Not long ago, the very mention of English wine conjured up images of pale, acid-sharp plonk that sent us lurching for the nearest spittoon. Now, thanks to a few pioneers, we have a wine industry that the world takes seriously. Gordon Ramsay’s new restaurant in New York has a sparkling English rosé on its wine list and, for the first time since the reign of Henry II, England has become a bulk exporter of wine.
Our sparkling wine, in particular, has been winning international acclaim. Many attribute this to global warming bringing hotter summers and good ripening seasons. This is, perhaps, one of the reasons, but improved oenological expertise, carefully sourced French vines and the use of traditional Champagne-making techniques are more significant ones.
The south of England from Kent via Hampshire to Dorset sits on the same chalk seam as the Champagne region of France. The South Downs, in particular, only 80 miles north of Champagne, provide a nearly identically terroir soil, climate and aspect for growing chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes: the classic Champagne blend. Our wine makers have only recently begun to focus on this viticultural trinity, having previously experimented with Germanic grapes such as rivaner, and seyval blanc.
Most of the eye-catching English fizz is effectively Champagne. It is made with the same grapes and by the same method using méthode Champenoise, secondary, inside-the-bottle fermentation however, only sparkling wine made in that eponymous region can assume the Champagne name. And, like Champagne houses, English fizz makers sell more than a single wine vintages and non-vintages, rosés, and different blends, and, exactly like Champagne, the calibre of each is feverishly debated among connoisseurs.
All this effervescence has caused the value of south-facing, well-draining land suitable for vineyards to shoot up in the past couple of years. Some even speculate that it could help our beleaguered farming industry, and that the appearance of the South Downs will change radically in the next 10 years, as field after south-facing field is planted with lines of vines. Nyetimber in West Sussex is one of the big three ‘sparkling-wine houses’ found amid the whalebacks of the South Downs. The Daily Telegraph’s wine writer Jonathan Ray said recently: ‘I would prefer Nye-timber to all but the best Champagnes.’ Eric Heerema, a Dutch entrepreneur who purchased the Nyetimber estate in March 2006, credits Stuart and Sandy Moss, a couple from Chicago who founded the winery in 1986, with its pre-eminent reputation.
‘They were the first people to start an English vineyard which grew only the three Champagne grape varieties.’ Mr Heereman, a former venture capitalist, talks about ‘growth strategies’, the ‘short-term’ and the ‘long-term’ goals, but behind the business jargon is a brave new vision for English fizz.He plans to take Nyetimber into a new league commercially and raise production from a select 60,000 bottles a year to 600,000 by 2012. In May 2006, he planted 140 acres of new vines, and with his wife, Pauline, and three children has moved from London to West Sussex. Of this change, he simply says: ‘There is no exit strategy.’
RidgeView estate, in West Sussex, is another of the big players. From the very beginning, its owner, Michael Roberts, also committed to chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes. ‘If you don’t use those grapes, it’s a marketing negative.’ Like Mr Heerema, Mr Roberts is a businessman first, and an English wine entrepreneur second. Having sold his computer-software business to a US company, he bought RidgeView in 1994.
With his wife, Christine, he planted 16 acres of vines and began to make a sparkling wine called Merret. With a nod to our uneasy entente cordial with France, their fizz takes its name from Christopher Merret, an Englishman who, in 1662, presented the Royal Society with a paper describing how to make Champagne some 30 years before Dom Pérignon is credited with inventing it. The third grande bouteille is Chapel Down in Kent. Unlike Nyetimber and RidgeView, Chapel Down produces both sparkling wine and wine. Here, they are still adapting to the demand for fizz recently, they began grubbing up their Germanic grape varieties, altering their blends to include more chardonnay and pinot noir, and planting new vineyards.
Essentially, this is a race between three vineyards for brand dominance, and each player is determined to win. ‘We want the name Merret to be synonymous with English sparkling wine,’ says Mr Roberts. Mr Heerema has similar lofty ambitions: ‘I purchased Nyetimber because it fitted in perfectly with our strategy to build the best-quality sparkling wine,’ he asserts. A sentiment Frazer Thompson, managing director of Chapel Down, echoes: ‘We want our product to be a credible alternative to Champagne.’
It’s a game of risk in which no one sees a reasonable return in the short term. ‘It’s an expensive process making, keeping and bottling wine, and you need deep pockets to be able to do it,’ says Mr Roberts.
