MIKE PUT A SPARKLE INTO ENGLISH WINE
THE English winemaking industry lost a bit of its bubble last month with the passing of Mike Roberts, the man who did the unthinkable in 2005 when a drop he made at his little Ridgeview Estate in Sussex took out the title of World's Best Sparkling Wine at the enormously prestigious International Wine and Spirit Competition.
And to prove that it wasn't an aberration in beating the best of French Champagnes, together with bubblies from 54 other countries world-wide, five years later in 2010 he won a similar World's Best Sparkling award with another of his English fizzes at the equally impressive Decanter World Wine Awards.
It was enough to have those across the Channel crying into their cuvees and gnashing on their Gauloises', for not only had most probably never heard of the little village of Ditchling in East Sussex where Mike Roberts and his wife Chris had their Ridgeview Estate winery. But they learned that Mike had actually jumped ship in mid-life from owning a successful computer business in London, to learning all about and taking-on making sparkling wine.
And when he won that first World's Best Sparkling Wine title with his 2002 Ridgeview Merret Bloomsbury label, Mike later confided to mates that he actually rang the competition organisers four times just to make sure that he really was the winner…
That win, and his other World's Best with a 2006 Ridgeview Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs in 2010, was for Mike and Chris just as important for England as it was for themselves, their family and others working on their winery team. For they considered themselves not anti-French – just proud Brits delighted that together with their couple of dozen or so Trophies, and two hundred-odd medals and other awards they'd won, they were putting English sparkling wine on the map as world-class and to be taken seriously.
Nonetheless Mike was always quick to acknowledge the help that colleagues in France had given him from Ridgeview's first formative years, including getting the best of vine cuttings from Champagne, and advice whenever needed on grape-growing and winemaking techniques.
Unlike most wineries that make red and white wines as their major source business, Mike and Chris set out from the start to concentrate solely on making sparkling wine from the fruit off their small 12ha vineyard.
A major reason for this was geographical: France's Champagne region is renowned for the greatness of its wines because its soils are basically chalk layered over clay – and this extends out and under the English Channel, to rise again in the South Downs of Sussex around the Roberts' little village of Ditchling.
"As well," Mike once told me in a note, "we're just 11km in from the sea, our winters are mild, and our summers dry – and actually quite hot."
All making for the perfect mix for the perfect bubbly.
But if you are beginning to think that Mike and Chris are somewhat England's pioneers of sparkling wine, think again – and take a hint from the name of that 2002 Ridgeview Merret Bloomsbury: away, way back in 1662 an Englishman named Christopher Merret gave the world its very first sparkling wine, and published a paper describing in detail how to make it… amazingly 30 years before the French made their first bubbly stuff in Champagne.
Mr Merret in typical British under-statement described his drink as "a gay, brisk and sparkling wine," whereas Dom Perignon on creating France's first bubbly exclaimed with Gallic abandon: "I dreamt I was drinking stars!"
Mike Roberts sadly passed away after a long illness on November 14 this year, aged 71. He and Chris had founded Ridgeview Estate in 1994 and sold their first commercial bubbly in 1996; today Chris is continuing the family tradition along with their daughter Tamara who is company General Manager, Winemaker son Simon and his wife Mardi who is Sales and Marketing Manager, together with a small and dedicated local team.
Ridgeview Estate is in Fragbarrow Lane, Ditchling Common, East Sussex and open for sales and tastings 11am-4pm Mondays to Saturdays, except January and February (UK Winter) and October (vintage harvest.) Details www.ridgeview.co.uk
And finally just in case you're wondering, a bottle of premium sparkling wine like the Roberts' Ridgeview, contains something like 250-million bubbles.
 HAPPY family gathering shortly before Mike Roberts passed away in November of this year.
 MIKE and Chris share a quiet moment together with a glass of their own bubbly.
 TOP drop: Ridgeview Bloomsbury from tiny Ditchling in England's East Sussex beat the French and everyone else to be named World's Best Sparkling Wine.
 PICTURESQUE misty morning on the vineyard.
 MIKE and Chris' Winemaker son Simon in the winery.
(Images: Ridgeview Estate)