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England vs. France: Part 1, 2016

At the weekend I enjoyed an excellent bottle of Champagne from Larmandier Bernier. This wine, their Terre de Vertus, was everything I want in a glass of fizz; it was invigorating and salivating yet also winey and delicately yeasty, a fine wine in its own right, with or without the bubbles. Such vinous pleasure made me think of the wines we make in England and particularly the award winning nature of many of our sparkling wines. Although it may not be very patriotic to say, I have not, as of yet, had an English fizz that has exhibited the same completeness or complexity of the very best Champagne. But that does not mean that they are not often very good. Led by the likes of Taittinger, the Champenois, clearly enamoured with what they are tasting from this side of La Manche, are increasingly making the trip to England in search of prime vineyard land.

If we assume that the soil is the same (chalk) and that an already similar climate will only become more so with a soupçon of global warming, then perhaps Sussex really can begin to challenge the best of the Cote des Blancs? The problem with this argument is that it does not take into account our differing cultures and whether a Frenchman or woman has a greater affinity for the crafting of such wines by the very virtue of being imbued with a certain Frenchness, almost from birth.

The one year that I spent living in France, the torrid 2003 vintage, I existed in a state of constant appreciation. This was caused by three things that the French are extraordinarily good at:

  1. Bread
  2. Wine
  3. Lingerie

Any small provincial French ‘town’ worth its sel can be guaranteed to have at least three good bun shops, a couple of ‘caves’ or wine vendors and a shrine to the bra and knicker.

In Britain the same sized village/town has a:

  1. Co-op (other chains of convenience stores do exist)
  2. A Charity shop
  3. Post Office

This is why so many of us find the French an incomprehensible bunch. Whilst they are thinking ‘food, drink, sex’ (a simple but enjoyable formula for life based on the feeding of one’s sensuous appetites) we’re thinking ‘convenience, cheap, stamps’.

If we, the English, can let go of our prosaic disposition and instead view life through the lens of our more romantic neighbours to the South, then perhaps English Wine will become the world’s best and Champagne will be relegated to an also ran? The conclusion or ‘Part 2’ to this article will be available in 2050 when, assuming I’m not dead, we’ll assess again which country’s wine is in the ascendency. In the meantime below are a couple of excellent wines from both sides of the channel which I am sure will be more greatly appreciated by your inner monkey than any banana.

Happy New Year!

Larmandier-Bernier, Terre de Vertus 1er cru, 2009, Blanc de Blancs, 12%, (Biodynamic)
Grape: Chardonnay
Winemaking: Traditional method, 48 months on lees, zero dosage
Note: Rich, savoury and biscuity. This had the purity of fruit expression one expects from zero dosage wines without the mouth puckering and enamel cracking acidity that can leave some examples of this sugar regime, gaunt and hollow. Fine stuff and at this price a true bargain.
Price: Bought for 2000NT, regular retail price is 2450NT (2010 now available). Or 39.50GBP in the UK
Score: 17+/20
Available from: New Century (ncw.tw), leaandsandeman.co.uk

Gusbourne Estate, Brut Blanc de Blancs, 2010, 12%
Grape: Chardonnay
Winemaking: Traditional method, 36 months on lees, 9g dosage
Note: The sugar balances the acid tang and adds richness to the delicious baked apple aromas. Firm and well mannered, this has enough guts and class to be drinking very well until 2020.
Price: 38.95GBP in UK
Score: 16.5/20
Available from: Handford Wines (handford.net)

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A Postcard from Sudbury

Waking up after a particularly splendid house party is never an easy task. Too little sleep accompanied by the dull thud of a Cachaca induced hangover suggested that a stroll in the damp air that hung low over the water-meadows of Sudbury was in order. On drumming up support for this idea with my fellow sufferers it was decided that we would make the short drive to Dedham. Here we followed the Stour river as it meandered its way toward Flatford Mill, the site of some of John Constable’s most famous paintings.

Suffolk has produced some of England’s greatest artists with Sudbury’s own Thomas Gainsborough arguably the most widely appreciated. Yet when twenty years ago I was wandering, slack-jawed, through the mesmerizingly magnificent Frick Collection in New York, I found the bucolic nature of Constable’s ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden’ surprisingly arresting. Why? Because it engendered the most gentle and positive form of patriotism within me. Living in Europe means that it is easy to see England as a less glamorous, less aesthetically significant patch of land when compared to the best that the continent can offer. But here was proof that the English have some beauty of their own…

…however this does not mean that I like all of Constable’s paintings. His most famous, ‘The Haywain’, leaves me cold. Having arrived at Flatford Mill, the clouds still lumpy and grey after a brief downpour, the view that Constable painted remains virtually unchanged. The water levels have risen, some trees have died whilst others have imposed themselves but the buildings are the same. In contrast to ‘Salisbury Cathedral’, ‘The Haywain’ feels more stylised, more claustrophobic, perhaps a little saccharin but there was no doubting the very real beauty of the reality.

Yet whatever my feelings on ‘The Haywain’, it was an honour to stand where Constable had stood, and with my heart warmed, and with the muddiness of my head clearing, it was time to visit the nearby riverside cafe to partake in another great piece of Englishness: tea and cake.