With the festive season with all its celebrations and debauchery now upon us what could be better to review than a classy sparkling wine? Well, yes and no - I have never held much with going for wines that are in season. Sometimes I want a bold red in summer, sometimes a refined sparkler on a dull Tuesday evening with nothing to celebrate. When it comes to wine I tend to go with the advice the head of department in my first full time job gave me: "A good Riesling in itself is a reason to celebrate." A wise statement, although I think it can be expanded to cover all glorious grapes and wonderful wines of this world. So here is another reason to celebrate - and behold, it is an English sparkling wine.
A Nyetimber 2003, to be precise - a wine from the Nyetimer vintage that caused a little sensation when a few years ago its sibling, the Classic Cuvée, won a respectable international sparkling wine tasting, beating the likes of Bollinger, Pommery and Louis Roederer. How good is the Blanc de Blancs?
Rock star, film director or actor - you haven't really made it to the top unless you own a vineyard. If you want to be up there with Aykroyd, Banderas or Coppola making your own wine is now an even better status symbol than a private jet. In the case of Barbara Laithwaite I suspect the motivation was different. Like her husband Tony, the co-owner of the UK's biggest wine company has stayed away from the limelight, and I'd be surprised if she'd own a jet. She also resisted the urge to buy an existing winery in California or Provence and instead planted vines in the Chilterns to make sparkling wine.
Fast forward a few years to find the Wine Rambler sitting down with a glass of 2009 Wyfold Vineyard brut.
It's so annoying not to be able to call it Champagne, when it is Champagne. This statement about English sparkling wine comes from the Crown's "resident wine expert", the Duchess of Cornwall. It highlights a sparkling rivalry between England and France where the Frenchmen have law and reputation on their side: no matter whether you make sparkling wine in the same way (Méthode Champenoise) and to the same quality only fizz from the Champagne region may bear that prestigious name. The plucky Brits have no chance winning this battle but they do at least have a battle cry: the Méthode Champenoise actually is an English method.
The banner under which this battle cry is made is that of the three geese of Gusbourne, and it came to me on a bottle of fantastic sparkling wine.
Can a glass of wine stop the work in its tracks? Okay, the millennium bug did non destroy the world in intercontinentally ballistic style in 2000, the great cosmic whatever that the Mayan calender predicted for 2012 appears to be off-schedule so far. The world's foundations had just started to look a lot less shakeable. But now this: A sparkler? From Haart? I should explain, maybe, that the very fine Haart family winery is my Co-Rambler Torsten's favourite Mosel winery, and has been featured here more times than any other. With their vibrant Kabinetts. With their supremely balanced Spätlesen. With their lip-smacking Auslesen. But never with a sparkler. Because there hasn't been one in our living memory.
But there it was, not to be denied or explained away. There it stood, a classy bottle, and a bit too heavy to be just a figment of some Rambler's unhinged imagination (but then, who would imagine such a thing, a Haart sparkler?).
If you have a look around on the Heymann-Löwenstein website you will eventually stumble upon a message from a Belgian wine merchant. He reports from a blind tasting of Champagnes into which he smuggled a bottle of Löwenstein's non vintage sparkler - and despite being the cheapest wine it got by far the highest score, beating the likes of Billecart-Salmon, Jacques Selosse and Ruinart. This is the type of underdog story that would usually be told about English fizz, but it doesn't hurt to remember that other countries also produce great wines made according to the classic Champagne method.
That Germany is one of them should not be a surprise, after all it consumes around a quarter of the world's sparkling wine and produces close to 400 million bottles a year.
Germany, for those of you who did not know it, produces some excellent sparkling wine in a style similar to Champagne. It also produces a unique fizze ("Sekt") from Riesling, called "Rieslingsekt". This is style of sparkling wine that tends to be crisper and fresher than Champagne. Some of the more exciting specimens of this type blend French complexity with vibrant German Riesling freshness and mineral.
I was lucky in that the most recent bottle of German fizz I opened was one of this type.
