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Outstanding/95-point English Fizz - January 2020

The pre-amble

The January 2020 edition of Decanter (www.decanter.com) makes its usual, detailed, panel-based, blind-tasted analysis, this time of English sparkling wine.

This is the first such full panel tasting of "English Fizz" since August 2016. In a category that is now hotly contested and - at least in publicity terms - dominated by a number of well-known players, these results have been much-awaited and now make for very interesting reading. SADLY, NOW ALL GONE HERE, BUT AVAILABLE DIRECTLY FROM THE VINEYARD.

The headline?

Perhaps a little unexpectedly, the sole Outstanding/95-point-scorer is one of England's (currently) lesser-known winemaking names (albeit not for much longer now!) and one of its most sensibly-priced.

More predictably, we are one of very few outlets for that wine and offer it at an excellent £27.50, along with a number of the better-scoring wines from the review.

Scroll down if you'd prefer to get straight to that wine. This is the pre-amble, after all.

For news of the other wines in Decanter this month, click this link.

 

English fizz in general

If there's a talking point in the UK wine trade (that isn't Brexit), it's English Fizz (NB: we don't much like that term, but, rather like "surf and turf", it's hard to avoid; there's also ESW = English Sparkling Wine). There's so much that could be written here, but, for brevity, here are our few key, condensed facts and thoughts:

  • The vast majority are made using the traditional method/methode champenoise. Unsurprisingly, entrants into a new market have gone for the premium end of the market (ie taking on Champagne) rather than the low end (ie taking on Prosecco), where the prestige and better margins are to be found. See also the pricing bullet below. There are, however, increasingly a few English tank/Charmat (ie Prosecco) method fizzes now starting to appear on the market, as the prestige/premium marketspace starts to become busy and competitive (like UK gin).
  • It mainly uses the classic trio of Champagne grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier) and in similar proportions to Champagne. Indeed, the use of Meunier is almost unique outside Champagne. Almost all New World trad method fizzes don't use it and there's precious little in Europe. We'd argue that this makes it as identical as you can get. (I struggle - despite experience - to tell (good) English fizz from Champagne of late, and I largely put that down to the Meunier).
  • Geography: it's in the south, and most of it on chalky downland. Which you'd expect, to mirror the climate, aspect and geology of Champagne. Indeed, there's not much of a large advantage for Champagne these days, save for a bit more sunshine, a little (but actually only a little) less rain and the geology for huge great tunnels/cellars everywhere to age one's capacious stocks of fizz in optimum condition (this last fact often gets overlooked in the discussion). There are sparkling vineyards in North Yorkshire, but they're definitely outliers.

(map from Decanter)

