English wine has come a long way in an incredibly short time. No longer the hobby of a few weekend enthusiasts, it’s an industry to have come almost from nowhere.
The statistics behind this growth are extraordinary. In the past 10 years the number of planted vines has more than doubled and is set to grow a further 50 per cent by 2020.
Wine production is set to double from last year’s five million bottles to 10 million by 2020. This is down to sparkling wine with the classic Champagne grapes of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier accounting for more than 50 per cent of plantings.
But is the quality of the wine, sparklers in particular, high enough to engage consumers beyond the notion of novelty?
Global tasting competitions and a number of organised blind events appear to show English sparkling wine really is delivering quality good enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with other quality sparkling wine regions, including Champagne.
So we put it to the test last weekend with The Judgement of Hampshire competition. A panel, including leading regional members of the catering industry and some everyday consumers, met at Hambledon Vineyard to taste four Grande Marque Champagnes against four Hampshire sparklers. That this tasting could even be considered says much about the current state of play. I’m not sure it would have been possible five years ago.
The criteria was that all the wines should be readily available and cost less than £40. They were served blind in a random order. Remember, a tasting such as this is just a snapshot of how the wines showed on a specific day and not necessarily a definitive ranking. Each wine was marked out of 20 and the scores added together for the final result. Despite being asked not to, many tried to work out which was from Hampshire and which was Champagne, making their task even harder.
The results put not one Hampshire fizz ahead of the four Champagnes but two, with all showing very well. It was fitting that Hambledon Classic Cuvée NV, the UK’s oldest commercial vineyard and revitalised by Ian Kellet since he bought it in 1999, won. The wine is a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier and is currently a blend from the 2013, 2010, 2011 and 2012 vintages. It’s made by Hervé Jestin who has spent most of his life making wine in Champagne and since 2011 has overseen all winemaking at Hambledon.
Cottonworth Classic Cuvée Brut NV came second – again a blend of the three classic Champagne grapes. The vineyard is just south of Andover and the first vines planted in 2005. Like Hambledon, they are in chalk soil similar to those found in Champagne.
Everyone agreed the quality was high across the board, with the Hampshire wines more than holding their own against their French cousins. Champagne has been producing the ultimate celebration wine for more than 200 years. It appears Hampshire is ready to join the party.