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English fizz trumps champagne in blind tasting
(by Jancis Robinson, 29th Oct 2015)

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Chardonnay (58%), Pinot Meunier (18%) & Pinot Noir (24%). Nose rich and warm exuding Seville orange and brioche aromas, with hints of dried flowers and toasted hazelnuts. The palate is explosive, with mouthwatering acidity and dried apricot and citrus. The mouthfeel is a silky soft foam of tingling sparks. The finish shows undertones of vanilla and and salted caramel, ending again with that fresh, vivid, orangey tang.
On Monday 28 September my morning newspaper was full of lurid pictures of an anarchist group throwing red paint and abuse at an outfit they had decided exemplified the wicked gentrification of East London. I would have thought estate agents' offices a more suitable target than the crowd-funded Cereal Killer Café set up in Brick Lane by the affable-looking (and of course bearded) Keery twins, but I did feel a twinge of concern as I was due to spend the morning in The Marksman gastropub in the deepest East End blind tasting champagne – and benchmarking English sparkling wine against it.

As it happens, there was indeed a bombshell at the tasting, but it was metaphorical. English fizz won.

I have been sworn to secrecy about the results of this tasting until now because it was organised by Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew of the estimable new(ish) Noble Rot magazine, a deserved winner at the recent Louis Roederer international wine writers awards, and they wanted to be able to report on the event themselves without being scooped weeks before.

The blind tasters were not just us three (The Marksman staff kept track of what was what) but three more potential embargo-breakers – Jamie Goode of wineanorak.com, Neal Martin of erobertparker.com and Kate Spicer of The Sunday Times – as well as eminent tasters from the food and restaurant world: French sommeliers Raphael Rodriguez of Fera, Xavier Rousset ex 28-50 and Fred Sirieix of Galvin; Ruth Spivey of Wine Car Boot fame; chefs Stephen Harris of The Sportsman (who will be advising on Noble Rot's forthcoming wine bar in Lamb's Conduit Street) and Mikael Jonsson of Hedone; and cheese expert Patricia Michaelson.

We tasters certainly hadn't been chosen for our partiality for English wine and, unbeknown to all of us except the Noble Rot duo, the odds were stacked in favour of champagne because of the dozen wines presented to us, eight were some of their favourite champagnes and only four had been grown in England's pleasant land, four of their favourites. There turned out to be three big champagne brands and five growers' champagnes and I was told beforehand that all the wines, champagne and English sparkling, sold in the same price bracket, roughly £30-40 a bottle retail.

Before we were served four flights of three wines each, in completely random order as you will see, we were told by the Noble Rot team, 'we're not looking for identification, just quality assessment', but of course it was very difficult not to try to work out the provenance of each wine. I had assumed there would be six of each but was a bit surprised not to find six likely English candidates among the wines served, in Zalto Universal glasses. I found four, of which three seemed to me to be very good and possibly English (they were). Our bottle of Berèche was so odd that I meanly wondered whether it could be English.

But what thrilled me was that the best English wines were (a) so good and (b) pretty obviously English. The best English sparkling wines have always been very well made, and have always been very fresh and clean. What they have for long seemed to lack in general is complexity, but the two favourite wines of the group were both English and were very fine by any measure.

My favourite two wines overall were this particular cuvée of Veuve Clicquot NV (not popular with most tasters) and Wiston Estate with 17.5 points each. But I gave 17 points, my next highest score, to the other three English wines, including the overall winner Hambledon, from the first English vineyard of the current era and the first one I ever visited, back in 1976, as well as bottlings from Gusbourne and Nyetimber. This was a sterling performance by the small English corps (which could have been chosen from many more top-notch contenders), and a rather disappointing one by some of the champagnes.

Here are the group totals, winning wine at the top:

No.1 Hambledon, Classic Cuvée NV England 178.5 points

No.2 Nyetimber, Classic Cuvée Brut 2010 England 175 points

No.3 Pol Roger, Réserve Brut NV Champagne 173.5 points

No.4 Taittinger, Réserve Brut NV Champagne 173 points

No.5 Bérèche & Fils, Réserve Brut NV Champagne 167 points

No.6 Wiston, Estate Cuvée Brut 2010 England 166 points

No.7 Frerejean Frères, Brut NV Champagne 165.5 points

No.8 Marguet Père et Fils, Extra Brut Premier Cru NV Champagne 164 points

No.9 Gusbourne, Réserve Brut 2010 England 160.1 points

No.10 Chartogne-Taillet, Ste-Anne Brut NV Champagne 160 points

No.11 Veuve Clicquot, Yellow Label Brut NV Champagne 159 points

No.12 Savart & Fils, L'Ouverture Brut NV Champagne 150.5 points