  • Regionality and terroir: there's not a lot of regional terroir going on, at least not in terms of how it manifests itself in/on wine character. That's to say: while one can tell Martinborough Pinot Noir from Otago Pinot Noir, you can't tell Northants Fizz from Kent Fizz. Much of that comes down to the masking effect of the secondary fermentation (see also below). We're some way from Premier and Grand Cru villages in Sussex (although it does have a PDO) just yet. 
  • It's grown fast. The area under vine - for sparkling wines - in the UK now is up to ~3,300 hectares (33 square kilometres) from ~900 ha in 1990. That said, it's still tiny compared with major winegrowing areas (Rioja's vines cover ~65,000 hectares, to say nothing of the rest of Spain...)
  • English Fizz is seriously good. Gone are the days of sniggering/guiffawing at the quality of English wines. Even the French have stopped doing that now. It's probably fair to say that UK still wines in general still have a long way to go, and it's principally the unfortunate ravages of climate change (see below) that will determine whether Essex is producing Burgundian Chardonnay or Barossa-y Shiraz by 2100. The best is now every bit as good as all the but the very highest tier of vintage Champagne (we've yet to see the emergence of true super-cuvées a la Dom Perignon, La Grande Dame, Winston Churchill etc).
  • Quite why sparkling is a UK strong point is easy to explain, really. The base wines for traditional method sparklings only just need to be wine, really; ripeness is less important than acidity and bite, since the traditional method's secondary, in-bottle fermentation is what imparts the main flavours and aromas (all that briochey, bready, yoghurty bit), especially those that are more heavily lees-aged. That said, one of the major advances in quality in the last few years has come about from a number of warm summers that have added more ripeness and fruit to the base wines, and added just a little more Champagne 'warmth', compared with the UK's former/more usual steely/acidic character.
  • It's still pretty pricey. We're not talking daft prices, but almost nobody is making cheap English Fizz. You can see why:
    • Everyone wants to avoid a Cava Crisis where producers compete hugely on price, bottles crash to a tenner in value and the product is hugely devalued in both value and prestige terms;
    • Land and capital costs: land has been bought up in costly parts of England, vineyard machinery has been procured, wineries have been built, stocks of ageing Champagnes have been accrued. These new producers, their shareholders (and, in some cases, private equity companies) are looking for returns on that investment. Answer: quite high bottle prices, especially when compared with a similar stamp of Champagne (where that investment was largely financially written down a century or two ago).
    • It's seen as prestige, aspirational product - and still a bit of a novelty, being British/English - and can be priced accordingly.
  • Overall, probably, you still get better value in Champagne - more with good Grower Champagne than with the grandes marques - but that gap is closing fast.
  • It's a good thing, it's a bad thing. Much of this revolution, frankly, stems from climate change. It's great to see English wine growing (in every sense), but it's set against a worrying backdrop, whether you see that as being Pinot Noir being ungrowable in Burgundy by 2050 or typhoons, wildfires and floods across the planet.

 

The Decanter review

53 English Fizzes were tasted/tested. 

These were specified as latest releases, white styles only, vintage or non-vintage and priced at £50 or under. That's a good block of the English Fizz market (it allows for Blancs de Blancs and Blancs de Noirs). Obviously, however, rosé styles miss the cut.

Only one was rated as Outstanding (95 points and above) - yes, yes, more in a moment - with another 26 ranked as Highly Recommended (90+).

Prices of those Highly Recommendeds vary from £27 to £45. The average is around £34.

Honours were pretty evenly shared between the NVs (12 of these achieved 90+ points) and vintage (15 of these) wines. On the one hand, you might well expect a greater skew towards the vintage wines (generally given a bit more time and love). I'd say the NV strength shows the quality impact that blending across vintages lends to a wine, especially where good vintages cannot easily be relied upon.

Mirroring the terroir bullet above, there was no clear regional trend. 11 of the Highly recommendeds were from one Sussex or other, five were from Hampshire. But those proportions also closely reflect the regional split of entries!

Decanter make a point that they felt that wines that included some oak ageing of the base/reserve wines did boost scores. As you'll see below, however, with regard the poll-topper, we're respectfully taking that with a pinch of salt.

 

The review-topper

All of which leads us here: to that one wine that rared as Outstanding. We figured it would probably be one of the bigger names - a Nyetimber, a Chapel Down, a Gusbourne. But Decanter panels have a tendency to uncover little-known, harder-to-find wines as their toppers (eg the Pierre Bertrand and the Cerro Anon).  It's the same story here.

That wine is Fairmile Vineyard's Classic Cuvée NV. It's from Henley-on-Thames, which, whilst in the slightly lumpy, leafy bits of the Home Counties, is not one of the noted hotspots for English Fizz (ie Hants, the Sussexes and Kent). There's a heap more detail on Fairmile and its owners, Jan & Anthea - a couple we've been lucky to talk to extensively in recent weeks - on our product page (or click any of the images below).

Theirs is a small, boutique vineyard of just 3 hectares, and they are a recent addition to the UK sparkling scene. Their vineyard was acquired in 2011, planted in 2013 and first harvested in 2015.

