All images by Robin Goldsmith, unless otherwise stated
Digby Fine English wines sell around the world
The Champenois aren't just watching English wine closely, they're involving themselves directly. In February 2018, Champagne house Vranken-Pommery Monopole released its first English sparkling wine, Louis Pommery England Brut, a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay sourced from Hampshire, Essex and Sussex and named in honour of Pommery's founder. Made in collaboration with Hattingley Valley, this is the first time an English wine has been sold by a Champagne house. Pommery also owns a 40-hectare site, Pinglestone, in Alresford, Hampshire, planted with the same varietals plus a small amount of Pinot Gris with full production scheduled from 2024.
A bottle of Louis Pommery England Brut: image provided by UK stockist Lea & Sandeman
In May 2017, Champagne Taittinger became the first Grande Marque Champagne house to own and plant an English vineyard, Domaine Evremond, choosing the chalky soils of Chilham, Kent for their site. Initially 20 hectares of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (over 100,000 vines) were planted, but this is set to expand to 40 hectares with the first wines expected in 2023.
An early view of Domaine Evremond
As interest and investment in English viticulture and vine plantings continue to grow, with exports due to reach 25% of production in the next few years, does the presence of Champagne houses on these shores represent how seriously English wine is being taken across the globe?
According to WineGB, the US is the primary export market for 2018/2019 with the metro market, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, seen as key for English sparkling wine sales. Arnaud Brachet, President of ABCK Corp, the company responsible for importing and marketing Chapel Down in the US, sees the reputation of English sparkling wine growing rapidly within the trade, particularly among sommeliers, wine buyers and distributors, as well as with consumers. "The timing to import English sparkling wine into the US is perfect now", he explains, "as the quality of these wines has now reached world-class standards. Chapel Down Three Graces 2011 ranked no. 26 (95 points) in Wine Enthusiast's Top 100 wines for 2017, while Chapel Down Brut Classic was awarded The Chairman's Trophy (94 points) at the 2018 Ultimate Wine Challenge organized by David Talbot in New York."
A vineyard at Chapel Down: image provided by the company
For Brachet, it's both quality and a 'newness' of these wines that attracts the US market. "English wines did not have much recognition or even awareness in the past, so there is a novelty element that makes English sparkling wine exciting and the Royal Wedding last year has focused attention too! American trade and consumers like to try new products and with English sparkling wine they are always pleasantly surprised, viewing it as an alternative to Champagne and premium sparkling wines like Crémant and Cava."
The involvement of Champagne houses in southern England has not gone unnoticed in the US. "The fact that leading Champagne houses invest in English sparkling wine is great recognition for the quality and growth potential of this category, as well as putting English sparkling wine even more in the spotlight! These houses are bringing their heritage and international expertise, which should greatly benefit English sparkling wine. The US trade and wine consumers view this move very positively indeed."
For Peter Richards MW, investment from Champagne houses represents substantial vindication of the commitment and quality evidenced by the country's top sparkling winemakers. However, recognition by the Champenois of the potential for world-class viticulture in the south of England is not new, as Richards is keen to point out. "Jean-Manuel Jacquinot was instrumental in helping Nyetimber in its first few years, Hervé Jestin's been at Hambledon for a while now and Didier Pearson has been involved too. So the involvement of and interest from Champagne is nothing new for English wine. For these major houses to put their money where their mouth is and put significant investment into English wine provides a ringing endorsement for just how far English wine has come. It's a nascent but world class category, with a very bright future. That's what the Champagne investment says."
So what is it about the English sparkling wine style in terms of its differentiation from Champagne that warrants the serious interest of the Champenois? "For a start, it's English", says Richards, "so may appeal to people for that reason. Stylistically, the differences are not super clear cut, especially as English winemakers become more and more proficient at imbuing their sparkling wines with complexity and elegance - multi-vintage blends, use of malolactic fermentation and longer lees ageing are important techniques in this sense. That said, English fizz can often have a brightness of orchard fruit, allied to a vibrancy and urgency of acidity and structure, which can set it apart from Champagne. For the Champenois, the appeal works on many levels. On the one hand, the UK is one of their biggest markets and they have historic links here, so it makes sense to support the category by investing in this country. It's also a hedge against climate change. It's no secret that Champagne has been warming up and harvests are tending to get earlier. Moving that bit further north into the UK can be a sensible move. The styles are complimentary and English wines look to be a future growth category, compared to a relatively mature Champagne market."
