May 26, 2012
A BRIT’S FIZZ FRAZZLES THE FRENCH
WHEN a bubbly from England's South Downs in County Sussex won the title of World's Best Sparkling Wine at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in 2005, screams of horror could be heard from some in Champagne across the Channel in France, while others shrugged it off as little more than an aberration.
When that same English maker won the Decanter World Wine Awards for Best Sparkling in the World in 2010 the reaction from over the water was somewhat more shocked, and last year when it yet again won the International Wine & Spirit Competition for World's Best Sparkling, it had some of the men of Champagne literally gagging on their Gauloises'.
And yet the man behind those English successes has no winemaking lineage and is actually a one-time computer company owner who, with his wife, dumped the city rat-race in the early 1990s to take up a new life in the country making bubbly wine and enjoying the fruits of their labours with family and friends.
And Mike and Chris Roberts, together with their family who now work alongside them, never dreamed of what they'd one day achieve. "We didn't believe it at first," Mike says of their first win in 2005. "Even after they'd sent me the confirmation, I rang the organisers four times to make really sure they had the right winner!"
For the Roberts their successes are just as important for England as they are for their family-owned company. Not that they are anti-French – just proudly British – and Mike admits he's got the French to thank for some of his success: Ridgeview got advice and guidance in its formative years from makers from Champagne, and planted clones of French Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
The wine that won England its first "Best Sparkling" award was Ridgeview's Bloomsbury 2002, and interestingly it was another Englishman, Christopher Merret who gave the world its very first sparkling wine.
That was way back in 1662 and Mr Merret in a paper for the Royal Society, described in detail how he created such a bubbly drop, summing it up his wine in somewhat British under-statement as "gay, brisk and sparkling."
Thirty years later France's Dom Perrignon on creating his first bubbly exclaimed more loudly and poetically to those around him: "I am drinking the stars!"
But it actually took another 40 years for the French to get serious about what, until the Roberts came along, has been recognised as the best bubbly in the world.
Mike Roberts attributes the success of his little Ridgeview Estate – which makes around 240,000 bottles of sparkling wines a year – to a unique geographical factor: France's Champagne region is largely renowned for the greatness of its wines because of its soil that's basically chalk layered over clay, and which extends out and under the English Channel to rise again 140km away in the South Downs of Sussex.
"We've this unique soil, we're just 11km in from the sea, our winters are mild, and our summers are dry and actually quite hot," Mike says. "It's the perfect mix for the perfect bubbly."
Mike's assisted in his winemaking by son Simon and winemaker Charlie Holland, while Chris is a working director, daughter Tamara is company General Manager, Simon's wife Mardi (an Aussie from Victoria's Wangaratta) is Sales & Marketing Manager and son-in-law Simon Larder is Supply Chain Administrator.
Ridgeview Estate is open to the public Mondays to Saturdays from 11am to 4pm (except January and February,) with sales and tastings of their sparklings at the Cellar Door. It was their 2006 and 2007 Ridgeview Grosvenor that won the 2010 and 2011 awards, while their Fitzrovia Sparkling Rosé was served by Queen Elizabeth when President Obama visited Buckingham Palace last year.
You'll find Ridgeview in Ditchling in Sussex, an hour south of London by train or 1.5 hours by road. There are around 60 other wineries in the area, some open for tastings.
And the good news is that if you want to enjoy Ridgeview's bubblies they'll be available here from June this year. See select fine wine stores or visit www.mezzaninewine.com.au
FOOTNOTE: On May 15 this year Mike Roberts was awarded an MBE by the Queen at Buckingham Palace for services to the English wine industry.
 ESCAPED the rat-race and made history: Mike and Chris Roberts
 BLOOMING beauty – the drop that captivated judges who awarded it "World's Best Sparkling Wine"
 MISTY morn on Ridgeview Estate in England's South Downs
 THE Roberts family: (L-R) Mardi Roberts, Tamara Larder, Mike Roberts, Simon Larder with Owen Larder, Chris Roberts and Simon Roberts
 PRETTY as a picture: Ridgeview Estate's vineyards in their picturesque Sussex setting.
(Photos: Ridgeview Estate)