It is that 2015 vintage that solely makes up the review-topper. That is: it's badged as an NV, but is actually single-vintage. Fairmile's view is to develop a well-recognised NV, and this is their first release! They may just have been a little fortunate in their timing, as 2015 was the first of the excellent summers for English Fizz and is a highly-regarded vintage. Fortune aside, they clearly made the best of it to produce such a very fine sparkling wine. Going forwards, their reserve wine 'reservoir' is now adding 2016, 2017 etc to the assemblage, yielding greater complexity and year-on-year consistency, but, for now, what's been released (and what was tasted by Decanter and is supplied by us) is effectively that 2015 vintage.

You might well expect a boutique price. It isn't. From us, it's £27.50: the NV Champagne price zone for a wine that is more than the equal of most NV Champagnes. (By way of comparison, the two Outstandings from 2016 were both over £35).

As to the wine itself:

- it features the classic Champagne grape trio: 35% Chardonnay, 47% Pinot Noir, 18% Pinot Meunier 18%. That's pretty Pinot-rich, which has definitely added excellent body and roundness to the wine.

- it's been aged for three full years on its lees/en tirage. And it shows. There's marked biscuity/yoghurty/briochey aromas and flavours here from a lees ageing that is equivalent to many vintage Champagnes.

- it has very low sugar/dosage addition - just 3.5g/litre. You might expect that to leave the wine feeling rather acidic and tart, but the ripeness and roundness here means that the sugar/acid/ripeness balance here is absolutely spot on.

- it has nominally seen some oak treatment. Decanter make quite a deal of this, both in their tasting note and in their description of the winemaking, but, honestly, I'm sceptical (of that claim, not the wine). Having discussed this at length with Fairmile, just 1.25% of the Chardonnay fraction is aged for nine months in new oak. Neither Pinot is oak aged/treated at all. Now, clearly, Fairmile do that for a reason, and I can see it adding, at the very margin, just a little more depth. But let's think about that: that's 1.25% of 35% of the wine = 0.4% of the wine. That is, 3 ml (less than a teaspoon) of your bottle is oaked Chardonnay, dissolved and dispersed in 747 ml of other base wine(s). That's then secondar(il)y fermented, lees-aged for 3 years and sweetened a touch. And you're really telling me through and after all of that, Decanter, that "there are hints of vanilla"? Certainly, lovely a fizz as this is, none of us at Exel found that vanilla; if it is there, it can't be much driven by the oak! It may be heresy to 'argue' with Decanter, we know (especially when we are using their review to help us sell the wine) but we do feel that their view of the oak is overstated. Certainly, the curious statement in their review, "the Classic Cuvée sees nine months of oak ageing before release" needs to be seen against those proportions above.

 

What Decanter said

Having poured a little (dilute and oak-aged) scorn on Decanter there, here's their review in full.

 As you see there, from the three judges on the Decanter panel, we respectively have:

"In the mouth it is rounded and rich with savoury flavours and a long, creamy finish".

"The palate is rich and generous, yet has a sense of being restrained. Really nice!".

"There’s plenty of good juicy fruit here on the nose and mouth. The finish is long-lasting. A superb example".

For an English Fizz, this is praise indeed.

What's more, on this, we totally agree here at Exel.

As ever, we seldom miss out on tasting a Decanter Topper, and we very seldom endorse anything we've not tested (photos below).

We may not have found that vanilla, but the fullness, roundedness, long finish, richness and fruitiness are all exactly as Decanter say. It can be hard to find such fullness in vintage Champagne, let alone in NV English Fizz. On fruit, we mostly picked up peaches and poached pears - again, a statement of that richness. 

With some trial and error, we found that this was a glass best served really quite cold - the warmth of the cuvée comes out rather better; this is something we find quite often.

If you were to go looking for weaknesses - we rather feel we have to - it would lie in complexity. It has layers, mind, and has the complexity of good NV Champagne. We'd just warn of expecting too much - you're not into Krug here.

