The Judgement of Wessington

On Sunday 9thSeptember in a field on the outskirts of a small village in Derbyshire, under a still-warm sun in the golden light of an early autumn afternoon a seminal moment in the history of wine happened.  Now, if you blinked you may have missed it but for those that were there, a handful of villagers, one or two who travelled far from across the border from neighbouring Nottinghamshire, passports stamped, and the handpicked judges of great note, this was an earth-shattering day to remember.  The day that English wine prevailed over Champagne in a closely fought battle to for the hearts and palates of Wessington, the right to be called the winner of the Judgement of Wessington.

The lineup.

Our Judges and the lineup.

We gathered to inspect the line-up, Jean-Claude Schmitt and William Armitage Jn. independent merchants from The French Wine People in Matlock, flying the flag for Champagne, added some very fine wines to the table from the Houses of Jose-Michel et Fils and Champagne Lalier, making the line-up from France all the more formidable.  One of my favourite Champagnes was already there Deutz, a blanc de blanc 2008, a fragrant, layered and complex Champagne, along with another I knew was a very good drop, which was Champagne Premier Cru from the Tesco’s Finest range.  Now some may turn your noses up at that but I kid you not, it’s good and you need to be alive to that.

Soon Sir Richard Fitzherbert (of local radio and Tissington Hall fame) turned up, a former wine merchant who knows a good drop, he was fresh back from Drum Hill Scouts camp shepherding and corralling scouts all day and was probably in need of a ‘tasting’ of fine fizzes.  The last of our judges soon joined us, straight from work no less at Majestic, clutching some great English wines to add to the line-up Andrij Jurkiw, also writes and reviews English wines for the well-known blog site Great British Wines.  He added Wiston Estate, Exton Park and Majestic’s own Hampshire Parcel Series to the line up.  This was going to be good.  The others were put in the line-up by myself, including ones from my precious personal collection like the Chapel Down Pinot Reserve and the Deutz.

The aim of the line-up was accessible wines; ones that folks can get from their local merchant or even supermarket. Nowadays, pleasingly and depending where you live, you can get these perhaps from your friendly local vineyard. Long may that trend grow and prosper!

Andie, Taste the Seasons editor and seasoned wine drinker adjudicated the event and prepped the blind tastings along with me. The line up of 13 wines was ready. Settling down to judge with spittoons at their elbows, our esteemed panel were ready and the tasting commenced with much sniffing, sloshing and spitting.  Brows became furrowed in deep thought and a quiet descended as the panel went into deep contemplative concentration.  Wines were quietly poured, fresh glasses issued from time to time, whilst pens scratched at paper, intelligent notes were made, legible lines described the wines being judged and points were awarded.

Outside, I gathered a handpicked people’s choice panel of the assembled public viewers. Who would’ve thought that wine judging could be a spectator sport – one for the Olympics committee to consider perhaps? And, again blind, they tasted the wines. I can only tell you, perhaps because the spittoons were not used and seemingly larger than normal ‘tastings’ were poured, that the results were ‘inconclusive’.  Andie did most of the pouring’s.

As the afternoon raced towards fading light the judging had concluded and the results were announced in a live stream to a Facebook audience by Andie.  The ranking was as follows….


1st        Chapel Down Pinot Reserve 2004                                      ESW

2nd      Wiston Estate Brut Cuvee 2013                                           ESW

3rd      (joint) Champagne Premier Cru Tesco Finest                      F.CH.

Hambledon Premiere Cuvee                                                          ESW

Champagne Jose-Michel et Fils                                                     F.Ch.

4th      Champagne Lalier                                                                 F.Ch.

5th      Champagne Deutz 2008 Blanc de Blanc                              F.Ch.

