On the Trail

Wiston & The Sparkling Wines of England

Ryan Woodhouse

Many people believe the legend that a monk called Dom Perignon discovered the method of producing sparkling wines in Champagne; however, the most convincing historical evidence shows the technique was actually invented in England. Some thirty-plus years before sparkling wine even appears in French history, English scholar Christopher Merret presented a paper on the topic to the Royal Society in 1662. That was eight years before Dom Perignon even travelled to Champagne, twenty years before the French made their first sparkling wine, and sixty-plus years before the first Champagne house was established.

In fact, English playwrights of the era were including references about the popularity of these wines in London decades before the word for sparkling wines was even used in the French language.  The English also possessed the raw materials to create superior strength glass than the French thanks to their coal-fired kilns, allowing them to contain the high pressures created during bottle fermentation. Another factor essential to the deliberate bottling of sparkling wines is that the English re-discovered the cork earlier than the French after the Roman’s use of cork was lost in the Dark Ages. You'll have to pardon me if I'm a bit fanatical about the history of this subject. I was born and raised in Devon, an area in the southwest of the country near Plymouth, so the idea of English wine is quite close to my heart.

Anyway, history aside, the point I am making is that expertise in bubbles is nothing new for the English. What is new, however, is that estate grown English wines are finally being taken seriously by the wine world. They have been winning international awards and regularly beating their French counterparts in blind tastings similar to those victories achieved by Californian wines in the fabled “Judgment of Paris” in 1976. This is not surprising really when you consider that the vines in southern England grow in a very similar climate a mere 150 miles from the heart Champagne. The soils share the same deep chalk vein that colors the white cliffs of Dover and gives Champagne’s wines their distinctive flavor. This chalk soil lends the wines of England a vibrant minerality similar to their French cousins.

During a recent visit home to England, with the help of my good friend and budding English viticulturalist Ed Mitcham, I visited and tasted at many of the most highly regarded estates in the country and compiled tasting notes for dozens of English wines. By far and away the most serious and high quality wines I tasted were those of Wiston Estate in West Sussex. Not only are the wines delicious, the estate is picturesque and the atmosphere stunningly romantic.

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Wiston Estate is an incredible property; the quintessential English Manor House built in 1575 and owned/operated by the current Goring Family since 1743. This majestic house looks over 6000 acres of estate combining arable land, meadows of grazing cattle and (most excitingly) 16 acres of vines planted to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Wiston’s approach is defined by the absolutely tireless pursuit of perfection. The vineyard—planted in 2006 by Pip and Harry Goring—is meticulously farmed by hand, they use a beautiful wooden Coquard press, the base wines are rested in top quality Burgundian French oak barrels and the wines spend a very extended time en tirage (between 36-48 months compared to many Champagnes that receive only 15 months). All the beauty of the natural environment is captured in each bottle; the wines are every bit as graceful as the surroundings in which they are made. Pip had wanted to establish her own English winery as early as 1972, and now she's leading the way for an entire category of new producers. The Goring's team of committed viticulturists—including winemaker Dermot Sugrue who previously worked at Leoville-Barton—are simply top notch, creating terroir-driven cuvées that easily stand side by side with some of the world's best.

After working with Wiston Estate for almost two years (we import their wines directly piggy-backed on our Scotch Whiskey containers) I was delighted to see them picking up more and more critical acclaim from around the globe. This culminated in November’s Wine Enthusiast article all about English wines where Wiston took #1 and #3 of the highest rated wines in the article with a pair of 94 point scores! They have also collected multiple Decanter trophies, International Wine Challenge “Best English Sparkling Wine” trophy, Sommelier Challenge trophy, and many more. We're incredibly excited to be offering these wines to our customers here in the U.S. and I'm personally proud have brought a bit of England back to the states. It helps to ease the homesickness every once and a while.

-Ryan Woodhouse