Monday, 30 November -0001

Adventures in wine: Celebration

It's the event of the year, but how best to toast the Diamond Jubilee? Our wine columnist has the answers

Written by Henry Jeffreys

I am sure that readers of The Lady are starting to ponder this summer’s great question: what to drink for the Diamond Jubilee on 2 June? It will have to be something special and something British. You might think that the patriotic imperative would preclude wine but happily all wines worth drinking are in fact British. Drunken nonsense? Not so; if you delve into history you'll find that most of the world’s finest wines: port, claret, sherry etc, have their origins on these shores. Their names are a giveaway: Taylor’s Port, Château Palmer in Bordeaux and Williams & Humbert in Jerez. And no wine owes more to British ingenuity than champagne.

It was often so cold in Champagne (the region) after the vintage that the wine would stop fermenting while sugar and yeast were still present. The next year when the weather warmed up, fermentation would start again, producing bubbles of carbon dioxide. In France this was considered a fault. The ‘godfather’ of Champagne, Dom Pérignon, laboured hard to avoid bubbles in his wines. Not so across La Manche.

wine henryHenry Jeffreys

When one thinks of the Royal Society in 17th-century London, one thinks of Isaac Newton and gravity or Christopher Wren building St Paul’s. These achievements pall beside those who laboured to harness the carbon dioxide to create champagne. Where else but Britain would the brightest minds of the time be involved in making delicious things to drink? There were two obstacles to overcome: 1) the bubbles in the wine create a lot of pressure: in champagne bottles today it is equivalent to the tyre pressure of a London bus, which would shatter the brittle glass of the time; 2) it was impossible to achieve bubbles consistently; sometimes there would be none. Cometh the hour, cometh the men!

First the bottle: enter Sir Kenelm Digby. A soldier, a founder member of the Royal Society and an alchemist, Sir Kenelm’s life reads like a picaresque novel. He claimed to have been propositioned by Marie de Medici, widow of Henry IV of France. She was 47, he was just 18. He was even accused, in 1633, of murdering his wife Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby. Sir Kenelm invented a process to fire glass at a much higher temperature, which made the end result stronger. Before Sir Kenelm, a wine bottle functioned like a decanter, now they could be used for storage, transportation and capturing bubbles. He also experimented with another piece of new technology to seal in bubbles – the cork.

Now to encourage the bubbles

In 1662, Christopher Merret delivered a paper to the Royal Society called Some Observations Concerning The Ordering Of Wines. He writes: ‘Our wine coopers of recent times use vast quantities of sugar and molasses to all sorts of wines to make them drink brisk and sparkling.’

Adding sugar in this way would fuel the second bubbles. This technique is still used in Champagne today. This paper stakes Merret’s claim to be the real godfather of champagne. By the late 17th century all the ingredients were in place in England to make a drink like modern champagne. Wine from Champagne would have been brought over to England. Thanks to Sir Kenelm Digby the wines could then be bottled in the new strong glass and have sugar added to them as per Merret’s method. They would then be sealed with corks and left in a cool, dark place for the bubbles to form.

The role that these great Englishmen played in creating champagne was until recently obscure, repressed, no doubt, by a shadowy cabal of French merchants. In the 1980s they were rediscovered and around the same time a couple of enthusiasts noticed that the South Downs had similar climate and soil to Champagne. The two Sussex estates, Ridgeview and Nyetimber, planted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and started producing champagne-style sparkling wines. The results were spectacular and now English sparkling wine is internationally feted. The wine invented by the great minds of the Royal Society has come home and I can't think of anything more appropriate to celebrate 60 years of Queen Elizabeth II.

Ones to buy

Home-grown bubbly South Ridge Blancs de Noir 2009: Almost a rosé colour, it tastes distinctively of strawberry ice cream and is enormously drinkable: one to drink if you have friends over. £19.99, www.laithwaites.co.uk Theale Vineyard Blanc de Blancs 2006: If you tried this blind, you’d think it was a £50 vintage champagne. It has a wonderful nose that reminded me of tarte tatin, honey and caramel. In the mouth it’s elegant, balanced and long. £22.99, www.laithwaites.co.uk

A couple of still wines from the Empire… McWilliams Mount Pleasant ‘Elizabeth’ Sémillon 2005: This wine was created in 1967 to celebrate the 20th wedding anniversary of the Queen and Prince Philip.

Sémillon from the Hunter Valley initially tastes very simple but after a little age, it begins to bloom with nutty, toasty flavours contrasting with a citric acidity. It’s an Australian classic and one of the great bargains of the wine world. £9, Tesco. McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Philip Shiraz 2009: For a red, this is another good bet, although it doesn’t quite hit the heights of the Elizabeth. £10.50, www.slurp.co.uk

…and for a top-notch champagne: Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Elizabeth Salmon Rosé 2000: It costs a lot of money but how often do you get a Diamond Jubilee to celebrate? Each mouthful will have you reaching for increasingly outlandish metaphors to describe what you are tasting.

The best rosé champagne I’ve ever had. It’s much too good to share. £130, www.champagnedirect.co.uk fermentation and create



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