6th      Exton park Blanc de Blanc 2011                                           ESW

7          Hampshire Parcel Series 25 – Majestic                              EWS

8          Louis Pommery NV                                                             EWS

9          Prosecco – Tesco Finest                                                      N/A

10       English Sparkling Hush Heath Estate. Tesco Finest            ESW

11       Chapel Down Classic NV Brut                                              ESW

The scores were interesting, out of the top six scores (a total of seven wines, with three scoring at joint third) the top two were English: Chapel Down Pinot Reserve 2004 and Wiston Estate Brut Cuvee 2013. Joint third was Tesco Finest Champagne Premier Cru, and Champagne Jose-Michel et Fils, the first two champagnes showing well in the judging, along with Hambledon Premiere Cuvee, the third and final wine in the top six scorers.  The curveball or wild card in the line-up was Tesco Finest Prosecco, which came out in ninth place, probably expected.  Overall there were no bad wines and all the judges commented that it was a hard line-up to judge.

Comments picked up by the winning wine, the Chapel Down Pinot Reserve 2004, were ‘gold colour,’ ‘aged honeyed nose’ with complex honey, brioche, lemon, ripe peach and biscuit coming through on the palate. All the judges rated this one very highly.

The Winning Wine, Chapel Down Pinot Reserve 2004 described as complex and honeyed. A delicious English Sparkling Wine!

The second place winner, Wiston Estate Brut Cuvee 2013, was described as complex, with brioche and orange peel on the nose, a fruit driven wine with a good mousse.  For those that were trying to pin down origin suggested this was Champagne.

As I said, there were no bad wines on the list, far from it, even the Prosecco (the wild card) was a good one, but there is always a last in any line up and that slot went to another offering from Chapel Down, their Classic NV. As our wise adjudicator Andie, commented, “Wine was the winner.”

This was a glorious and memorable afternoon. And, who knows, maybe this event will become an annual affair – a key date in the UK wine calendar – judging wines on the edge of the beautiful Peak District overlooking the Amber Valley. Why not!

Our Judges, adjudicator and People’s Panel.



The Judgment of Wessington

A small village in Derbyshire could be known as the key place where a great question of our age was answered. Hosted by Amber Valley Wines at their well-known Little Vineyard just outside the village of Wessington, this event will judge fine French Champagne against some of the best English wines, to come up with a locally definitive answer to the big question on everyone’s lips….. is English sparkling wine as good as French Champagne?
For centuries our friends across the Channel have produced a legendary product that has come to symbolise the high-life, exquisite taste and marked  great historical and celebratory events globally.  In recent decades however, using the same techniques of secondary fermentation in the bottle and aging on lees, English sparkling wines have challenged that dominance by regularly winning competitions, blind tastings and taking home top accolades.  Including, for the first time in the history of the competition at the International Wine Challenge, naming a UK wine maker as the Sparkling Wine Maker of the Year.  The award was won by Cherie Spriggs from top sparkling wine producer Nyetimber in Sussex this year.  It’s also a question often asked now by those that know their sparkling wines.
Why The Judgment of Wessington?  In 1976 there was a seminal moment in the recent history of wine known as The Judgment of Paris.  Californian wines toppled the great wines of Bordeaux from their exalted pedestal as the worlds finest wines in a blind tasting competition, hosted by wine legend Steven Spurrier, an Englishman, with a panel of some of France’s greatest wine experts judging it.  The result sent shockwaves around the globe, and decades later it led to a popular lighthearted movie called Bottle Shock, with Spurrier’s character being played by Alan Rickman.
Barry Lewis said, “Whilst the quality of English sparkling wine is in no doubt internationally we thought it would be rather fun to host an event to blind taste fine quality Champagnes alongside some of the best comparably priced English Sparkling wines in our lovely orchard in Wessington, and who knows, perhaps this too could be a locally seminal moment. The day that the straight-talking folks of Derbyshire, one way or the other, gave their firm view in a historically significant way about whose fizz is best ours or France’s.”
The selections of the wines will be on-going but will comprise some of the best quality sparkling wines in the sub-£100 bracket, with many in the sensibly priced range of £25-£45.  They will be judged by some of the best palates and noses in the region, who will taste the wines blind and score them.
Our panel of expert judges so far comprises:
Sir Richard Fitzherbert Bt., a former wine merchant and well-known connoisseur of fine French and English fizzes. He is also well known to BBC Radio Derby listeners as one of morning radios ‘Loud Mouth’s’.
Jean-Claude Schmitt, Frenchman and independent wine Merchant and owner of The French Wine People.  Expert in French wines with decades of experience.
Andrij Jurkiw, Derbyshire resident, wine reviewer and writer for Great British Wines, a high-profile website and blog that promotes English wines to the world.  Works for a high street wine retailer.
William Armitage, independent merchant at Andrassy Wines, based in Ashover.  Expert in French wines.
Barry Lewis, Amber Valley Wines owner and former Chief Executive of the United Kingdom Vineyards Association the national body for vinegrowers and producers, which is now called Wines of Great Britain or Wine GB.  An English wine expert.
The event will be independently adjudicated by Andie Darlington, Editor and owner of Taste the Seasons magazine, a popular local food and drink publication.
The event will be open to the public, and visitors can bring a picnic if they wish, all attendees need to do is register their interest on the website via   There will be a small charge of £5 per head (under 18s free) and visitors can bring a picnic and buy wines on-site by the glass or bottle, including some of the fizz being tasted.  The event will run from 5pm till about 7.30pm and directions are on the website.  The judging will be done under cover in the orchard but as the weather cannot be guaranteed, appropriate clothing or mobile shelters will be needed.
We would also like to select a People’s Panel, 4 members of the public to judge their favourites alongside the experts. Those who are interested can elect to do this on the website and a random selection will be chosen and announced in the days prior to the event from those attending.

