England's Finest Wine Stems From an Unlikely Source

English sparkling wine

My face screws up as my teeth hit the firstgrape. I know grapes to be plump and sweet. But these are undersized, with more pips than flesh, and they’re acidic enough to come with a “hazardous materials” warning. I quietly spit the fruit into the dirt and question whether these long rows of grapes, grown in this region between London and the English Channel, are worth picking. They can’t be the taste of England’s most royal sparkling wine. Can they?

Wait. Is there even such a thing as English sparkling wine? To my unenlightened mind, the marriage of “English” and “wine” sounds about as appealing as “prairie” and “oysters.” By the way, I’m English. I know we’re experts at lagers and ambers. But wine?

There is, in fact, a quiet revolution taking place here in southeast England. It’s so discrete that I knew nothing about it, and I live all of maybe 50 miles from here. So I’ve made the short trip to the Ridgeview Wine Estate, a small-scale, family-run producer in the Sussex countryside.

Since first hitting the market in 2000, Ridgeview’s wines have gone head-to-head against the best French champagnes to win a slew of awards. They have even been served at Buckingham Palace receptions hosted by Her Majesty the Queen.

I’d called ahead to plan a tasting, but Mardi Roberts, daughter-in-law of the vineyard’s founders, had other ideas.

“Come tomorrow,” she said. “We’ll be harvesting the chardonnay grapes. We can use an extra pair of hands.”

It isn’t exactly the taste-testing experience I had in mind, but here I am, between rows of vines, snipping off bunches of small, translucent green grapes and placing them carefully into a basket.

“The chalky soil here is almost identical to that found in Champagne, France,” Mardi says while I work. “Did you know you’re less than 100 miles from the champagne vineyards of Épernay?”

I continue picking, partly so I don’t have to admit my ignorance of Mardi’s factoids about my homeland. She mentions the similarity in climate from Sussex to the champagne region, with one important difference. English summers are a few degrees cooler, which allows for a longer growing season. “The longer the fruit stays ripening on the vine, the more intense its flavors will be, the more crispness in the bubbly,” Mardi says.

I’ve tasted the fruit. The terms “intense” and “crispness” are nice words to describe an acid bath.

But three years ago a Ridgeview Grosvenor blanc de blancs won Best Sparkling Wine in the Decanter World Wine Awards, the first time the award went to a wine from outside Champagne, even if the name sounds far more French than English.

As we empty our umpteenth basket of grapes onto a conveyor, Mardi invites me inside to watch the fruit being pressed by shiny, state-of-the-art machinery. I’m getting the 30-minute tutorial. In reality, it takes three years to produce each bottle. Mardi suggests my toil in the fields deserves a visit to the sampling room. I’m quick to assent.

Mardi pops the cork on a bottle of 2008-vintage Grosvenor. The bubbles crown my glass with a frothy mousse. I savor the delicate aroma before sipping some of the world’s best sparkling wine.

Surprise: It tastes nothing like bitter grapes. The light palate and distinctive citrus notes linger on my tongue. I’m amazed that those foul fruits can be transformed into such fabulous fizz. I also wonder who might wind up drinking the wine made from the grapes I’ve picked today. It won’t be ready for three years. Perhaps it will be poured for the Queen herself. With that in mind, I ask for another glass.