A Sparkling Comparison: Champagne VS English Sparkling Wine

With some uncertainty around sterling following Brexit, recent duty rises and increased temperatures creating a better climate for growing wine in the UK, the production and demand for English wines are having a flourishing moment.
Wonderful producers such as Nyetimber, Exton Park or Herbert Hall are making delicious, award-wining sparkling wines which have been a huge success among our customers at events like London Wine Week, the Honest Grapes Wine Festival and most recently, at the Great British Beer Festival. Dry, crisp, refreshing and with a unique character representative of each terroir, English sparkling wines are the summer’s blockbusters.
All this hype did raise the question: how similar are Champagne and English sparkling wine?

 


Prefer to learn by tasting? See our range of Champagnes and English Sparkling Wines.



The quick answer, and, with all the expected English equivocation: they’re quite similar. Relatively speaking. Except where they're different.

(For anyone wondering: yes, both Champagne and English sparkling wine can be sabraged, video proof below - Tom sabraging a bottle of Herbert Hall when we visited the vineyard a while back.)
Tom WineChap Harrow Sabrage with Herbert Hall English Sparkling Wine from Honest Grapes on Vimeo.
 

Sparkling Similarities:


  • Champagne and English Sparkling wine are made from the same grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

  • The same seam of chalk runs under the Channel and informs the terroir of both Champagne region and the South of England (Kent, East Sussex, and bits of Hampshire).

  • The grapes are produced in a similar climate (especially with global warming – where vintages like 2003, 2009 actually favour UK production as was too hot in Champagne).

  • They tend to be similarly priced. Perhaps contentiously, English sparkling wine is rarely cheaper than Champagnes of an equivalent level.

  • Champagne and English sparkling wine are produced the same way, with a first fermentation in tank then, after addition of the liqueur de tirage (sugar syrup and more yeasts), a secondary fermentation in bottle, followed by a period of ageing on the lees under a crown cap, then disgorgement, addition of the dosage, followed by a final period of ageing.

  • And perhaps, most importantly to the thirsty members of our readership – there are definite similarities in how they taste. Both require high acid base wines and even after a second fermentation the palate should be very clean and refreshing with mouth-puckering acidity.

Demi-Sec Differences:


  • Champagne has been producing wines for much longer (the House of Gosset, still producing fabulous Champagne today, was founded in 1584).

  • Champagne vines are much older. Arguably, this means that Champagne root systems have pushed down further into the soils, and the vines are picking up more complexity from penetrating more mineralogical strata.

  • Still on the relative youth of English production - so far there is rather a lack of older British bottles : the most venerable bottle we have tried was the Nyetimber’s 1996 Blanc de Blancs – which was exceptional.

  • England (and Wales) produce about 1% as much sparkling wine annually as Champagne. Champagne produces around 300 million bottles from 35,000 hectares whilst England (and Wales) makes 3million from 1500 hectares. And that’s not even taking into account other French sparkling wine production (such as Crémant d'Alsace).

  • Champagne is incredibly strict about what can and can be called "Champagne", and rigidly demarcates Grand Cru, Premier Cru and other vineyards as well as yields and production factors. It’s still all rather frontier territory in the UK by comparison. Hants-based producer Coates & Seely is keen for growers to sign up to labeling bottles as “Bretagne” but it has yet to catch on.

  • We’ve noted the similarities in taste between the two above, but it should also be acknowledged that most English sparklers taste different from Champagne – they have a fresh apple crunchiness and more marked acidity on the palate and less autolytic (lees) character.