Marxists and luxurious sparkling wine surely don't mix well? Well, they do. As Champagne consumers the leaders of Eastern block and other communists states did and do quite well, thank you, although one could question whether they are true Marxists. Marxists winemakers are a rarer breed, but I can think of at least one who not only makes stunning still wines but also very charming sparklers. His name is Reinhard Löwenstein and amongst other things he is famous for his Riesling from terraced Mosel vineyards.
Riesling can also be used to make sparkling wine, of course, and today we take a look at Löwenstein's non-vintage "Fantasie der Schieferterrassen" - Fantasy of Slate Terraces.
2012 is the year of Britishness. We had the long weekend of celebrating the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. We have the success of the London 2012 Olympics. And a public sphere proclaiming a rebirth of Britishness. British wine drinkers apparently felt the same: the Jubilee weekend meant record sales for British wine. All is good then, expect for the fact that I will now face a very stern talking to from about every representative of the wine industry in this country for calling their product British. It may be English, it may be Welsh, in the future it even may be Scottish - but don't you dare call it British.
This distinction is so important to the industry - and for good reason, as we will discover later - that the first ever English wine consumer class held at the WSET started with explaining it. More importantly perhaps it was a great introduction to English wine, and a necessary one as the quality of English wine will still come as a surprise to many a seasoned wine drinker, foreign or British.
Dear readers, you know what we're about here. You know how much we try to promote a sense of place and provenance as the basis of wine culture. And we always will. But when it comes to the traditional German way of naming a wine not by what might catch on with people, but by a hermetic kind of descriptive prose that tells you about the exact vineyard that produced the grapes, how ripe they were when harvested, how dry or otherwise the finished wine will taste and so on, we're torn. It can be great for wine nerds like us, but, language problems aside, it's fair to accept that many people don't care about it: Just tell me what wines are good to buy, ok? Fair enough, and up to a point, I even agree. Branded wines are a great thing, if and in so far as they do what, in a perfect world, brands should do for consumers: Find something they can like and depend on without reading up on what Germans call Warenkunde - specialist knowledge to decipher and recognize product quality and decipher the codes that products are packaged with and sold by.
And by introducing the PinoTimes project created by two young winemakers from the Pfalz, I think I can give you an example of what I mean:
It usually takes some convincing to get continental folk to accept that English sparkling wines are not only drinkable, but can be quite excellent. But since we already know that, we hold them to a higher standard than most other German wine drinkers probably would. It is from this fairly lofty perspective, and only from there, that this one disappointed us somewhat when it was soundly beaten by a French sparkler costing less than half in this mildly humiliating Wine Rambler blind tasting.
Tasting wines blind can be cruel. I wonder if Rober Parker Jr. or Jancis Robinson have been there before - that red-faced moment when you realise that what you thought was, say, the 1990 Médoc was in fact the 2001 Lemberger from Württemberg, that where you thought you were on the safe side, you've been as wrong about the identity of two wines as you can possibly be. That sinking feeling. That barely disguised glee in the eyes of the other participants, who knew all along. If so, cheer up, Robert and Jancis, we've been there as well. If you have followed our blind tasting adventures so far, you may get the impression that we have an uncanny tendency to end up there as soon as the paper bags come off, but if so, we do all this in the spirit of selfless sacrifice and journalistic objectivity.
But let's take a step back from the brink of embarassment, and meet the two colour-coded contestants henceforth to be known as Green and Blue. Here is what we knew: One was a classic, somewhat pricey bottle of the very finest English sparkling, provided by London Wine Rambler Torsten, who may be the German-speaking world's most tireless advocate for English Sparklers. The other was a bottle of Vouvray Brut for a mere third of that price, and with absolutely nothing to lose. Not much hope for the underdog, was there?
Much as we here at the Wine Rambler make it our business to spread the word about the fine German, Austrian and English sparkling wines, it would be foolish not to recognize which region of the world sets the gold standard in this category. As a matter of fact, If I could give a few pieces of advice to humanity in general, one would be: Drink a bottle of decent champagne as often as finances allow. But then, that means "never" for such a large part of humanity (It means two or three times a year for me, if you must know) that after some thought I keep my advice to myself.
