As the south of England’s climate begins replicate that of Champagne (cheers, global warming), English vineyards are producing internationally acclaimed sparkling wines.
Photo via Flickr user Tom Coates
"Breaky Bottom" and "Camel Valley" may sound like craft cider monikers but they're not. They're English sparkling wines—and award-winning English sparkling wines at that.
Not five words you'd expect to read in the same sentence, never mind the same book.
Often uttered with the same contempt that Brits of a certain age reserve for 1970s "classics" Blue Nun and Liebfraumilch, it may well be time to drop the prejudice against English sparkling wine because homegrown fizz is fast giving Champagne a run for its money.
This year, England's best bubbles picked up a bumper crop of 17 gold medals at the International Wine Challenge (IWC) and 81 assorted accolades at the Decanter World Wine Awards. Champagne producers may have little to be worried about when it comes to these English efforts flooding the market (for now), they should probably be concerned about the competition's quality.
Three varietals—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier—go into France's prestigious cuvées and many of England's 500 plus wineries, mainly located along the south coast but also extending north to York, only grow these blends of wine in a bid to respect Dom Pierre Pérignon's 1697 creation.
Italy's best-selling fizz might be the people's choice, but that's based on economical factors: is cheap and cheerful production keeps costs down, often giving you change from a tenner. By contrast, many English wineries use Champagne's same elaborate champenoise or traditional style, which means wine undergoes a double fermentation in bottle. It's a more laborious process but the only way to create the classy fizz you rightly deserve.
While Champagne benefits from a dual climate (that's to say a maritime one with continental tendencies), England's unpredictable maritime weather system and overzealous rainfall isn't exactly conducive to growing different varietals, especially black ones that need heat to fully ripen. Fortunately, those baby Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier grapes dig cool climates with just enough sun, and given that southern England's climate is increasingly replicating Champagne's (cheers, global warming), the grapes are being kept happy.
The result? Award-winning English sparkling wine.
In terms of heat, the regions are neck-and-neck: France's sacred terroir receives 1,600 hours of sunshine a year, while southern England gets between 1,550 and 1,600, according to the Met Office. Precipitation does differ, though, with Champagne's limestone soils absorbing between 600 and 670 millimetres of rain a year: cats and dogs rain to the tune of 950 millimetres on England's chalky South Downs.
On restaurant wine lists, you'll find four Champagnes and one English sparkling wine—it should be the other way round.
Meteorologist Alex Jarman says several factors are responsible for this warm weather in southern England, albeit with temperatures that are still cool enough to ensure grapes retain the high acidity that sparkling wine requires.
"Climate change is just one signal on a long-term scale and it's suggested there'll be a 2 degrees Celsius rise by 2050 globally in the average annual temperature," he explains. "Add in double the amount of CO2 emissions and England will have hotter summers: that's significant for grape growing, compared with 50 years ago."
Global warming, however, isn't the only factor.
"Gulf stream ocean currents come off the USA's East Coast and traverse the Atlantic from west to east, bringing warm sea temperatures that heat up air temperatures, albeit with some time delay," adds Jarman. "The Clausius-Clapeyron equation also shows we are seeing warmer, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters."
Eureka! Southern England's maritime climate is morphing into a dual one that includes continental elements, just like Champagne. And there are some internationally acclaimed wines to prove it ...
Exhibit A: England's oldest winery Hambledon Vineyard picked up two IWC medals this year—a gold and a trophy for its Classic Cuvée NV made with Champagne AOC appellation grapes.
Aside from climate change's helping hand, Hambledon holds several trump cards. The Hampshire-based winery has the same chalk soil as Avize, a Grand Cru village in Champagne's Côte des Blancs region. Their original vines were also planted with help from Champagne kingpin Pol Roger and their winemaker is Hervé Jestin, former chef de cave at Duval-Leroy champagnerie.
"No one was thinking about sparkling wine when the winery was founded in 1952," says Hambledon Vineyard's Steve Lowrie. "So it wasn't until current managing director Ian Kellet, a city banker turned biochemist and oenologist, undertook some research after buying the property in 1999 that we discovered the similarities with Avize."
The focus is on quality rather than quantity at Hambledon, which has 50 acres of vines planted.
"I don't think Champagne should be worried about our [collective] quantity," notes Lowrie. "Even producing at a max, we'll [collectively] make five or six million bottles of English sparkling a year: around 36 million bottles of Champagne and 30 million bottles of Prosecco are sold here each year."
It's a similar story at English Oak Vineyard in Lytchett Matravers, Dorset, where co-owners Sarah and Andrew Pharoah's San Gabriel Blanc de Blanc Brut 2009 and Engelmann Brut 2010 picked up silver medals in Decanter's 2015 World Wine Awards.
Also only growing Champagne AOC appellation grapes, Andrew says local terroir plays a large part in their wines' success.
"Historically, we have a mild climate around Poole and that suits what we do. By implication, it's similar to Champagne and climatically things are supposedly getting hotter," he explains. "That means Champagne's climate is becoming hotter than it used to be, while ours is arriving at the place theirs was at."
The main challenge, he says, is Champagne's brand strength.
"On restaurant wine lists, you'll find four Champagnes and one English sparkling wine—it should be the other way round," he adds. "But as we develop better quality wine, consumers will become more aware and begin to buy it, not because it's English but because it's the best. That's what we're aiming for, one glass at a time."
That takes us to Exhibit C: Danebury Vineyards. Located in Hampshire across seven acres on a former racing yard, the winery uses Auxerrois Blanc and Rulander grapes in its champenoise-style sparkling wine and earned a cluster of silver medals for its Cossak Brut 2010.
"Drinking English sparkling wine is becoming a tradition because they're very well made," says Danebury Vineyards' Caroline Stevens. "Lots of English wineries have tried to beat Champagne and now they have, they simply have to continue what they're doing. The future's looking good."
Cheers to that.