I am just back from a weeklong trip to London and Bath, where the food was stellar, I drank
as many English Sparkling wines as I could get my hands on and I was able to enjoy gorgeous sunny days wandering the two cities.
Yes, you read that correctly. Although great food, great wine and lovely winter weather have not been oft associated with England, things have changed for the better.
As far as food is concerned, modern British cuisine takes the traditional dishes of lore and reinterprets them with imagination and super locally sourced seasonal ingredients.While I remember the food in the dining hall at Bath University in 1988 with unbridled horror, every restaurant and bar I visited in both Bath and London on this trip was exciting and delicious. (Look for my restaurant list at the end.)
When it comes to the rising quality of the wine and the weather, they are entirely related to one another. Like the rest of our climate-challenged world, England has been slowly warming. If, like me, you are terrified about the future of the earth, wine may seem a frivolous thing to focus on. However, a recent USA Today article referred to wine as “the canary in a coal mine." Grapes grown for wine are particularly sensitive to even tiny changes in climate. As a result of these shifts, wine regions around the world are threatened and this does not bode well for other crops.
As we have seen, world-class wine regions have already been dramatically altered and this shift will continue with the anticipated changes to the climate. While most wine regions are seeing negative results from climate change, in the UK, ironically, it has helped to create a world-class sparkling wine industry. The warming trend has actually made it possible to grow quality grapes in a part of the world long considered too extreme. Modeled on the benchmark wines of Champagne, English Sparkling wines are poised to become classics in their own right.
Generally speaking, grapes for sparkling wine are picked earlier than grapes for still wines thereby producing wines with lower levels of sugar/alcohol and higher levels of acidity. This type of winemaking suits a cooler climate winemaking region like Champagne thus far or England. Sparkling wines undergo not one, but two fermentations. First, the grape juice becomes dry, still white wine. Then, with the addition of a second round of yeast and sugar, a secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle, raising the levels of alcohol and trapping CO2 to create those magical bubbles. The higher level of acidity allows the wine to remain fresh through the longer aging process and with good winemaking, all the elements end up balanced.
Much of the magic of Champagne can be attributed to the terroir, the place where the grapes are grown and one of the most important attributes of terroir is soil. It is believed that the chalky soils of the region bring a unique linear quality to the wines with fine, precise acidity and a high level of finesse. Interestingly, much of the soil in southern England is not only chalky, but is, in fact, nearly identical to that in Champagne. The majority of the nearly 500 vineyards in the UK are in the southern portion of England in the “chalk belt” of Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset although grapes are grown throughout the United Kingdom. Not surprising, the three grapes used in Champagne and usually blended with one another, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, are also the three main grapes used in English Sparkling wine.
While almost 1/3 of the wine produced in England and Wales is still wine, this category is just beginning to come into its own and currently it is the sparkling wines that are winning awards and making news. At the “Judgment of London” in 2016 (named cheekily after the Judgment of Paris of 1976, a competitive wine tasting in which French judges, in a blind wine tasting, rated a California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay as best in their respective categories versus red Bordeaux and white Burgundy wines), not only did several English sparkling wines beat out comparable French Champagnes in a blind tasting, but several of the top industry judges believed that the English fizz was, in fact, Champagne!
Distribution of these wines is extremely limited in the United States but the good news is that this is beginning to change. Recent investment in England by several large Champagne Houses, Tattinger and Pommery, speak to the potential of the English wines both as quality products and secure financial investments. Given the mighty hand of the large Champagne Houses with vast networks of distribution and deep pockets, it may be only a matter of time before English fizz can be found in every corner wine shop. As an unabashed Champagne lover, this makes me very happy. Not only are the English Sparkling wines somewhat less expensive than their French cousins, but they are every bit as delicious and crave-worthy. Cheers!
