“I drink champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it -- unless I'm thirsty.” So said the formidable Lily Bollinger, head of the Bollinger Champange house and a woman with a tireless ability to promote her family business (as well as, it would seem, a considerable drinking problem). But whilst champagne retains its allure - as the mythologised, adored, essential component of any ‘special occasion’ - it’s not the be-all and end-all. All that glitters is not gold, and all that sparkles is not champagne - these days, English sparkling wines provide an increasingly brilliant alternative, as Master of Wine Anne McHale explains.
"English sparkling wine is most similar in style to champagne as the wines are made using the same method, known as the 'traditional method' for sparkling wines,” says McHale. “That means that they have a second fermentation in bottle which traps the bubbles and allows the wines a period of ageing on yeast, giving them that lovely biscuity character. Many of the wines are also made using the same grape varieties as champagne, and from vineyards planted on similar chalk soils. However, the climate of England is what makes the wines totally unique - it's further north and cooler, giving the wines a mouth-watering, lip-smacking freshness. That cool character is so desirable that there are even champagne producers planting vineyards in England now.”
What’s more, English sparkling wine has been on the ascendent for some time. “It first reached the world stage in 1998 when Nyetimber won best sparkling wine in the world, beating even the top champagnes,” says McHale, “so the quality has been top-notch for a while. But in recent years there are many more good wines than there were before - the potential has been spotted, so more people are getting involved and are doing so from a vision of real quality and craftsmanship.”
As a result, English sparkling wines are rising in prominence - but it’s possible to buy some real bargains. “There's a real desire now here in the UK wine industry to promote our home-grown wines, and the work that's been done over the last decade or so to bring them to forefront of the popular consciousness is gradually paying off.”
As for the million dollar question - what should you be drinking? Here are five alternatives to champagne, as recommended by McHale, - all of which can be enjoyed whether it's a special occasion or not.
“This sparkler from husband-and-wife team Mike & Hilary Wagstaff, from vineyards located on the sunny south-facing chalk slopes of the Hog’s Back at Puttenham, just outside Guildford, is definitely lip-smacking. More than a year of pre-release ageing has given it a savoury backbone, yet it's still overlaid with delicate citrus and green apple flavours.”
£18.50, visit greyfriarsvineyard.co.uk
“Husband-and-wife team Henry and Kaye have produced this fantastic English sparkling from their vineyards on the flinty slopes above Marlow in the Chiltern Hills. It shows a soft red fruit and lovely richness on the palate.”
£26.40, visit harrowandhope.com
“100% Chardonnay and three years’ ageing on this first release sparkling from Albourne Estate’s inaugural harvest in 2013 has produced a spectacularly elegant and delicious wine.”
£28.95, visit albourneestate.co.uk
“The first sparkling in England to be made solely from Pinot Meunier, this delicate rosé has a beautiful pale salmon pink colour and an attractive floral perfume to transport you to summer. It exhibits a fine balance between rounded red berry, peach flavours and razor sharp crispness.”
£34, visit extonparkvineyard.com
“The original, and some would argue, still the best. Nyetimber revolutionised the English wine scene by winning Best Sparkling Wine in the World in 1998. Two decades on, its classic cuvée is as stylish and complex as ever.”
Main image credit: Harvesting at Nyetimber, Peter Macdiarmid via Getty Images