Let’s face it – we all love a glass of fizz, no wedding or party is complete without that familiar pop. In Britain we love it just that bit more than most.
In 2016 we drank roughly 126 million bottles in a year of the stuff making the UK one of the top importers of sparkling wine. We have been lapping up Champagne, Cava, Crémant, and hectolitres of the ubiquitous Prosecco and now, in the last ten years, we have seen the rise of our own home grown British bubbly.
We Brits were making fizzy wine centuries ago, indeed there is debate over it’s actual national origins, but it’s not hard to imagine how it came about – any winemaker is familiar with secondary fermentation, where yeast particles accidentally remain in the wine after bottling and it carries on bubbling away, eventually forcing the cork from the bottle, sometimes with disastrous consequences. What is documented is that a bright young doctor from Gloucester named Christopher Merret in the 1700s produced a recipe for Champagne about 20 years before the monk, Dom Pierre Pérignon came up with the idea. Only the English initially had access to a bottle strong enough to contain 6 bar of pressure, and the Roman idea of cork rather than the French use of wood wrapped in hessian. One of the most dangerous jobs in Europe suddenly became a lot safer. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Champagnois cottoned on to the potential of this as a Grandes Marques prestige product faster than anybody, and have a good few centuries and generations ahead of us in marketing terms.
Despite the small scale of the UK wine export industry, its reach is growing. English sparkling wines were shipped to 27 markets in 2016 compared with 19 in 2015, and last year Waitrose were the first supermarket to export English sparkling wine to China.
Nevertheless, according to WineGB, there are now 470 registered vineyards in England and Wales and that figure increases yearly, with 135 wineries and 1,884 hectares under vine. In the past seven years, the English planted vineyard area has more than doubled, and it’s rising, with a large percentage of UK production going to fizz using Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Meunier and Chardonnay and a sneaky little French hybrid which grows hardily in the UK called Seyval Blanc – probably the workhorse of the English fizz industry. These Champagne varieties don’t crop heavily but they enjoy our climate – indeed the fear is that with global warming, the Champagne region may become too hot to produce these successfully.
In recent years Champagne house Taittinger in a joint venture with British wine agents Hatch Mansfield, purchased 40 acres of a former Kent apple orchard. They plan to produce a fascinating Franglais fizz with first vines planted last year, to be known with typically French stylish elegance as Domaine Évremond (after Charles de Saint-Évremond, who is credited with introducing 17th-century London to the habit of quaffing Champagne). Vranken-Pommery Monopole has purchased 100 acres in Hampshire, and is working with Hattingley Valley Vineyard to produce their English sparkling. The thinking is that the same seam of chalky terroir runs under the channel and the same grape varieties and rootstocks have been planted – all English Quality Sparkling Wine is made in traditional Champagnois method and from these noble grape varieties. There are variations of course, and some of them made with Madeleine Angevine or Reichensteiner are truly excellent, but they are not labelled English Quality Sparkling Wine.
So, what are the differences? I can list a few. English sparklers tend to be fruitier and fresher. The mousse is softer and less dosage added. Somebody once described good sparkling as tasting ‘like a crisp apple sliced with a steel knife’. English sparkling base wines, like those produced at Giffords Hall in Suffolk are made in Limousin oak barrels using Champagne yeasts and are noticeably similar to some Champagne base wines; however with most English sparklers the bottled product tends to be a lot younger than classic Champagnes with more time perhaps on the lees and less time spent ageing in bottle.
English wine champions are frequently heard bemoaning that these rather beautiful wines don’t have enough time to mature, but many enjoy the freshness. We produce only 1% of the bubbly produced in France and it sells out pretty fast, so there is pressure on producers to release it earlier, as they do in Alsace with their Crémant which ages less well as it has less acidity – grapes used for fizz are picked earlier with more acidity than those for still wines. Larger bottle stocks are now laid down in quantity by the bigger vineyards, but time is money, and the English pockets tend to be less deep.
Price is always touted an issue but most producers are artisan and work under stringent rules and regulations, and any food products made to the same standards are at a premium. To compare like for like is like comparing apples and oranges. English sparkling wine is not Champagne or Cava and it’s nothing like the cheaper Prosecco – it is a new breed of beautiful sparkling wine. It is happily competing in blind tastings and competitions worldwide against its venerable cousins.
It is to be found in a large proportion of serious wine lists in Britain. Any UK wine distributor carries at least one brand. It’s a wonderful development in English agriculture, great for English tourism, the English food and drink repertoire, and a point of national celebration, and it’s definitely here to stay.