Now you may or may not know that one of the most successful segments of the English wine market is sparkling wine, known more familiarly to the Brits as English Fizz. Why am I writing about English Fizz when we are in Virginia? Because the manager of the Virginia Sparkling Company (VSC) is Elliott Watkins, born in England trained at Plumpton College in England. He almost has sparkling wine running through his veins. Using this background, Elliott has been perfecting sparkling wine production to the point where we now have a magnificent line up of three sparkling wines, Sparkling Rose, Non Vintage Scintilla and our top of the line 2015 Vintage Scintilla.
There are a number of reasons why if someone offers you a glass of English Fizz rather than Champagne, you should take them seriously.
A combination of geographic, geologic and climatic factors have coalesced to allow the English to pose a threat to the vaunted 300 years long history of dominance by French Champagne.
And, as I have pointed out in previous posts, the English were actually the first to describe adding sugar and yeast to already made wine in a sealed container “livened” the resultant wine with bubbles of dissolved carbon dioxide. In addition to that fact, it took British-made glass bottles to withstand the pressure of the second fermentation. Were it not for the English, the French might not have ever been able trademark “Champagne.”
The first and easiest to appreciate is the geography of where the best sparkling wines are grown. Sparkling wines are made on the coolest edge of either the northern or southernmost regions of the world. Truth to tell, it is touch and go in these regions whether the grapes will even ripen at all. The best thing you can do with unripe white grapes is to make sparkling wine.
Sunshine and warmth together are needed to ripen any grape. In these northern climes, those two commodities are marginal. As a result, the grapes are low on sugar and high in acid which is ideal for making sparkling wine. Remember, making sparkling wine is a two stage process: first, the base wine is made; second, sugar and yeast are added to take the base wine through a second fermentation in a sealed container such that the carbon dioxide from the second fermentation dissolves into the base wine.
The base wine from the first fermentation cannot have a high alcohol concentration because alcohol at high levels is toxic to the yeast which would prevent a second fermentation in the bottle. So, low alcohol wines grown in the coolest regions of grape growing regions of the world are a pre-requisite for making sparkling wine.
You may not realize it but the Champagne region is at the northernmost region in France, latitude 49.5 degrees north. At this latitude grapes can ripen sufficiently to produce enough sugar that can be converted to alcohol to make wine, in this case sparkling wine.
The east coast of England is just north of Champagne at 50 degrees north. Because of the maritime climate, England used to be just that little bit too far north to consistently ripen grapes even to the same degrees as Champagne. No longer so. With global climate change, the English are now able to reliably ripen grapes to make sparkling wine.
Global warming over the last two decades is one of the major reasons that the English Fizz can compete with Champagne.
The other major consideration is geologic in that parts of the east coast of England are made up of the same soils as the soils in Champagne. Remember how the French believe in the concept of terroir, that magical word that encompasses soil, climate, elevation…in fact every factor that bears on the growth of the vine is part of the concept of terroir. The single most important aspect of terroir is the makeup of the soil.
That fact was brilliantly demonstrated to me when I was visiting a vineyard in Burgundy. Here in the eleventh century, the concept of terroir was first espoused by Cistercian monks. The monks noted that better wines were derived from different areas of the same vineyard that lead them to classify the best growing regions as Grand Cru vineyards and the not-so-good as Premier Cru vineyards and the least favorable as the Villages vineyards.
There are parts of northern Burgundy (Chablis) that are almost on the same parallel as the southernmost regions of Champagne ( the Aube) so you can imagine how entrenched those concepts of terroir are to the wine growers in Champagne.
The other major reason that English sparkling wine can compete with Champagne is that both wines are grown on the same soil type.
At varying periods in the earth’s history (almost 150 -200 million years ago) portions of Europe were covered by shallow seas. At that time both Champagne and the east coast of England were underwater in what was then called the Paris basin. The sedimentary soils were made up largely by the calcified exoskeletons of crustaceans that formed ammonite and oyster shells.
The resulting chalky soils have two major qualities that are good for grape growing. One is that chalky soils drain well, vines hate to have wet feet; the second almost paradoxical quality is that the soil has great water holding capacity. These two factors are believed (mostly by the French) to be responsible for the great acidity that accompanies the grapes as they barely ripen in these soils.
The people of the Champagne region, the Champenois, would have you believe that the Champagne you drink is an expression of the terroir and that very fact makes Champagne so unique that only wines grown in the Champagne region can be called Champagne, a marketing coup that has enabled the French to dominate sparkling wine production world wide in the last two hundred years.
The shared soil and the now shared climate helps understand how English sparkling wine is able to make a dent in the otherwise impenetrable Champagne market.
And so, to answer the question of what to buy this New Year’s Eve when faced with the myriad choices of sparkling wines? I say don’t waste your money on Champagne. Drink Virginia sparkling wine from Virginia Sparkling Company and save a ton.
Cheers and Happy New Year!