A Record Breaking Summer?

Inflorescences glowing in the evening light.

It’s perhaps still a little early to tell if this is going to beat the famous summer of ’76 as the longest, hottest summer on record but the signs are good.  We’ve had a record breaking warm May, June looks like (in the final analysis) it might be the hottest since ’76 and therefore the second hottest on record, and the forecast looks set fair for a another couple of weeks or more.  The Jet Stream, harbinger of wet, cold summer weather and conveyor belt of storms (remember 2012) is flying high above the British Isles and plunging through Eastern Europe, where it seems to be bringing cooler and wetter conditions than they’re perhaps used to.  However, for us this means settled weather.

Who knows too, if we will see those record temperatures set in 2003 broken at some point, maybe the 40C barrier could be broken.  It’s all conjecture, we love doing it us Brits, weather is without doubt a favourite topic.

So in the vineyards this means rapid growth, early flowering conditions and hopefully a record crop for our young vines. And this from a position of a late spring start as the seemingly endless winter brought cold front after cold front to bear on the vines that stayed resolutely dormant until early May.  If you’d have walked around the vineyards on May 1st you’d have been shaking your head wondering if the tight brown woody buds would ever burst.  But burst they did, in record time and throughout all that warm May they exploded into growth unlike we’ve ever seen them do.  Not just here but everywhere!

Looking verdant and bushy in earlier June before tucking in began.

Now, normally we’d be praying for dry sunny weather in the Wimbledon fortnight (even a little after up here) whilst flowering and thus fruit set gets underway but this year we noted flowering in The Little Vineyard on 22nd June for Solaris, which was at 25% by this point, Rondo was even further ahead and Bolero started on 23rd June. In the higher Doehole Vineyard Solaris started on 26th June, and on the same day Rondo was noted at 75-80% flowered – so job done here!

Whilst all this is lovely it meant that the vines are bigger, more vigorous and already in need of considerable work.  It’s meant that trying to keep things tidy and well-maintained in such a tight window has been a challenge!  So, for our now well established vines this all good news, they like the dry conditions, we shouldn’t need to worry about watering them, and we should have a good crop. But there’s always a but.

I worry a little though about what the autumn may bring, weather like this always goes with a bang.  Undoubtedly we’ll be harvesting earlier this year, how much earlier we don’t know but we still need a good finish to September and into October to ensure we can get healthy clean grapes off the vine.  It’s looking good but there are no guarantees.