On the Trail

Méthode Champenoise or English Method?

Ryan Woodhouse

Many people believe that a monk called Dom Perignon invented the method of producing sparkling wines in Champagne, France; however, historical evidence shows the technique was actually “invented” in England. Some thirty-plus years before sparkling wine even appeared in French history, English scholar Christopher Merret presented a paper on the topic of deliberate secondary bottle fermentation to the Royal Society in 1662. That was eight years before Dom Perignon first travelled to Champagne, twenty years before the French made their first deliberate sparkling wine, and more than sixty years before the first Champagne house was created.

In fact, English playwrights of the era were including references about the popularity of these wines in London theaters decades before the word for sparkling wines (mousseux) was used in the French language. Despite grapes having been cultivated in England since the days of the Roman conquest, typically the base wines used for sparkling were from northeastern France, brought over in casks, and then re-fermented. The English possessed the ability to create superior strength glass bottles than the French thanks to coal-fired rather than wood-fired kilns. This allowed the bottles to contain the high pressures created during secondary fermentation. Another factor essential to the deliberate and consistent bottling of sparkling wines is that the English re-discovered using cork to seal bottles earlier than the French did. Historical evidence shows that the Romans used cork previously but its usage was lost in the Dark Ages. In the late 1600’s most of Europe was still using wooden pegs wrapped in cloth to seal vessels which was insufficient to keep the fizz fresh!

Anyway, history aside, the point I am making is that expertise in bubbles is nothing new for the English. However, estate grown English wines are now finally being taken seriously by the wine world. They have been wining international awards and regularly beating their French counterparts in blind tastings similar to those victories achieved by Californian wines in the fabled Judgement of Paris in 1976. This is not surprising really when you consider that the vines grow in a very similar climate a mere 200 miles from the heart Champagne. Many of the soils share the same deep chalk vein that colors the white cliffs of Dover and gives Champagne its distinctive flavor. This chalk soil lends the wines of England a vibrant minerality similar to their French cousins.

During a previous visit to England, with the help of my good friend and budding English viticulturalist Ed Mitcham, I contacted many of the most highly regarded estates in the country and compiled a grand tasting of dozens of wines. This was perhaps one of the most comprehensive private tastings of English wines ever assembled. Together, with other friends in various aspects of the wine industry and plenty of willing wine enthusiasts, the great English taste off went down! The clear winner was Wiston Estate from West Sussex. I believe their wines show the very best of what England has to offer. These are serious wines made with extremely careful fruit selection, traditional methods, extended lees ageing and are truly world class in quality and deserving of your attention.

Wiston Manor featured in the Doomsday Book — a detailed ledger of English possessions created by William the Conqurer in the year 1086. The house in its current form dates from 1573 with a “remodel” in 1839. It has been owned by the Goring Family since 1743. Centered around this magnificent country house is Wiston estate, which a long history of more traditional agriculture, barley for brewing beer being a staple! 

Wiston’s foray into wine began as a dream of Pip Goring back in 1972 after arriving in England from Cape Town, South Africa. In 2006, after thirty-four years of consideration, Pip and her husband Harry planted nineteen acres of vines on a south facing slope with rich chalk soils. The estate is planted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, and is entirely hand-tended. The winemaker Dermot Sugrue has quickly gained a reputation as one of England’s rising stars. He hails from previous winemaking jobs at Chateau l’Eglise-Clinet in Pomerol, Chateau Leoville-Barton in St Julien, Jacquinot & Fils in Champagne and came to Wiston directly from Nyetimber (another English producer very much instrumental for putting English wines on the world stage).

Wiston's winemaking is very meticulous. Dermot uses only the finest handpicked clusters pressed in a traditional wooden Coquard basket Press (one of only three outside of Champagne). The base wines are then aged in ex-Jacques Prieur French oak barrels. They then undergo bottle fermentation, multiple years of ageing on the lees before being hand disgorged in small batches with a very restrained dosage being hand written on the back label. The wines are pure, powerful and focused.

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The 2013 Wiston Estate “South Downs Cuvee” Brut, West Sussex  is composed of 47% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Meunier fermented in top quality Burgundian French Oak barrels before three and a half years on the lees and 8g/l dosage. This is an incredible wine with powerful, chalky minerality and very focused, linear intensity. The low dosage and bright acidity means this is more for those that like crisp, dry Champagnes. The extended ageing on lees balances the wines fresh acidity with some rich, toasty autolytic characters of baked bread, toasted hazel nut and rye. The wine has delicious flavors of baked orchard fruit and crushed pears that zips across the palate into a long mouthwatering conclusion – a beautiful expression of English sparkling. This bottling just took out the Platinum Trophy for “Best English Sparkling” at the Decanter World Wine Awards garnering a score of 95 points!

The 2010 Wiston Estate Blanc de Blanc Brut is a late disgorgement of the same wine we had in our last direct shipment and it keeps getting better. Made from 100% Chardonnay, this wine has now had a quite stunning six-and-a-half years resting on its lees! It combines beautifully rich, toasty, brioche notes with a broad texture, yellow stone fruits, malted barley and a savory mouthwatering umami character—an amazing wine that will really stand up to a plethora of foods!

-Ryan Woodhouse