Champagne houses that aren't investing (yet) in the UK also view this phenomenon as a smart commercial mood. For example, Anne Gremillet of Champagne Gremillet sees the appeal of an extra revenue stream for Champagne houses as a clear driving factor in the decision of some Champenois to make wine across La Manche. "If some houses are starting to invest in England, this is probably because they have seen an interest in the English terroir for making sparkling wine. It is not a question of moving Champagne to England, it is above all a new business opportunity. The companies who have invested recently are already big brand names known all over the world. It will be quite easy for them to create a second wine that will benefit from the influence of their main brand and even if this is not written on the label, it will be known as 'their second brand'."
Gremillet also makes the point that competition for sparkling wine prominence benefits the whole industry. "As a brand, Champagne still maintains its premium positioning at the very top of the quality ladder. In 2017, the turnover of Champagne reached a new record high of 4.9 billion Euros and since 2005, has increased by more than 1 billion Euros. Champagne also accounts for 10% in volume and 36% in value of the global consumption of all sparkling wines and it's the no. 1 wine appellation in the world in terms of value. So all the Champagne producers must work to create value if we want to keep this top premium positioning. Having competitors making other sparkling wines is good for everybody, spurring us all on to continue improving quality."
While direct involvement and expertise from the Champenois can only benefit English winemaking knowledge and quality, it remains paramount that the end product has to be judged on its own merits. "Producing sparkling wine in England", Gremillet adds, "is much less restrictive than in France for Champagne, as we have very strict regulations and quality control. English winemaking can be inspired by what we do in Champagne, but what it then has to do is not to copy Champagne but to find its own identity."
Exton Park Vineyard
At Exton Park Vineyard, visionary investor Malcolm Isaac saw the advantage of employing Corinne Seely, a French vigneronne with experience of making wine across the world. "As a winemaker, I appreciate the importance of terroir and climate and as a French winemaker, I find English terroir fascinating to express, while the English climate is the most challenging I've ever dealt with in my career", explains Seely. "The recent interest from Champagne houses for planting in England, makes me think that at last, time has arrived for the recognition of the great potential of English terroir and of the premium quality of English sparkling wines and what can be achieved in this country. Therefore, it is clear that Champagne houses have seen the opportunity of doing something special in England and it certainly is a good investment when you know the price of one hectare of Champagne compared to the price of one hectare of English land!"
Richards notes that while the Champenois have unparalleled experience in making world-class traditional method sparkling wine, there are many ongoing challenges facing UK growers. "The knowledge and skills involved in ensuring consistency of yield, correct clonal selection, pressing techniques, lees ageing, reserve wines, blending and dosage are all second nature to the Champenois. They also have the funding to support the kind of long-term capital investments necessary to get businesses off the ground."
While Seely sees much in common between Exton Park's sloping, pure chalk soils 60m-120m above sea level and that of the Côte des Blancs, she also sees many terroir-based challenges. "There are so many differences in terms of density of plantation, pruning, rainfall, sunshine, dates of flowering and harvesting. For example, at the end of August last year, harvest had already begun in Champagne, while veraison only started at Exton Park the week before. No one doubts that it still remains a huge challenge to make super premium quality wines in England, even with direct expertise from the Champenois, but it will certainly increase the reputation of English sparkling wine if big Champagne names come here. Foreign investment should attract the attention of the whole world, becoming a very good, free marketing strategy for English sparkling wines as long as they retain their identity and do not merely become a replica of sparkling wines from other countries. If one day, we can get people thinking that they want to buy an English sparkling wine because they feel like it, just as sometimes they feel like having a glass of Champagne, we really will have achieved something!"
Seely is in no doubt that without the financial investment from people like Malcolm Isaac who believed deeply in the future of English sparkling wine, it is almost certain that the great potential of British terroir would have had less exposure. Simon Robinson, Chairman of WineGB, who himself with his wife Nicola invested heavily in Hattingley Valley, praises the foresight of the early pioneers, but also advises some caution and a good dose of realism on future investments. "It is gratifying to see the vision of the relatively early, but more recent, entrants to the industry now being realised as increasing volumes of high quality wines are produced and sold both in the UK and overseas. The recent paper from WineGB, 'Looking to the Future', suggests that the industry will experience rapid growth for some time and that the UK will be seen as a producer of very high quality wine, also thereby providing much needed rural development and jobs in agriculture at a time when that sector is adjusting to Brexit. The greatest challenge at present is probably ensuring winemaking capacity keeps up with the increase in the planted area. Overall, the industry has a good future ahead of it, so long as investors keep a careful eye on matters and do not allow that ever present danger, the romance of wine, to go to their heads."
