The landscape of the south of England is changing, very gently and almost imperceptibly, for hillsides that were once fields of grass or wheat are now being planted with grapevines. Only the other day, I turned a corner on a road I once knew well in West Sussex, close to the South Downs, and where there had once been sheep grazing, there is now a vast expanse of vines.
The last few years have seen a soaring interest in the potential for English wine, and in particular for sparkling wine. Quite simply, the vineyard area has doubled since 2004, when there were 761 hectares (1,880 acres). Official figures for 2010 give 1,324 hectares (3,271 acres), but some sources believe it to be nearer 1,500 hectares (3,706 acres). And almost without exception, the new plantings are of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the three classic grapes of Champagne.
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How things have changed. Suddenly “England” on a wine label is to be taken seriously, and English sparkling wine is something to be proud of, with a flavor and quality not dissimilar to Champagne. You find some elegant creaminess and subtle nuances and depth of flavor.
The pioneers of what you might call the new wave of English wine, and of sparkling wine, were an American couple, Stuart and Sandy Moss, who planted a vineyard at Nyetimber in West Sussex. Their first vintage was 1992, made with the help of a champenois consultant, Jean-Manuel Jacquinot, from the eponymous Champagne house. I asked the Mosses why they had chosen England, rather than California. After all, they came from Chicago, where they had just sold a pharmaceutical business. Stuart’s answer was quite simple: California would be too easy. England was more of a challenge!
Following close behind Nyetimber was Mike Roberts at Ridgeview. He sold an IT business and then looked for something else to do. Planting vines was the answer, on a site outside the village of Ditchling at the foot of the South Downs. Mike has given Ridgeview a sense of direction and commitment to quality, with a range of wines that are named after districts of London, such as Bloomsbury, Cavendish, Grosvenor and Fitzrovia. He is also a firm advocate of the name of Merrett for English sparkling wine. Dr. Christopher Merrett presented a paper to the Royal Society in 1662, a few years before Dom Pérignon began his work at the abbey of Hautvilliers, in which he explained the process for the deliberate second fermentation. Wine arrived in London from Champagne in barrel, and the “wine coopers” added sugar and molasses to make their wine “brisk and sparkling.” It all hinged on the fact that in England they used coal, which burns hotter than charcoal, to fire glass. As a result, English glass was stronger, able to withstand the presence of carbon dioxide in the bottle.
Numerous others have followed in the footsteps of Nyetimber and Ridgeview. You will now find names such as Gusborne, Coates & Seely, Balfour Brut, Wiston, Jenkyn Place, Camel Valley and Breaky Bottom, not to mention a vineyard in Windsor Great Park, planted with royal blessing. Most, but not all, are in the southeast of England, where the climate is warmer and drier than the rest of the country. And there are soil similarities with Champagne. The South Downs and the vineyards of Champagne and also Chablis and Sancerre are all part of the Parisian basin, with the geological term Kimmeridgian, taking its name from a Dorset village.
The longer ripening time is a key difference between English sparkling wine and Champagne. Bud break usually comes a week earlier than in Champagne, and the harvest in England usually begins in early October, in sharp contrast to Champagne, where it usually takes place in early September. This means that the vegetal cycle in England is three to four weeks longer, and the grapes are riper and fruitier, and the wines are possibly richer and less acidic.
The future for English wines looks sparkling, and with time and experience, they will develop greater complexity. After all, the Champagne of Dom Pérignon is more than 300 years old, whereas the modern era of English sparkling wine, if you take it from Nyetimber’s very first vintage in 1992, only totals two decades.
Top photo: Nyetimber’s vineyard in West Sussex. Courtesy of Nyetimber.