Traditionally, any mention of bubbles and our thoughts were drawn naturally to France and the Champagne region. In the last few years, however, Prosecco, from the Veneto area of Italy, has experienced an explosive rise in popularity, and Cava, Spain’s answer to Champagne, is making a comeback. Lesser known, but with an increasing presence and growth in sales, is Champagne’s latest combattant: English sparkling wine. But where is this trend coming from? What is all the hype about?
Isn’t English sparkling wine the same as champagne?
Although it is made in the traditional ‘méthode champenoise’, sparkling wine produced in the UK cannot be called Champagne. Whilst most of the highly revered English sparkling wine producers use the same equipment, almost identical ingredients, climate, methods and ageing processes to those in Champagne to produce their wines, if the fizz isn’t made within the parameters of the Champagne region of France, the law determines that it can’t be called Champagne. But, so far as general flavour and style goes, it’s not so far off.
So, what makes the UK so special?
Annual temperatures are creeping up year by year which means our climate on this side of the English Channel is becoming better suited to producing the fresh, crisp fizz that the French pioneered. A mere half a degree celsius separates our climate to that of Champagne, fortuitously providing enough sunlight and warmth over the growing season to produce just-ripe grapes with enough sugar to ferment into delicious zesty flavours and bags of acidity to keep the balance for a crisp, clean fizz.
The similarities between Champagne and the south of the UK do not stop at the climatic overlap. The three Champagne grape varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, thrive in the well-drained, chalky, limestone soils found in northern France. Fortunately for us, that band of soil runs up through the White Cliffs of Dover and along the South of the England. This band of soil and similarity in climate fades to the north and west of the UK, meaning the concentration on vineyards producing English fizz are down in the south-east adn along the South West coast. With a very slight difference in climate and strong similarity in soil type, it is starting to become less of a mystery why we’re beginning to give Champagne a run for its money.
What does the future hold for English Fizz?
Current predictions are that, within a decade, the climate in the South of the UK will see the optimum growing temperatures for top end sparkling wine, whereas the Champagne region may be too warm to grow the best quality grapes. With this as a possibility, the big names are starting to make sure they don’t miss out on the action; Taittinger was the first to set the trend, buying 69 hectares of Kent farmland in 2015 and then holding a ceremony on 3rd May last year to celebrate the planting of vines in ‘Domaine Evremond’. Meanwhile, Louis Pommery England, launched in March this year, is the first English fizz to be released in association with a Champagne house. Enquiries have also been made by Pol Roger and Bollinger who also see the potential of UK land.
Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)
The most recent development in the English Sparkling Wine business is the desire to introduce protected designations of origins, known in the industry as PDOs. In the same way that French law stipulates the declarations that can be made on wine labels, such as ‘Champagne’ only being printed on bottles of sparkling wine that come from the Champagne region of France, Sussex is striving for a similar restriction of the use of its name as a region and applied to get its own PDO last year.
Restaurants and hotels have already noted the spike in patriotism when it comes to wine as guests opt for native English fizz with increasing popularity. Who knows? In years to come, a bottle of ‘Sussex’ or ‘Hampshire’ may become our sparkling wine of choice, leaving Champagne firmly on the shelf.