“It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it,” I told my friends when they learned I was traveling to London and the English countryside to taste English sparkling wines versus French champagne. “But really, English “fizz” is making a splash in the market!”
While the French are known for producing fine champagne, the English are known for drinking it, representing the largest export market for French champagne. About ten years ago, a few innovative producers started making English sparkling wine, which many say has come to rival the French. It is clear to see why: the prime sparkling wine regions of Kent and Sussex are located just 90 miles north of Champagne in France and have chalky soils well-suited to growing the champagne varietals – chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. In fact, French champagne house Taittinger recently announced it would be buying land in Kent for the production of English sparkling wine.
Our quest was to taste English sparkling wine and French champagne in a variety of settings. With this in mind, we set out for Coworth Park, an elegant country mansion hotel located near the famous town of Ascot known for horseraces and hats, and Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world. Coworth Park dates back centuries, having been constructed in 1776 by a prosperous East India trader and merchant. Through the years, it has hosted horseracing aficionados, international royalty, and polo players from around the world. In 2010, the Dorchester Group opened Coworth Park as the luxury country hotel estate and spa it is today.
To reach Coworth Park, my friend and I took a short train ride train from London and a cab from the station. As we drove slowly through the beautiful grounds, we were impressed by the tranquility of the gardens and elegance of the buildings. We were warmly greeted in the grand foyer of the main building and led to our room, which was graced with floor to ceiling French windows overlooking the remarkable meadow. We were lucky to be at Coworth Park when the cosmos were in bloom, filling the vista with a veritable sea of delicate pinks, purples and whites moving gently with the breeze. Inside, our room was a study in elegance, with beautiful furnishings, the best linens, and an exquisite marble bathroom with a huge copper bathtub.
Aware of my interest in sparkling wine, the Head Sommelier Jonathan Ellson invited us to taste a few of his favourite English sparkling wines.
“When it comes to the quality and pure taste, there is no doubt in my mind that good English sparkling wine competes head-on with French champagne,” he said as he poured the wine with care.
We started with the “Leander Pink Rosé” made by Digby Wines of London. Rather than own the vineyards, Digby has long term relationships with some of the best vineyards across English wine country. Named for the Leander Club, the oldest rowing club in the world, this light and breezy rosé is an approachable, easy-to-drink fizz made for parties and fun. Proceeds from the sale of the wine go back to support the rowing club. At Coworth Park, you can enjoy a glass of Digby Rosé with afternoon tea. “What better combination?” I thought.
Next, we sampled a wine from Nyetimber, the most established of all the English producers of sparkling wine. We noted the pale golden colour and gentle bubbles as Jonathan poured the Classic Cuvee. We tasted a lovely complexity, with flavours that balanced light freshness with hints of spice.
The third and final entrant in our tasting was the Digby 2009 Reserve Brut. In contrast to the sweet peachiness of the Digby Rosé and fresh apple flavour of the Nyetimber Classic Cuvee, the Digby Reserve Brut evoked the creamy richness of a golden roasted apple.
This enlightening review of three excellent examples of sparkling wine whetted our appetites for dinner. We moved to the “The Barn,” which is the casual dining room at Coworth Park. Anchored by a huge stone fireplace and bordered along one side by the open kitchen, The Barn is a great place to enjoy the talents of Coworth Park chefs in a relaxed, rustic setting. For starters we shared two salads: a bright and beautiful heritage beet salad with goat cheese curds, drizzled with truffle honey, and a rich salad of mushrooms and baby truffles dusted with pecorino cheese. Our main courses were classic English country fare: on one plate were Berkshire lamb cutlets, silky mashed potatoes and buttered kale, and on the other a perfectly cooked ribeye steak with fat chips and green salad. For dessert we splurged on the treacle tart with clotted cream as well as an array of British cheeses. It was a perfect ending to a lovely day in the countryside!