Finally

  • Both wines are a few days (only) from being in stock with us more permanently. If speed is imprtant to you, orders placed by lunchtime on Thursday 5th December will be with customers on Monday 9th December (unless delayed by other items in a cistomer order). Thereafter, we're next-day-delivery on these.
  • We do, of course, offer many of the wines from the review. You'll find them at the foot of this page, and their reviews from the magazine appear on their product pages.
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Balfour Hush Heath Estate Leslies Reserve NV (1x75cl)

Awarded 87 points and Recommended status by Decanter in their January 2020 edition panel tasting of English Sparkling Wine ("English Fizz") (see blue link below).

Balfour-Hush Heath Estate, Leslie's Reserve NV - January 2020 Decanter review

Balfour - Hush Heath Estate, situated in Kent, dates back to 1503. At the heart of the property is a Tudor manor surrounded by 162 hectares of perfectly manicured oak forests, vineyards, and apple orchards. Forward-thinking Richard Balfour-Lynn first planted vineyards on the property in 2002, with the aim of making England's finest sparkling rosé. Today, the 25 hectares of vineyards and eight hectares of apple trees are meticulously and sustainably managed by a family of viticulturists. The wines and cider, some named after Richard’s family, are made from estate grown fruit by winemakers Owen Elias and Victoria Ash. Owen is a four-time UK Vineyards Association 'Winemaker of the Year' winner and has nearly 20 years of experience making English wines. In the summer of 2018, Balfour - Hush Heath Estate opened their new state-of-the-art winery and cellar door tasting room.

The flagship Brut Rosé is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, which spends over three years on its lees. The result is a crisp rosé with balanced red berry fruit, richness from the lees ageing and elegance from the restrained dosage. The non-vintage 'Leslie's Reserve' offers great value for an English sparkling wine. It is made from the same three grape varieties as Brut Rosé and is aged on its lees for 15 months. It is fruity and appealing, with lovely roundness on the palate and a refreshing acidity on the finish. The Blanc de Blancs is only produced in very small quantities and only in the finest vintages. The wine spends 30 months on its lees which adds depth and complexity. It is a clean vibrant style with crisp acidity and a wonderful lightness.

The Estate’s still wines, known as the ‘Family Collection’, are a real discovery. ‘Skye's English White’, a blend based on 55% Chardonnay, has a lively citrus fruit character on the palate and racy acidity that is balanced by good depth on the mid-palate. The beautifully pale ‘Nanette's English Rose’ is a blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Meunier, which gives it a citrus edge. ‘Luke’s Pinot Noir’ is an elegant red, with ripe and soft tannins, beautifully balanced acidity and juicy red fruit and spice notes. ‘Liberty’s Bacchus’ is a new addition to the list, made from grapes from the Foxwood vineyard, the highest point on the estate. A proportion of the wine underwent fermentation in barrel with wild yeasts, resulting in a lovely toasty complexity balanced by zesty acidity. The Springfield Chardonnay is the first still Chardonnay that Balfour has made since 2015. Made exclusively from fruit from the marvellous 2018 vintage, with careful use of new French and American oak, this wine showcases the huge potential of English still wines. With a bright straw complexion and a fresh palate of grapefruit and green apple, this wine is drinking beautifully now but also has the capacity to age elegantly.

All vineyards are located on the 400 acre estate in the heart of Kent. Wealden clay soils overlay Tunbridge Wells sand. Vines are trellised using the double guyot method with vertical shot positioning. Planting density is 3300 vines per hectare and the whole estate is managed sustainably.

The grapes for this non-vintage (NV) wine are usually harvested in October.

The grapes were whole bunch pressed and then fermented at 16°C in stainless steel. Secondary fermentation took place in bottle and the wine aged on its lees for 15 months. The grapes are all grown, fermented and bottled on the Estate.

Residual sugar = 19g/l (ie this is just a Sec).

55% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay, 5% Pinot Meunier.

A golden colour with pink highlights, Leslie's Reserve is a fresh and vibrant style with an expressive and fruity character of citrus, green apple and a creamy mousse. It has a lovely roundness on the palate, refreshing acidity on the finish and complexity derived from the lees ageing.

ABV = 12.0%.

£27.75
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