ENGLISH WINE – Could it one day challenge Champagne?

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If you think English wine is an oxymoron, think again. It would appear that with the onslaught of global warming, Brexit, and the undoubted quality of English fizz, interest in English wine has never been higher. What started as a hobby for many producers has the hallmark of a gold rush and we have just seen the one of the Grand Marqués of Champagne acquire 20 hectares of vineyards in Kent which is expected to come into production by 2024. Here, we look at the history of English wine thus far and consider if it could one day challenge Champagne, or is it destined to remain a niche product to be drunk only in a post-Brexit England and reluctantly served in British embassies around the world.

Roman origins

It is possible that the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43 brought with it the first vines into Britain. What is debatable, according to historians, is if wine making was ever established in Britain by the invaders. The Roman writer Tacitus described the English weather as objectionable and not at all suitable for wine making. It would not have taken long for the Roman hierarchy to establish safe trade routes to and from Britain and one can imagine that imported wine would soon have found its way to the tables of the elite or even those of much lower rank.

The Church takes over

The Romans may not have left a legacy of viticulture but could well have left a tradition of wine drinking eventually taken over by the Church. There is no evidence that wine was ever produced in significant quantities in Britain but it is generally accepted that wine would have probably been imported from the continent. Certainly, well-established trade routes would have made importing wine far simpler than battling the English weather. We know that wine became an important element of life of Churches and monasteries, in part linked to religious ceremonies but also enjoyed as part of their diet and the undoubted pleasure that wine can bring.

The Victorians

Wine drinking had been very well established by the time Queen Victoria came to power. Claret from France, Sherry from Spain and wine from other parts of Europe had become part of British culture though there is little evidence of any significant wine making other than by experimenters, inevitably noblemen or landowners eager to try something different. None succeeded, however, and any effort to produce wine commercially never took off until the 1990s when hobbies or retirement projects gradually became fledgling businesses.

Wine making in England and Wales today

According to statistics published by the House of Commons, there are 30 commercial vineyards in England and Wales. However, the number of vineyards which are retirement projects or hobbies for the well-heeled, or even the not-so-well-heeled, number in their hundreds. Brexit, rightly or wrongly, has given the whole industry a boost, with expectations running very high, presumably, that in the event of a hard Brexit, Champagne will be penalised with high import tariffs, thereby English fizz very competitive. If trade deals with the US are subsequently established, so much the better as English fizz has already been well received in the States where luxury English products appear to be in demand. Plans are afoot to increase demand from the current 5m bottles to well over 20m in the next few years. Other than Brexit, interest in English wine has been sparked by the positive comparison that many consumers and wine writers are making with Champagne. Some writers even suggest that with global warming, it will become increasingly difficult to make top notch wine in Champagne and that the South of England could one day take the mantle as the finest sparkling wine region in the world.

Should the Champenoise be worried?

Perhaps, after all, UK is one of the largest consumers of Champagne. The vast scale of wine production in Champagne, however, could not be easily replicated in England though any suggestion than English fizz could even get near the quality level of the finest in Champagne could seriously dent Champagne’s image – an image which relies on portraying Champagne as one of life’s unique luxuries like caviar or even diamonds. We do know that there is mounting concern about global warming in France. After all, if good sparkling wine could be made in warmer climes, Spanish Cava would have long age challenged Champagne and we know that there are few, if any, seriously good Cava.

If the Champenoise are not losing sleep over English fizz, at least they might feel some discomfort when in recent, well-publicised tastings, some English fizzes have beaten well-known Champagnes. A recent blind tasting by Noble Rot Magazine, for example, placed Hambledon Classic Cuvée and Nyetimber 2010 above some of the best names in Champagne including Taittinger, Pol Roger and Veuve Cliquot. This might be small beginnings but as the old cliché tells us “the writing might just be on the wall” or perhaps more accurately “on the ground”.

The White Cliffs of Dover

Climate and chalk is what makes Champagne – we have been told by the Champenoise for decades. Luckily, as amply demonstrated by the chalky cliffs of Dover, England appears to share much of the geological features of Champagne with plenty of flint and chalky limestone to make top notch fizz. Taittinger have teamed up with wine agents Hatch Mansfield and invested in 69 hectares of prime land in Kent. Vines have been planted and the first bottles of fizz are expected to be on the market by 2023. I expect that if the venture succeeds, we will see most of the Grand Marqués in Champagne making similar moves thereby having feet in both post-Brexit Britain and post-Brexit EU!

Pierre Emmanuel Taittinger (left) and Patrick McGrath MW, MD of Hatch Mansfield, plant first vines for English sparkling wine

What about the quality?

I recall buying a case of Nyetimber 2010 some time ago and being ambivalent about the quality. However, having opened another bottle a few days ago, the transformation after a few years of bottle age has been considerable. The remaining bottles have taken on an enhanced value and I, for one, will not lose any sleep if after Brexit, English fizz becomes the new “Champagne”.

words | Andrew Licudi AIWS

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