We started the next morning with a brisk walk around the grounds of Coworth Park. We were greeted by horses in the paddocks and we watched exotic green parrots circle in the sky above us. After circumnavigating the two polo fields and zigzagging through formal and informal gardens to appreciate the view from all angles, we were ready for breakfast. We entered the warm and mellow main dining room, elegantly furnished with soft caramel leather chairs, smoky mirror panels and an impressive copper leaf chandelier. Our breakfast - comprised of fresh berries, scrambled eggs served in a ring of Scottish smoked salmon, poached eggs on tiered toast slices, plump sausages, fresh juice, pastries, and steaming hot coffee - was deliciously satisfying.
The next day, completely rested and refreshed, we departed Coworth Park with the firm intention to return.
Back in London, the next stop in our quest for sparkling experiences took us to the elegant Hotel Café Royal on Regent Street. We were excited about the prospect of experiencing an authentic English High Tea in the Oscar Wilde Bar. Escorting us to our seats, our host and server Bartlomiej Czaja informed us that this particular room was a favourite place of respite for the likes of Winston Churchill, Princess Diana and indeed Oscar Wilde. “You are at Princess Diana’s table,” he said as he seated us at the far end of the room, offering long views across this gorgeous hideaway. Decorated in a Baroque style with soft lighting, the mirror-lined room was resplendent with art featuring golden goddesses, cherubs and more. Soft jazz came from the piano in the corner. Our host reappeared and filled our delicate champagne flutes with Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Brut Rosé Champagne from France. Soft bubbles and the flavours of raspberry, citrus and flint tickled our palates in preparation for the delicacies that were to follow. The hotel’s pastry chef Sarah Barber recently reinvented the tea menu to update the classics and add a modern twist. This was evident in the menu of sandwiches – tiny gruyere cheese muffins were infused with fresh house made tomato juice served in tiny pipettes. The classics – cucumber, Coronation chicken salad and shrimp – were fresh and delicate. Other innovative items included caramelised onion on a Wellington pastry tart, and smoked wild salmon on a parmesan biscuit. In addition to champagne, we enjoyed steaming hot Celestine black tea infused with vanilla. Following the sandwiches, we enjoyed a basket of warm, flaky scones served with clotted cream, strawberry jam and lemon curd. Comfort food indeed!
After a palate-cleansing berry and hibiscus iced tea, we were ready for the next course. A small tower of pastries appeared, along with a refill of both champagne and tea. Inventive and pretty, the six different pastries were a feast for the eyes and the taste buds. Peach Melba lollipop looked like a creamsicle, with its a pale orange coating and light peach filling. Mini Jaffa cake offered a rich combination of dark chocolate and mandarin orange. The tiny, perfect raspberry tart layered raspberry jam and almond cream in a crisp shortbread crust. Strawberry gateaux, Battenberg cakes and checkerboard sweets in marzipan filled the remaining tiers.
When three more cakes were offered – lemon, carrot and fruitcake – we demurred and asked to take them home. The feast would continue later! As we sat back and lingered in this warm and elegant room, it became clear why both celebrities and people like us wanted to sink into the comfort of this beautiful bar, hidden just off one of London’s busiest streets. The visual beauty of the room, the sound of hushed voices mingled with piano jazz, the rich aroma of exotic teas, and the procession of flavours made afternoon tea in the Oscar Wilde Bar a celebration of the senses.
Thus far in my sparkling quest, I had tasted English and French champagnes. I loved them – the English leaning slightly bright and fresh, the classic French a bit drier and toastier. Next, I felt a need to go to the source, which is why I made the trip to visit Gusbourne Estate in Kent. I took a high speed train from London to Ashford International, and was picked up by Laura Rhys, Master Sommelier.
Established by founder Andrew Weeber with first plantings in 2004, Gusbourne strives to create English sparkling wines that can stand on their own merit among the best offerings in the world. Its debut 2006 vintages were released in 2010 to critical acclaim. Situated on gentle slopes of clay and sandy soil in southern England, only six miles from the coast, Gusbourne’s distinct terroir and exceptionally mild microclimate is perfectly suited to sparkling wine. Recent awards include a record six gold medals in 2015 including two ‘gold outstanding’ medals awarded by the International Wine and Spirits Association.
