English and Israeli Bubbles

Sparkling wines can reflect terroir. The autolysis adds another filter, but if you drink enough great sparkling wines (a.k.a. Champagne), you will find that the great growers/winemakers practice their craft with the kind of sensitivity that allows the land to speak, even if you sometimes have to listen hard. The personality and philosophy of a great grower will also shine.

But not all terroirs and not all winemakers are created equal. Will terroir and personality always show through? With some sparkling wines, even in exalted Champgne, autolysis and dosage will overwhelm all other factors.

In a recent tasting of English and Israeli bubblies, I did not always find terroir or personality. Few of the wines would shame an English or an Israeli patriot, but none would fool an experienced Champagne afficiando in a blind tasting. The best of Champagne is a marriage of subtlety, complexity, persistence, fruit and umami flavors, and few international contenders have been able to match them.

The tasting was hosted by the SerpenDT wine bar in Jaffa and presided over by Moshe Cohen, an expatriate living in Manchester, who has been involved in various ways in the UK wine business since the 90’s and today produces a wine podcast (Wine In The Vineyard). Moshe had a lot to say about the sparkling wine industry in the UK. I didn’t capture all of what he said about the industry, but the important points are:

  • The English wine industry is still young. I would add that I’ve been hearing about it for twenty years, so it’s not quite that young.
  • It’s improving. That’s another point I’ve been hearing for twenty years.
  • Global warming has made the climate much better for vine growing (especially in the southeast). You can guess by now that I’ve been hearing that, too, for twenty years, but at least by now the the English public relations machine has stopped hyping the similarities with the soil of Champagne, focusing on climate instead.
  • Like any other young wine industry, it seems to rely a lot on foreign consultants.

Now, on to the wines.

Nyetimber, Classic Cuvée, n.v.
This is a classic example of a pleasant sparkling wine that leaves little impression on me. It's fruity (green apples mostly), not very complex or persistent, and not dry enough for my tastes.

Black Chalk, Hampshire, 2018
This is much more to my tastes, even though it's also sweeter than what I’m used to in champagne, but the acidity balances it well. Generally speaking, I think English winemakers overcompensate for the difficulties of ripening their grapes with dosage. Almost every wine felt sweeter than the dosage listed in the technical sheets that Moshe brought. The texture here is very good, reflecting the chalky character of the nose. This, I'd drink. It wouldn't really captivate me, but I'd manage to share a bottle with a couple of friends.

Busi-Jacobsohn, Cuvée Brut, 2018
Busi-Jaconsohn might well be a keeper. If the price is right. This, a very dry and very chalky sparkler, was a close second to the Hattingley further ahead and their rose made a solid showing.

Buffa, Rose, Extra Brut, 2020
Buffa is an Israeli artisanal producer who makes only sparkling wines, very much a manual laborer when it comes to his craft, not only handling the remontage manually (which rare, but not unheard of), but also bottling the wines manually - which is really courting disaster, if you ask me. I'm in a bad mood as I write this, because someone pissed me off at work, but I ask myself, would I be more charitable on a better day, having witnessed how the bottle spilled over Ido Lewinsohn when it was opened? And I have other complaints, while I'm in a snarling mood. Why would you make a bubbly from Petit Verdot? I get, it makes for a very red and funky rose and there's a market for that kind of thing. But you know what, I might get it, but I don't have to accept it. I came to love Champagne for the umami and minerals and I'm staying for the long run because of its ability to convey personality through subtle nuances.

Hattingley Valley, Classic Reserve, nv (2025 based, 23% reserve)
Speaking of umami flavors, may I introduce you to the girl I'll take home from this tasting? This was the most complex wine of the evening, balancing fresh and ripe fruits and letting them roll on to a lovely, umami finish. 

Gusbourne, Brut Reserve, 2018
Looking over my notes, I can just say that this is good, but didn't make a huge impact on me, besides noting that it was on the spicy side, rather than the  umami side.

Raziel, nv
Raziel needs no introduction to Israeli drinkers. Raziel is Eli Ben-Zaken's side project/laboratory. If Castel is where he's been doing the Bordeaux game for decades (it's still as close as we'll ever get to a local version of Bordeaux), Raziel is where he's been working his magic with Grenache, Carignan, Syrah - and producing sparkling wines. The vintage version is still waiting to emerge from his cellars, but the non-vintages are on the market already. This is lovely, very elegant and finely balanced, almonds on a background of unobtrusive lemons. The rose version is still not ready for consumption, in my opinion, so I'm passing on making any judgement.

Just a couple of English roses and then we're done.

Busi-Jacobsohn, Rose Extra Brut, 2018
This is good, but not exciting. Strawberries, chalk, forest floor - you get here what you'd expect when you let the Pinot grapes show their red character, but you get none of the sensual pleasure of a Champagne rose. Because I liked their other wine, I'm going to wish them good luck in the future, sans sarcasm.

Hattingley Valley, Rose Vintage, 2018
Just pink grapefruit without a lot of nuances. This, too, is a statement devoid of sarcasm, just a reflection ion the state of things.