why not try Special Cuvée Bollinger; a perfect additional to that special celebration, but also can also be delightfully enjoyed alongside an aged Comte cheese, grilled salmon, or as per out tasting freshly shucked oysters!
Producer spotlight - London Cru
Produced in the winery beneath our SW London offices, award-winning winemaker Alex Hurley has been honing his craft, culminating in the production of an outstanding sparkling wine from London’s first urban winery, London Cru. What’s more, since 2017 all grapes have been exclusively sourced from English vineyards, truly establishing London Cru as a force to be reckoned with in the world of English sparkling wine.
Why not try…London Cru’s Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut 2019, the first sparkling wine out of the London Cru winery. Made in the aforementioned ‘traditional method’, this wine is produced from 100% Pinot Meunier grown in Kent. With notes of white peaches, green apple and plenty of that classic brioche flavour, this delightful sparkling wine will pair perfectly with freshly shucked oysters and we checked.
Just before Christmas, Roberson staff managed to get together and sample both the Bollinger and the London Cru Sparkling alongside a range of fresh oysters.
London Cru has a bright green apple acidity which suited the most briny of oysters (natives), while still young in the bottle the wine has started to develop a subtle toasty-ness although this is far more refrained than the blended Bollinger. The Special Cuvée has a nutty hazelnut character which was mirrored in the natives.
When we moved to the Rock oyster, which can be meatier than the Native, the Bollinger created quite a strong combination of flavours and the experience is a big mouthfeel. The London Cru is a touch sharper and lean in flavour which some of the Roberson staff enjoyed cutting through the meatiness of the Rock oyster.
Both sparkling wines are fantastic partners to a plate of oysters and it comes down to how strong a flavour combination is preferred. If undecided try both!