Clarke’s Restaurant – Sally Clarke’s Nottinghill spot is our absolutely favorite kind of restaurant with inviting and warm ambience, fantastic British farm to table food, a well-thought out and well-priced wine list and attentive, welcoming service. Ross and I went 20 years ago and have been thinking about returning since then! They brought me freshly baked gluten free bread and that made me really happy and then Sally herself came to the table to welcome us back. We had an amazing bottle of English Sparkling, Balfour Hush Heath Estate Leslies Reserve Kent to accompany what was a memorable and delicious evening. We will not be waiting 20 years to return!
Nobel Rot Wine Bar and Restaurant – In Bloomsbury close to the British Museum, this super cool winebar manages to be both cozy and funky. The food is very good modern british/French but the wine list is AMAZING and includes some rare/old/pricy wines by the glass that I have definitely never seen by the glass before. In fact, it won the 2019 Winelist award at World Restaurant Awards. We took a deep dive into their by -he-glass list and shared some delicious small plates. They also write a cool magazine about wine that you can read online or purchase in print. It is pretty awesome.
Pollen Street Social – In posh Mayfair, this Michelin one star restaurant, the flagship of prolific London restauranteur Jason Atherton serves special-occasion modern British fine dining replete with luxe atmosphere, fancy service and fancy prices. That said, the food was exquisite and the wine list dazzling. We dined here with two other couples after the WSET Diploma ceremony and were all blown away by both the flavors and the presentation.
Blacklock Soho – Modern cuisine aside, sometimes you just want a proper old school Sunday roast “like mum made” with all the trimmings. Set in the basement of an old brothel in the heart of Soho, Blacklock offers quality meat and great value. The wine list (we had a bottle of 2006 Lopez De Heredia Tondonio Rioja) and service is good and the $5 cocktails are superb. We spend the day walking Hampstead Heath and worked up a great appetite for this one. We left feeling full enough to walk all the way back to our hotel!
Circus Restaurant – I took my friend here for her birthday because it is her favorite restaurant in Bath and now it is mine as well. Located between the stunning Royal Crescent and the equally beautiful Circus, and set in a classic Georgian townhouse, the warm service stands out as much as the delicious locally sourced seasonal modern British food. The wine list was quite nice and well-priced with mostly small producers including the delicious bottle of Sparkling English wine that accompanied our memorable meal. I wish I could go back for Valentines Day as it is incredibly romantic here.
The Scallop Shell – Upscale but not expensive fish and chips restaurant where I had gluten free fish and chips and it was delicious! They have a small wine list to match with their local seafood menu in a light and airy pretty and clean space.
Chez Dominique – Set in the perfect location just over the beautiful Pulteney Bridge, this modern French restaurant boasts a stunning view of the water over the Pulteney Weir and equally lovely food. Alas no Sparkling English wine but we made do with a bottle of juicy Fleurie.
Beckford Bottle Shop – WOW! I wish I had days to come visit this wine shop/wine bar/restaurant. We popped in just to browse the wine shop and ended up staying for two hours in the cozy wine bar chatting with locals and visitors alike while enjoying many a glass of wine and a plate of English cheese and charcuterie. It was stylish and cozy on the large sofas inside the wine shop and the actual restaurant was equally so. I can’t wait to return!
The Pulteney Arms – What can I say about a pub where I spent many a night during my year at University of Bath - so many nights that I named my first cat Pulteney. Pulteney the cat lived to the ripe old age of 18 and is well represented by the big orange cat on the side of the pub. This is a traditional pub as it was way back in the day only now they serve really good food here. While I would call it pub casual rather than upscale, (you can still play a great game of darts) the food has grown up and now there is a long wine list. (Truth be told, I would not have known if there was a wine list when I was 21). I feel sentimental about this place and plan to return each time I come to Bath but it is truly worth it regardless.
Some favorite English Sparkling Wine to ask for in your local wine shop
Goring Blanc de Blancs NV Family Release Wiston Estate Sussex, England
Blackdown Ridge Estate, Sussex Primordia Brut 2014/2015, West Sussex, England
Balfour Hush Heath Estate Leslies Reserve Kent, England
Hambledon Classic Cuvee NV Hampshire, England
Nyetimber Classic Cuvee NV West Sussex, England