LAST autumn I was lunching in one of Bordeaux's most beautiful chateaux, when my host suddenly announced he would soon be launching his own English fizz.
"I will send you a bottle when it's ready," he promised. Sure enough, nine months later, his new sparkling prodigy arrived on my doorstep: Coates & Seely Brut Ros.
My lunch companion, Christian Seely, is a big name in Bordeaux. He has one of the top jobs running the vast AXA Insurance wine portfolio including classed growth chateaux Pichon Longueville Baron in Pauillac and Suduiraut in Sauternes, as well as port house Quinta do Noval in Portugal and Tokay winery Disznoko in Hungary. Seely lives in France and is married to a French winemaker, Corinne, but he is clearly still an Englishman at heart.
"I have always yearned to make my own wine – in England," says Seely. With the emergence of quality English fizz, he and his friend James Coates, whom he met at Fontainebleau business school, decided to look for suitable vineyard land in southern England. "We discovered an old vineyard at Whitchurch in Hampshire which had originally been planted by Charles Cunningham who had died suddenly, but it had been kept going by his widowed mother," he says.
As a keen fisherman Seely knew the area well, others may know it as the setting for Watership Down. Near the banks of the river Test, Wooldings Vineyard in the North Hampshire Downs has similar soil and climate to Champagne, just 80 miles to the south so it's ideal for planting with the same grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.
Seely's first bottling is a sparkling Brut (dry) Ros made from pinot noir and pinot meunier. He will soon launch a Blanc de Blancs from 100 per cent chardonnay. Grapes are sourced from 30 acres at Wooldings Vineyard and another 20 acres managed by his team at Exton Park 20 miles away. All Seely's fizz is made using the same traditional methods of gentle pressing, careful blending and secondary fermentation in bottle as in champagne to create the sparkle.
Tastewise, his ros is a huge success, showing incredible fruit ripeness and balance considering its origin.
While the French have champagne, the Spanish cava, and the Italians prosecco – the English have dull sounding English Sparkling Wine. Seely has come up with 'Britagne' (as in Britannia, but pronounced 'Brit-an-ye') which he hopes will catch on as a generic name. His bottles are all labelled 'Methode Britannique' which he would like legally defined to ensure use of only the three main fizz grapes and secondary fermentation in bottle.
However, other English wine fizz producers, such as Ridgeview, don't like this name, preferring 'Merret' – referring to Dr Christopher Merret who documented the addition of sugar and molasses to wine to 'make them drink brisk and sparkling' in 1662 (long before the French….).
Other suggestions include 'Shampain' (the Champenois would never allow it), 'Fizzwein' (dreadful) or 'Pippa' (named after Kate Middleton's sister).
Until the English wine authorities can decide on an appropriate name it is up for debate. Any ideas?
Coates & Seely Brut Ros
Fine Wine Co, Musselburgh; Lockett Bros, North Berwick; Luvians, Cupar; Mostly Wine, Kirkcaldy; www.coatesandseely.com
Considering its origin there is surprisingly rich ripe fruit and impressive pungent strawberry and raspberry aromas. The palate is very well-balanced with succulent ripe fruits and balancing firm acidity. A very impressive first effort.