A boom in sparkling wines has allowed UK producers to shine
Visit the Champagne region and you will be told how a cool climate, chalky soil and French je ne sais quoi combined to produce the world's most famous fizz. Which begs the question, why did it take producers so long to realise their fortune lay in bubbles?
Until the 19th century, 90 per cent of champagne had no sparkle at all. This same realisation is happening across the Channel. A generation ago English wine was based around Germanic-sounding grapes bred for our cold, damp climate. Barely a trickle was produced and the wines were often still and disappointing. But it is all change now. With the boom in sparkling wine, a small cottage industry has come of age.
Almost half of England's vineyards are planted with the champagne grapes of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. While many have yet to bear fruit, English wine expert Stephen Skelton predicts sales could hit five million bottles by 2020, a 10-fold increase on last year. If prices were maintained, producers here could have 40 per cent of the market for sparkling wines over £20.
Here are six making their mark…
Bob Lindo kicked out the sheep from a field on his Cornish farm and planted his first vines in 1989 with the aim of "making a bit of red and a bit of white". An Italian visitor suggested Camel Valley could make excellent spumante. Lindo decided to give it a go, and while his firm has since planted champagne grapes, he is eager to make his sparkling wine distinctive. He says: "Unlike champagne we cold-ferment to preserve the light, fruity aromas and that lovely scent of elderflower you get with English wines."
His son, Sam, makes a similar point about Camel's prize-winning sparkling rosé, made from pinot noir. "We do things differently from the French. We crush the grapes for a subtle raspberry and strawberry character, which is special to England."
From April to September, there are daily weekday tours. Buy Fortnum's English Sparkling Wine, Camel Valley at Fortnum & Mason, £23.50
West Chiltington, West Sussex
Stuart and Sandy Moss from Chicago bought the Nyetimber estate in 1986 and began planting chardonnay and pinot noir two years later. This was a bold move at the time and plenty doubted the grapes would ever ripen properly. Yet the wines won almost instant praise after the first release in 1992, and in 1998 Nyetimber won the trophy for best worldwide sparkling wine at the International Wine Challenge.
The current owner is Eric Heerema, who says his mission is "not to copy champagne, but simply to make the very best sparkling wine we can". He feels the key difference is having much lower yields than the French, due to the weather. With more than 400 acres planted, Nyetimber is the largest vineyard estate in the UK whose aim is to produce a million bottles a year. Sadly, it is not open to the public.
Buy Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2006 at Waitrose, £29.99
near Lewes, East Sussex
Breaky Bottom lies in "a secret fold in
the South Downs", says Peter Hall who bought it when it was "a tumbledown cottage with no electricity," 43 years ago. He later acquired land and began planting vines, an eccentric choice at the time. Even fellow winemakers questioned his desire to make Loire-style whites, when English wine was supposed to be fruity and off-dry.
But he has confounded them all with his highly prized sparkling wines made from seyval blanc, which he describes as "not particularly aromatic, but with nice, high acidity that doesn't decline as it ripens". You can visit by appointment and buy wines direct. Hall will show you around his vineyard and point you towards a good local pub, or the South Downs Way if you fancy a walk. Buy Breaky Bottom Brut Cuvée 2006 at Waitrose, £20.99
This large producer in the Weald of Kent produces England's most popular fizz, though it was one of Chapel Down's still wines that was served at William and Kate's wedding. Chief executive Frazer Thompson says: "In doing something similar to champagne you are putting yourself up against the most powerful brand in the wine market."
Today the industry is much more self-confident thanks partly to global warming – as temperatures rise wine-growing land extends northwards. "Climate change is only going one way – and that's upwards," says Thompson. "That's good news for us, and bad news for Champagne."
To make sparkling wines, including Chapel Down's Rosé Brut, which won a gold medal at the latest International Wine Challenge, the winery sources grapes from contract growers and from its own 75-acre vineyard. You can visit Chapel Down all year round and buy wines on site. There is also a Napa Valley-style tasting room and a fine-dining restaurant. Tours run every day from May to November though booking is advisable. Buy Chapel Down English Sparkling Rosé Brut at Marks & Spencer, £19.99
Denbies Wine Estate
Denbies, left, has taken a notably different approach to Nyetimber. Instead of focusing solely on fizz, the estate produces a range of still and sparkling wines. The winery is open all year round with a lavish visitor centre, a 360-degree cinema and two restaurants. "We get 350,000 visitors a year, and sell most of our wines from the cellar door," says general manager Chris White.
Of the various tours on offer, one is dedicated to sparkling wine of which Denbies makes three varieties: a pinot noir rosé, a sparkling seyval blanc and the award-winning Greenfields from traditional champagne grapes. Buy Denbies Greenfields 2006 at Waitrose, £22.99
Ditchling Common, West Sussex
Mike Roberts, head of this family winery, planted his first vineyard in 1994. Given the proximity of the Champagne region, with its similar soil and climate, he knew exactly what to plant. "We've never done anything but sparkling wines, and we've always used champagne grapes."
Last year, Ridgeview won Decanter magazine's International Sparkling Wine Trophy for its Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2006, which beat 700 wines including champagnes at three times the price. More recently, Barack Obama was served Ridgeview's Fitzrovia Sparkling Rosé at Buckingham Palace during his state visit in May. You can visit the winery and stroll around the vineyards from 11am to 4pm every day except Sunday, or during October due to the harvest. There are also monthly tours and tastings. Buy Ridgeview Bloomsbury 2008 from The Wine Society, £19