Speaking of gold standards, it was with a mind to stress-test my own personal one, Larmandier-Bernier's Tradition extra brut against a new candidate from what could be called received Indie Champagne: Jacquesson's "Cuvée 735". So, is there a new kid in town?
Here's a story of youthful adventure: In my last year of school, I went for a week of hiking in the Scottish Highlands with three friends. Among many glorious things and brave deeds, it was also a time of spectacularly soggy hiking boots and mad scrambling for overbooked accommodation, us German school boys never having heard of such a thing as a bank holiday. One late afternoon we stumbled into the village of Crianlarich after a day's quasi-amphibious hike and made for the hostel where we had secured beds for the night, when the menu of the local takeaway caught our eye: Fish and Chips up there, of course, and a good variety of other deep-fried fare. But did it really say "fried black pudding and chips"? Dessert was provided for by fried chocolate bars.
This culinary cornucopia seemed outlandish, if strangely appealing, to us, and we mentioned this to our landlord when we checked into our bothy bedrooms. "Och ay", he said, "they fry ****ing everything". All right, I made the och ay-part up, but he did have the Scots accent that gave us such trouble, and I also seem to remember a distinctly north-of-the-border expletive in there. He also said this with a look that seemed to say "You boys think you can handle it?" It was a dare.
Sometimes a wine can save your life. I would assume that at least some of you will have had such an experience, but I would also assume that the number of you who had this type of encounter with an English wine may be fairly small. Since recently, I am one of them, and I would like to thank the folks from the Camel Valley vineyard in Cornwall. Yes, you have read correctly. Cornwall.
How did Cornwall fizz save my life? The story actually begins with me saving something - the European Union.
A few years ago I came across an international wine guidebook that had a, tiny, section on England. I don't remember the exact wording of the first sentence, but it basically said that English winemaking was no longer exclusively dominated by rather mediocre efforts of retired army and navy officers. Not the most flattering of compliments perhaps, but still a sign of the wine world starting to notice that something is happening in England. To learn more about what exactly is going on in the green and pleasant land, I attended the English Wine Producers press tasting.
Held in early May in a very traditional venue - One Great George Street, right next to the Houses of Parliament in London - the EWP tasting was a chance to try over a hundred English wines, not only dozens of sparklers, but also rosés, whites (from dry to aromatic, oaked and sweet) and reds. Yes, English reds.
Our regular readers know that we think highly of Baden's southernmost subregion, the Markgräflerland, have enjoyed its original Gutedels and serious Pinots, and count on it to make its name in the international wine world fairly soon. You also know that we have explored the world of German sparkling wines with growing enthusiasm.
If we put those two together, what do we get? We get this all-organic sparkler from the (as yet) little-known Harteneck winery of Schliengen, halfway between Freiburg and Basel.
By covering a selection of sparkling wines from Germany and England during the last year or so, we have learned much and have opened up a whole new category of wine for ourselves, but in a way, we also got ahead of ourselves. We could look at sparklers with a fresh and innocent eye by simply ignoring the international benchmark for this whole type of wine, but it was at times also so much dancing around the elephant in the room, namely our utter ignorance of Champagne. On new year's eve of 2010, the Munich branch of the wine rambler manned (and ladied) up and confronted their insecurity. After all, let's face it, when expectation and curiosity are high, the potential for disappointment is also immense.
But sometimes, just sometimes, you hit if off immediately. That night, I fell for grower champagne hook, line and sinker, and it's all thanks to Pierre and Sophie Larmandier from Vertus, Champagne.
Things have changed since we last reported on this old and well-respected Saar winery. Having run into some dire straits commercially - though not quality-wise, it needs to be pointed out - the estate was hurriedly taken over by one Günther Jauch, who was already in line for the eventual succession in ownership. This was a big piece of news far beyond the wine community in Germany, because Günther Jauch just happens to be a celebrity television host. A corporate makeover duly followed, streamlining label design and setting up what is probably the slickest website in the german wine business.