The Wine Guy: English winemakers fizz out the French bubbles

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Illustration by Elis Wilk

On a recent (and surprisingly sunny) expedition through London, I spent hours wandering the streets and burrowing my way through the multi-coloured Tube lines. The unexpected heat of the English summer and stuffy, cramped Tube rides called for several replenishment stops at pubs and bars throughout the city’s renowned locations. At one of these stops, I decided to poke my head into Jamie Oliver’s venue at Covent Garden – a well-known tourist and shopping destination. By this stage of my journey, I was clawing for an icy cold drink, as the taste of a traditional ale served just below room temperature was not going to refresh my body or my mind.

Gazing at the beverage list, I was intrigued by the selection of English wines available. Each of the five wines were made by an English producer, Chapel Down. Out of natural curiosity, I ordered one glass of each to see what the English had to offer in the wine world. I can report with great delight that Her Majesty has a serious vinous vein in her royal bloodlines. Wine samples included a Volnay-like Pinot Noir, a flinty yet generous Chardonnay, a refined Rosé, a quirky Bacchus white wine and the best of the bunch: a bubbly Blanc de Blanc Brut.

The Blanc de Blanc was so good, I served it at my wedding and gave it a rave review, as it is undoubtedly one of the most refined sparkling wines I’ve tasted to date. I remember writing, “The wine fires a gun-barrel-straight palate structure that sends the fizzy nectar, full of apple crumble flavours, humming down the gullet.”
Winemaking in England started back in the Roman era, but it was poorly recognised as the greater population preferred ales, ciders and malt whiskies. The common grapes planted back then were native to Germany (Bacchus and Pinot Blanc) and unfortunately never really pinched the nerves of the pompous types, which made wines from across the English Channel the default choice. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the production of English wine started to surge, with an increase in vineyard plantings and winemakers giving the English terroir an opportunity to stamp its label.

To date, there are now approximately 500 vineyards across England, mostly in the drier and warmer parts of the Southeast, namely in the regions of Sussex and Kent. Most of these feature Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, which further showcases the land’s ability to produce premium sparkling wine.

To my surprise, the total production of English wine only makes up 1 percent of the country’s total consumption of grape wines, which clearly paves a path for domestic growth. For those beyond the borders of the UK, these wines have made their way to many places in the EU, Scandinavia, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and, of course, the world’s wine hub: Hong Kong. However, if you are in Her Majesty’s territory, I suggest making a trip to visit the crew at Chapel Down, where you can feast at their dining tables while diving into some of its finest grape juices.

But for those of us in Hong Kong and looking to try out some of the cracking vintages from Chapel Down, they can be found at The Globe (45-53A Graham St, Central), East Hotel (29 Tai Koo Shing Rd, Tai Koo Shing) and of course, The Flying Winemaker (31 Wyndham St, Central). 

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