Champagne has sat proudly at the top of the sparkling wine pyramid for eons now, but are things about to get shaken up? Pretenders to the crown have cropped up every now and again, Cava can compete when not on an industrial scale, and Tasmania punts out a few gems, but nothing has come quite as close as the sparklers of old blighty in recent years. So, to try and put this argument to bed, we recently hosted a Champagne vs English Sparkling Wine tasting at The Pipe of Port Restaurant in Southend-on-Sea (pipeofport.co.uk) with all wines being served blind to help hinder any of our prejudices!
But first, what’s the form like between these two rivals? Well, the grape varieties are generally the same, the climate on a par, the production method is nearly always identical, and the soil (those white cliffs of Dover etc) is indistinguishable in patches. What Champagne does have over England is experience and volume; the first vineyards dedicated to making Champagne-esque wines in the UK were planted just 30 years ago, whereas that wily French monk, Dom Perignon, was plying his trade over 300 years ago. And for every bottle of English sparkling wine produced, around 200 bottles of Champagne are sold. So, can these upstarts pull off a shock against the superstars?
Round 1 - Rathfinny Estate Classic Cuvée Brut vs Sophie Baron Grande Reserve Brut
What a way to start – a family winery in the South Downs of East Sussex up against a family estate in the Champagnes west-side (tries to do an awkward 90’s rap gang symbol with my fingers), the Vale de la Marne.
Rathfinny is a sublime starter, all elegant and svelte-like, but with a power that somehow contradicts its beauty. But Sophie Baron comes sauntering in with a rounded, juicy, Meunier dominated swagger that turns heads around the room with its berry-fruit voluptuousness. Make no bones, these are two superb wines that would adorn any occasion, so the result is purely an exercise in number crunching.
Result: Sophie Baron (Sophie’s fruitiness just got her over the line)
England 0 – 1 Champagne
Round 2 - Piper Heidsieck Cuvée Brut vs Nyetimber Classic Cuvée
Next up is a real big hitter of a tie. Arguably one of Champagne’s most under-rated brands (even though they’re one of the most awarded) up against the nearest England has to an elderly statesman – at just 30 years old.
I was fortunate enough to visit the original custodians of the Nyetimber brand back in the ‘90s, a wonderfully unassuming American couple, Stuart and Sandy Moss. They were the first to actively recognise and act on the fact that our ‘terroir’ is similar to that of Champagne, establishing their first vineyards in 1988 (just over 900 years after Nyetimber was mentioned in the Domesday book), now guided by winemaking hero Cherie Spriggs (not only the first English producer to win Sparkling Winemaker of the Year at the International Wine Challenge, but also the first woman to win the accolade). They are truly our guiding light.
Piper-Heidsieck (now stable mates with Charles Heidsieck, Rare Champagne and Biondi-Santi) have an illustrious history, from being the favourite Champagne of Marilyn Monroe, to being exported to over 100 countries, with a bottle being popped every 8 seconds.
Now this was close! Nyetimber wooed us with a softness of texture, all wrapped up in pastry, apple and almond, whilst Piper packed a bit more of a punch – lively, almost skittish character straddling ripe pears and hazelnuts.
Result: Nyetimber (Elegance and softness won through on this occasion)
England 1 – 1 Champagne
Round 3 - Bride Valley `Bella` Rosé vs Piper-Heidsieck, Rosé Sauvage
Definitely a case of horses for courses in this round.
Bride Valley is the family estate of the late, great Steven Spurrier who we sadly lost last year. Not just known for owning one of the most iconic wine merchants of Paris and organising the tasting that made France sit up and take notice of the New World back in 1976, but as being a general good egg in the wine industry. This wine (named after his wife) is a fitting tribute; wild yet beautiful raspberries and redcurrants enveloped with a creamy texture – bravo indeed.
Piper’s Rosé Sauvage is an absolute brute of a wine, deep, sumptuous, almost smoky reminiscent of a red wine than a spark
ler. A wildly impressive stature makes this wine scream for a plate of smoked duck or chanterelles to truly appreciate it’s magnificence.
England 2 – 2 Champagne
I know, we’ve gone all Switzerland on you, but the Rosés were just too difficult to split – both remarkable wines that fulfil different roles. Split decision was the only just conclusion.
So there we have it, nothing to split these two wine categories but a few centuries and several million bottles. Just don’t forget us Brits when you’re hunting out that celebratory bottle of fizz.