Which is why Mr Roberts and Chapel Down, as established grower-makers, are keen to encourage more small independent growers it’s an affordable way to expand production. Lord Renton, Margaret Thatcher’s last chief whip, is one of those who joined the ‘Champagne rush’ six months ago, when he planted five acres of vineyard near Lewes in East Sussex. As with Messrs Heerema and Roberts, this is no hobby, but a commercial venture. ‘We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t think that it had a financial future,’ says Lord Renton, who had considered starting a lavender farm. ‘It’s not cheap, but, environmentally, it’s a good way of using the land. And no one really wants sheep now.’
On Lord Renton’s behalf, Mr Roberts ordered the vines clones of Champagne root-stocks from France and will now give him all the technical advice he needs to ensure the quality of the grapes. ‘In return, we’ll offer him first choice of our grapes when we start harvesting,’ explains Lord Renton. ‘The deal is that we’ll give him three years’ notice if, sometime in the future, we want the bottles back to sell under our own label. Here, in opera country, I like the idea of making Sussex brut for Glyndebourne.’
With the help of ‘special-relationship’ growers bound by supplier contracts, wine makers are expanding fast. Mr Roberts, who currently makes 100,000 bottles a year, hopes that by 2012 he’ll have raised production to 500,000 bottles. At Chapel Down, they are looking to raise production from 200,000 to as much as two million bottles by 2011. Mr Heerema, who owns all of Nyetimber’s vineyards, is planning a tenfold expansion by 2012.
Although this may sound ambitious, none of the big three are able to keep pace with demand: even as Nyetimber’s 2000 vintage came ‘online’, they were worried about being unable to keep up, and both RidgeView and Chapel Down admit to having to turn customers away.
‘The UK is the world’s most important market for Champagne outside France,’ explains Mr Thompson. ‘We drink 48 million bottles a year. At the moment, the total English production is less than half a million bottles a year. The opportunity is enormous, and there’s no sign of sales slowing down.’
Is there a danger that small, dedicated growers, such as Peter Hall at Breaky Bottom, will be crowded out in the fray? Mr Hall, who planted his vineyard in East Sussex with seyval blanc grapes in 1974, thinks not. ‘Some of the smallest vineyards in France are the most prestigious.’ However, he, too, has responded to the changes in the market: four years ago, he began planting chardonnay and pinot grapes and, for the first time, in 2006 made 100% sparkling wine.
By 2004, news of this English phoenix had reached the French, and rumours began to circulate that ‘Dom Pérignon’s men’ had been sighted casing the South Downs. In 2005, the first planting by a French Champagne house on British soil was confirmed: Didier Pierson had purchased and planted 28 acres of south-facing downland in Hampshire’s Meon Valley. Pierson Whitaker Champagne, produced from vineyards near the village of Avize, may not be one of the grand marque Champagne houses, but its label has a good reputation. Lured to England by a desire to expand and the attractive land prices compared to Champagne, Mr Pierson Whitaker hopes to produce his first English fizz in 2008.
Whether English sparkling wine will prove a salve for English farmers is open to debate. Mr Heerema strikes a cautionary note: ‘Managing a vineyard is very capital and labour intensive, perhaps more than even farmers are used to. And, for the first few years at least, there’s no income.’ Mr Thompson is more expansive, comparing England to New Zealand, which, 30 years ago, barely had a wine industry. Now it’s considered one of the most dynamic and fast moving in the world. As he points out: ‘Wine can give much more to the countryside than wine tourism, creativity, quality of life and pride.’
Adam Lechmere Editor of Decanter.com adds: Camilla Akers-Douglas is spot on. English sparkling wine is getting a reputation around the world and – although they haven’t reached for their chequebooks quite yet, Champagne houses have certainly showed more than passing interest: Duval Leroy even instructed Strutt and Parker to find them an estate. It’s as well to remember that although the chalky soils of southern England are very similar to Champagne, and we’re only a couple of degrees north, temperatures – and especially summer night-time temperatures, which are key to acid development in white grapes – are considerably lower. Really the only wine we can make here is sparkling wine – that can hold its own in blind tastings against the top Champagnes and world-class sparklers. The rest will never be more than curiosity interest. It’s a bit like French rock & roll: fun, but nothing like the real thing.