However, while the knowledge, intuition and experience of French winemakers along with the vision of UK investors are of huge benefit to the English wine scene, Richards stresses that it's also important to acknowledge the skills, talent and application of English winemakers. Robinson agrees. "It is very encouraging to see our home-grown talent coming through and Plumpton College must be congratulated for enabling this to happen. While in the early days of English sparkling wine, French (and other) winemakers provided - and continue to provide - a body of expertise, it was always going to be necessary to develop a cadre of UK winemakers who understand our conditions. There is no doubt that this has now happened and that we are producing some highly skilled winemakers. We need to do more to produce a larger cadre of viticulturalists who understand our unique climatic conditions, but I have no doubt that will happen over time. Indeed, for both winemakers and viticulturalists, those now being trained here are having much success, partly because they do not get all their training outside the UK. They are not hidebound by rules and ancient practices, but can apply scientific analysis to the situation. We have even seen examples of developments and techniques here being reported with interest back to Champagne for consideration, which is a very satisfying position to be in."
Despite the positive vibes coming from the industry, many consumers say they still prefer to pay £30-£40 for a bottle of Champagne, rather than spending the same amount on English sparkling wine. Therefore, an important issue is whether big names like Taittinger and Pommery can help English sparkling wine increase its appeal to the British wine-buying public, so that more people will view the category as at the same level or higher than Champagne and so worth paying a premium for. Robinson offers his thoughts on this: "There will always be those who prefer Champagne, just as there are people who prefer Burgundy to Bordeaux, but the number who decline to drink English sparkling wine at all has shrunk considerably and continues to fall. There are similar developments outside the UK, with the US in particular being attracted by what we can offer."
"The exciting development recently is that the leading English sparkling wine producers are increasingly not seeking to mimic Champagne any longer. They are developing their own style and approach which seeks to satisfy their customers. That can only be good for the industry as a whole and English sparkling wine will, I am sure, continue to evolve, as makers respond to the challenges faced by Prosecco and Cava as well as Champagne. While I rather doubt that prices for traditional method/traditional varietal English sparkling wine will ever reduce significantly, as the vineyard yields here are so much lower, there are already some producers moving into other methods of sparkling wine production, which will almost certainly command lower prices and offer a wider variety of sparkling wine styles to choose from."
There is broad industry agreement that Taittinger's and Pommery's involvement in England represents just the beginning and more Champagne houses are likely to follow suit. Richards is in no doubt that this will happen. "I was speaking to the CEO of one very well-known and highly regarded Grande Marque Champagne house and I asked him whether he'd be keen to invest in the UK. 'I've been trying to convince the board to do it for a decade!' was his exasperated response. It makes sense for Champagne companies to invest here, where land is cheaper and they can diversify close to one of their key markets."
While Brexit remains the elephant in the room (or should that be vineyard?), Brachet is not unduly worried by the economic uncertainty this brings. "We don't really see any direct connection between Brexit and English sparkling wine in the US as of now. It's still a very early stage for English sparkling wine in the US and both trade and consumers are focusing on discovering and tasting the wine. If Brexit leads to significant changes in exchange rates or import duties, there could be an impact on pricing, but it is too early to have any clear visibility on that. What is clear is that the future of English sparkling wine in the US will be bright, as its top quality gets more and more recognized by wine connoisseurs and consumers in general."
Continuing investment, rising quality, global recognition and availability of English sparkling wine, the double-edged effects of climate change, the development of a clear identity and style plus increasing knowledge and expertise among the winemakers themselves are forging a positive future for this home-grown industry. Direct involvement of the Champenois will not only help share expertise and further the skills of winemaking within the UK, but it should also play a significant role in educating the broader wine-buying public in understanding why English sparkling wine should command similar price points to other traditional method sparklers, notably Champagne. Surely we can all raise a glass to that … of English bubbly, of course!
This is the full version of the article originally published in the February 2019 edition of Speciality Food Magazine.