So here’s something off-topic: I am a big fan of Alsace Pinot Noirs. They are delicate, interesting, occasionally austere, and sometimes they’re not very good. But when they’re great… well…
This is because of the weather. They have great terroir in the Alsace. But the weather is, in wine terms, somewhat unreliable. And this makes the production of a truly great Pinot Noir round that way …
[Sporting Metaphors Alert]
… akin to a Usain Bolt world record, going through Eau Rouge flat out on full tanks, hitting an ace on your second serve to win a fourth set tie-break at the Wimbledon finals when a double fault will lose you the game.
It takes commitment and nerve and an absolute precision confidence in what you’re doing.
So… what has this to do with English wine, you ask.
I will tell you.
It is often said that England’s South Downs have terroir that is geologically similar to Champagne, and that thanks to global warming, our French cousins “better watch out” because with better weather comes riper grapes blah blah.
This is an argument that doesn’t hold water. Or wine. For two reasons. 1/ Alsace shares a geologically similar terroir to Pfalz in Germany, where a sexy little micro-climate gives the Pinot a banging ripeness that Alsace, in most years, can only dream of. And 2/ England’s “hotter summers” seem to bring us a washed out ripening season, which is no friend to the grape.
I bring all this up because I have long been enthusiastic about English wine. I see it as a quixotic endeavour, and I love the passion behind it. But, at every English wine tasting I have ever attended — and we’re going back to the 80s here, when I did the vendage for a couple of autumns at a vineyard not far west of Oxford — there’s always that sensation that you’re saying nice things as you would to a backward child. You know, you want to be supportive. Unless it was about that Pinot Noir I tried at Denbigh’s in the late 90s, which reminded me of the old joke about what Budweiser and getting it on in a canoe have in common.
All of this slightly apologetic, “oh, jolly well done” feeling evaporated when I tasted Wiston’s NV Brut sparking English wine. For the first time, no apology was necessary. In fact, if you change “cleared” for “made”, I felt rather like Christian Slater at the end of this little scene here:
The Wiston itself is complex, zingy and fresh, with the yeasty, bready notes you would expect from a sparkling made with the three main Champagne grapes and in the Champagne style.
But there’s another thing going on here. This is a wine that is not trying to be something else.
Most of the other English sparklings I’ve tried, like Nyetimber and Chapel Down and so on, taste like ersatz champagne. And they carry a price tag that means the wine in the bottle does not live up to the positioning.
Wiston walks with confidence, greets you warmly with a firm handshake and a steady gaze, and is resolutely itself.
It doesn’t hurt that their winemaker, Dermot Sugrue, is obscenely talented and supported by a team with a clear vision, from the owners down, to help him deliver time and again.
But what he and the Goring family have achieved at Wiston is the creating of a genuinely English wine from great terroir and frequently unreliable weather.
That puts me in mind of a great Alsace Pinot Noir. And that makes me very happy.