Why can Cheddar cheese be made anywhere in the world but yet the name originated from Cheddar in Somerset where they stored their cheese in the caves in the famous Cheddar Gorge? Why is a pasty a Cornish pasty when it comes from Cornwall? Why does Stilton cheese have to come from three counties in the Midlands but can’t come from Stilton in Cambridgeshire? Why is sparkling wine from Champagne called Champagne but from the Loire a Crement? Because they have a PDO: Stilton and Champagne are products of a Protected Designated Origin. They are unique to that region and that has been established under EU law. So the Duchess of Cornwall can rightly comment that English Sparkling should be called Champagne “because it is as good as Champagne”, but we can’t call it Champagne, nor should we want to.
English Sparkling wine is a unique product, it has far more fruity characteristics than Champagne, it doesn’t rely on autolysis (the biscuity / yeasty characteristics given to the wine by aging it on the yeast lees in the bottle) to bring flavours into the wine, and English Sparkling Wine has those as well. It is not flabby like an Asti or sweet like much Sekt, it is not Cava, it’s English Sparkling Wine. However, recently a healthy debate has begun in both the trade and national press to do with a new name for English Sparkling Wine. As you can read in the news section on our website,http://www.rathfinnyestate.com/englishwine.htm
Producers’ opinions are split on a new name. We have spent the last few weeks meeting various English wine producers and I would say that opinions range from “English Sparkling Wine, says what it is so why change it”, to “we need a new name, let’s get on with it”. However, my own feeling is that neither of the names, Merret or Britagne, really cuts the mustard.
When you think of other classic wine regions they all conjure up images of what you are likely to get. Think of Bordeaux and you think of rich, oak aged, tannic red wine, Claret. If you think of Burgundy you think of thinner red wine made from Pinot Noir. In the New World if you offered someone a glass of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc they would know what to expect, much like if I offered you a glass of Chianti from Tuscany.
So any new name has to relate to the region that the wine is coming from. It has to reflect what the French call Terroir, the unique characteristics of the area the wine comes from; it’s not just the soil but the climate, the way the wine is made, the grapes used.
The majority of English Sparkling Wine comes from the Downs, both North and South and some from the lower greensand bit in the middle. It is easy to define and describe the Downs. They are dominated by the rolling chalk hills to the north and south, and as Denbies pointed out they will be a major feature of the Olympics in 2012, as a cycle race will ride up and down Box Hill on the North Downs. Most of the top English Sparkling Wine comes from this area, the vines benefit from the same free draining chalky soils found in Champagne, and anyone who has visited the region will recall the lovely long summer days when the sun sets late into the evening.
With that image in mind it may be easy to come up with a name, which could represent the unique characteristics of our Terroir. It would be easy to define as a geographic region, it is boarded by the Thames to the north and the English Channel to the south and the chalk ridge runs into Hampshire to the west. It encompasses Kent, Sussex (West and East), Surrey and most of Hampshire. Let’s not make the same mistakes as Cheddar, or for that matter and more appropriately Coonawarra in southern Australia, and not define the region our wine comes from.
I would suggest we find a name and establish it as the new name that sets the sparkling wine from South East England apart from the rest of the England and the World. Is it the “Downs” or “Downlands”? All we need to do then is produce a set of guidelines, which will ensure that anyone who uses the name produces sparkling wine of a quality that justifies the name.
Answers on a postcard please…?