To some, the idea of English wine is a bit of a joke, wrongly associated with those sickly sweet concoctions labelled as “British Wine”. It’s an unfortunate and confusing quirk of our labelling laws that “British Wine” is made from imported grape must, which often has sugar and other additives thrown in. English wine, however, is a different matter entirely.
There are now some 400 vineyards producing what is known as “quality wine” in the UK. Whilst all of red, white, rose and sparkling wines are produced, it’s generally accepted that the whites and bubblies are where it’s at. In particular, English sparklers are now regularly giving their French equivalents a run for their money, with Nyetimber’s 2003 classic cuvee taking the top spot at the 2010 World Sparkling Wine Championships in Verona. I would certainly agree that the Nyetimber is a superlative effort, as are the Camel Valley sparkling cuvees, however last week (thanks to Brixton Cornercopia) I tried a slightly lesser known English bubbly that really stole the show.
Breaky Bottom is located in East Sussex, not far from Lewes. The modern day vineyard was planted here in 1974, and “traditional method” sparkling wines have been produced since 1994. What sets them apart is the choice of grape – Nyetimber and Camel Valley use traditional Champagne blends, that is to say Pinots Noir and Meunier, and Chardonnay. Breaky Bottom’s sparkling wines are 100% Seyval Blanc. This is a hybrid grape which is well suited to the UK climate, but sadly less so to EU wine laws. These state that only wine produced from Vitis Vinifera vines can bear a “quality wine” moniker on the bottle. This has lead to many fine Seyval Blanc varietal wines being marketed as “table wine”. This should not put you off – the wines are often delicious, the pejorative categorisation purely bureaucratic nonsense.
The Breaky Bottom “Cuvée John Inglis Hall” 2006 had an assertive toasty aroma, with bready, almost brioche-like flavours in the glass. What I particularly liked was the well-rounded apple fruit character. Some English sparklers can be on the nervy side, with elegance and piercing acidity, but precious little weight. In comparison this was positively full and fat, generous yet fresh and perfectly balanced. The floral Seyval Blanc character made it quite obvious that this was not Champagne, however the complexity and the elegance would easily be a match for a much pricier French “millesime”.