England’s southern counties are blazing a trail when it comes to redefining their sparkling wines, which means exciting times ahead, says our resident wine expert Rob Buckhaven
You’re in a fancy restaurant perusing the wine list, and it’s a Friday, so bubbles are most definitely on the cards. You beckon the sommelier over and ask him for the Sussex List, or perhaps the Buckinghamshire List, or the Hertfordshire List, to which he replies: ‘Of course,’ and swoops off to locate it. Pause frame for a moment. This may sound like the beginning of a sci-fi movie, with a hook on the door to hang your disbelief, but it will be happening at a high-end eatery near you sooner than you’d imagine.
Following in the Louboutin-clad footsteps of Champagne, English Sparkling Wine is having its moment in the sun. This summer saw a steep rise in English Sparkling guzzling, with industry figures suggesting it may swipe as much as 50% of Champagne’s market share in the UK over the next 10–15 years. That’s right, sparkles made on our own Fair Isle are no longer the punchline to a Frenchman’s joke, but are literally beating the Champenois at their own game in competitions around the world.
As the quality of our fizz goes stratospheric,top producers rightly want to distance themselves from the lower end. ‘English wine’ is currently the catch-all term for any wine made in England, but there are a group of top producers who want to change all that, and instead name theirs after the county in which it is produced. Anyone who wants to join the club will have to abide by stringent minimum quality requirements, covering a host of factors, including bottle ageing and grape quality.
One couple in particular has been championing this important evolution in the English sparkling wine game – Mark and Sarah Driver from Rathfinny Estate near the quintessential English village of Alfriston. The Drivers are set among the most successful sparkling wine producers in the country, and want Sussex to be given protected status, or to coin its technical term; Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). This works in the same way as Champagne, namely that only sparkling wines produced in Sussex, from grapes grown within the same county, will be eligible for the Sussex stamp of approval. This will let us, the drinker, know that we are sipping only the best.
The Drivers are working with 40 other Sussex producers, including Bolney and Ridgeview, to make this concept a reality. Once DEFRA gives their application the go-ahead, it shouldn’t be long before we can legitimately ask for a ‘glass of Sussex’ in our favourite restaurant. As for Rathfinny, it is due to release its first sparkler in 2018, and has already generated enough column inches to make its rivals green in the face. Closely watched by the industry, this one is tipped for greatness both here and abroad.
The Drivers hope that other counties will soon follow suit. Vineyards big and small abound in Hertfordshire (Frithsden), Bedfordshire (Toddington), Buckinghamshire (Marlow, Aylesbury), Hampshire (Hambledon, Three Choirs) and even in London (Enfield). So with Rathfinny firmly at the helm, it could only be a matter of time before we’ll be ordering a glass of Sussex, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire or Hertfordshire in our local trattoria, changing the face of our Friday nights forever.
Presenter and author Rob Buckhaven is a Wine Buyer for the Boisdale Restaurant Group, and is passionate about food and drink. He appears regularly as a wine expert on TV, and as a newspaper and magazine columnist. He can also be found hosting shows across the country, including the BBC Good Food Show, Taste and Jamie Oliver’s Big Feastival. Follow him on Twitter at @robbuckhaven