At Hambledon, English sparkling wine asks a tough question

Champagne: it is the drink of choice for many passengers, whether in business class and first class around the world, or even in economical on Air France – and airlines are the world’s largest buyers of this wine, which (unless you are in Russia) can only be called Champagne if it comes from the wine region of the historic French province of the same name.

It is this terroir that makes Champagne Champagne, with the mixture of topography, soils and climate which gives a particular taste to the wine. On the land side, this is a special type of chalk, known on the north side of the English Channel as Newhaven Chalk, found in a few areas of southern England, which is very similar in several key geological respects. to that found in Champagne.

One of these areas is in Hambledon, the Hampshire vineyard a few miles north of the English Channel near Portsmouth, where Virgin Atlantic’s Top class English sparkling wine is made.

A close up photo of chalk in the ground

The chalk – exposed during a construction site – corresponds to that of Champagne. Image: John Walton

On a humid English summer day – a few weeks before the current extreme heat wave, later – I stopped for a tour of the vineyard avoiding the clouds and to talk about Hambledon’s past, and even its future. , with winemaker Tobias Tullberg.

Hambledon Classic Cuvée became permanent on the Virgin Atlantic wine list in 2019, just before the pandemic turned everything upside down. It costs £ 30, about the same as a good bottle of champagne from Lanson or Taittinger, or what I would call a category 2 kind of champagne.

What sets Hambledon apart on the palate is a surprising acidity on the palate. The winegrowers official tasting notes call it “precise, structured but ripe acidity”, and it is indeed fascinating to feel the acidity working on the palate. It is neither pungent nor acidic, but refreshing. It cleanses the palate and generates nothing so much as a kind of gluttony for a snack or a small plate of something salty. If this sounds perfect as an aperitif on board, you are reading my mind.

Tullberg is proud of the acidity, pointing to the malolactic fermentation which softens the liveliest edges, and on the 35 months that the Cuvée Classique spends. aging on lees, it’s more than a lot of non-vintage champagnes.

The acidity comes from the fruit which, in the cooler English climate, does not thrive as much as its French counterparts a few hundred kilometers to the south.

From the bottle it looks a lot like the coin. It has the classic shaped bottle with the dark blue leaf. It has the crest which includes the stumps of cricket – the village of Hambledon being the “cradle of cricket“, after all. It’s branded on the billboard, in a bold typeface that resembles the classic Modula. And it has the pop of the cork and the fizz of the bubbly foam that usually says” Champagne. “

4 wine bottles displayed on a wooden table

Virgin Atlantic’s classic Upper Class cuvée, left, is an elegant and attractive bottle. Image: John Walton

And this is where Hambledon asks a key question: is it good enough to completely replace French equipment on airlines around the world (versus just UK carriers? with a strong sense of brand equity)?


On the day of the visit to Hambledon, with its two hillsides of vines, your author would undoubtedly have said “no”, but correct: the acidity would surprise too many palates. But to accompany Champagne, for those who like to taste the unusual, the staging of the country of origin of an airline? Absoutely.

And, a few weeks later, in the middle of a heat wave where the south of the UK was warmer than the south of France, my answer on replacing champagne needs to change from a ‘no’ to a ‘not yet’.

Today, Hambledon can make a wine that certainly has many of the characteristics of Champagne. In the years to come, the cooler climate that now presents itself as its striking acidity, due to climate change, will evolve into a more rounded taste similar to champagne. This will combine in an interesting way with the work Tullberg and the other winemakers are doing to create a Reserve to amplify the depth and breadth in the mouth, and to buffer the good years against the bad.

Indeed, the warmer growing spells in the south of England are not a ‘climate change is a good thing’ story, as our common future will be one of the extremes: When we visit, the entire harvest was in doubt due to the unusually cold and humid weather, which has now been followed by heat cooking. More than ever, the know-how of winegrowers and winegrowers will be necessary to adapt to it.

Hambledon is located just inland from the English Channel.  His vines are shown here on a sunny day

Hambledon is located just inland from the English Channel. Image: John Walton

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All images credited to author, John Walton

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