After touring the beautiful vineyards, we tasted a selection of Gusbourne sparkling wines. The 2012 Blanc de Blanc sparkling was first on deck. Comprised of 100% chardonnay grapes, this golden sparkling wine balanced liveliness with the full fruit flavour of tart apples and lively citrus. Extended aging deepened the flavour and added a hint of toastiness. Sommelier Laura Rhys suggested that the light acidity and salinity made the Blanc de Blanc a perfect match for oysters and other seafood.
Next we tried the 2013 Rosé, which offered a pronounced fruit-forward yet delicate flavour of strawberries and apricots. Rounding out the Gusbourne trio of sparkling wine is the Brut Reserve, which blends all three varietals (pinot meunier, chardonnay and pinot noir) for a well-structured balance of fruit and floral, with significant body and depth.
These wines, and the excellent examples I had already tasted, convinced me that the English sparkling wines had truly come into their own and could readily challenge French champagne for flavour, balance and in certain cases, that deeper, toasty aspect we love in the best champagnes.
As to the exceptional quality of Gusbourne sparkling wines, Laura Rhys said, “We mainly plant the best Burgundian clones which produce lower yields with significantly more flavour. We let nature do most of the work and interfere as little as possible. We feel that by producing vintage wines from our own vineyards we can ensure the highest quality for our customers.”
After once again sampling the best of the English countryside, I returned to busy London. The next day, I made the second last stop on my sparkling tour – to the sophisticated Connaught Bar in the Mayfair hotel of the same name. Ranked among the best cocktail bars in the world, the Connaught Bar sets a high standard. With Director of Mixology Agostino Perrone at the helm, the creativity and quality of the cocktails are unparalleled.
Asking to sample “sparkling” cocktails, we were served two extraordinary drinks. The “Fleurissimo,” a twist on the classic champagne cocktail recipe, combined Remy Martin VSOP cognac with French champagne and added a delightful floral note with violet liqueur. The “Gentlemen’s Spritz” brought champagne, calvados, and Galliano together with a red-hued rhubarb cordial. These two drinks were not only refreshing in a wonderfully heady way, they were an absolute pleasure to behold!
While we sipped our cocktails we enjoyed the ambience of the bar. The remains of the day’s light crept in from behind heavy drapes. An array of different seating options at banquettes and tables created a perfect blend of privacy and conviviality. We felt as though we were very welcome guests in an elegant, comfortable club. Reluctant to leave such beautiful surroundings, we opted for another cocktail. We asked the staff to surprise us, and they did with incredibly innovative concoctions. The “Hidden Park” was a blend of gin, gruner wine, clarified pink grapefruit juice and essence of sage. And, what looked like an olive was actually a rare Japanese plum called a momo. And finally, the “Mulata Daisy” was a delicious combination of rum, lime, fennel, Galliano and crème de cacao in a flute rimmed with cocoa powder.
On our final night in London, we stopped into one of the city’s best wine bars and restaurants – Noble Rot. We enjoyed a bottle of Gaston Chiquet, 1er Cru Brut, French champagne, while sampling an array of favorites from Noble Rot’s inventive menu: homemade soda and focaccia breads, delicate slip sole in smoked butter, roast mallard duck, roast cod with fennel, warm chocolate mousse and more. Meanwhile, I perused an earlier edition of the excellent Noble Rot magazine. In it, editor Mark Andrew said, “English sparkling wine has come of age and, while the Champenois and their drinking public might not yet know it, they could soon have a serious fight on their hands.” The magazine reported on the results of a blind tasting of English versus French, where the top two spots were taken by English sparkling wine. Mark Andrew added, “It is clear to us that English sparkling is on the cusp of something special.”
At the end of my quest, what did I conclude? If you were to take away all the labels and simply taste the ‘liquid in the glass” I would say that high quality entrants from both countries compare very favourably. Whether it originates from a sprawling vineyard in Champagne or on a sunny slope in the south of England – a glass of bubbly elevates a special occasion, tingles the taste buds and makes almost everything better.