Champagne houses drink in England's cool and pleasant land

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For centuries, they have considered British expertise on alcohol to be restricted to warm beer, sweet cider and, more recently, the ability to buy large quantities of lager from warehouses in Calais.

For centuries, they have considered British expertise on alcohol to be restricted to warm beer, sweet cider and, more recently, the ability to buy large quantities of lager from warehouses in Calais.

But now it seems the twin influences of climate change and the chalk hills of Kent and Sussex are persuading the French to consider exporting production of their most prized alcoholic asset across the Channel: the sparkling wine perfected by the growers of champagne.

Fears that global warming could make the famous vineyards around Epernay, the epicentre of the champagne industry, unsuitable for the production of fizz, are beginning to spur producers into looking elsewhere to secure their future.

The combination of a suitable climate, cheap land and domestic growers whose sparkling wine is winning international plaudits means that future could be in the South Downs.

English Wines Group, one of the leading domestic producers in an industry that is growing by up to 40 per cent a year in Britain, confirmed yesterday that it has been approached by three champagne houses considering options ranging from buying land in the Downs to co-operating in producing sparkling wine here.

The French jealously protect the status of champagne by refusing to allow any other sparkling wine to carry the same name regardless of its quality. But the once risible prospect of a British bottle produced according to the methode champenoise and carrying the name of one of the great champagne houses could soon be a reality.

Frazer Thompson, managing director of English Wines Group, said: "We're talking to three champagne houses, from very small to very large. I can't say who we're talking to and they've specifically asked not to be mentioned.

"It all arose last year when Champagne had to acidify heavily with global warming. Land here is almost identical geologically, with a lower frost risk because of our maritime climate. And we're talking a 100th of the cost of land in Champagne. If you're a French champagne house it might be an interesting longer-term prospect."

Speculation on the identity of the large champagne house immediately focused on Moet Chandon, producer of Dom Perignon label and the owner of vineyards producing sparking wines in California's Napa Valley, the Yarra Valley in Australia and other wineries in Argentina, Spain and Brazil.

Other grandes marques of the champagne world, including Roederer and Piper Heidsieck, have also diversified into the new world. Moet Chandon, part of the LVMH luxury goods conglomerate, declined to comment on whether it was interested in expanding to south-east England.

Among the picturesque oast houses around the pretty Kent village of Small Hythe, one of the key areas for British sparkling wine production, the thought of a French recognition of Perfidious Albion's viticultural prowess was received warmly.

Roy Cadman, president of the English Wine Society, said: "They have been so arrogant for so long, not bothering to think about customers or going where great wines can be produced. Now they are beginning to realise this. I think it is finally recognition that English wines are world-class." Mr Cadman insisted it was not a French monk, Dom Perignon, but an Englishman called Charles Merret who first mastered the fermenting technique used for champagne. "We shouldn't have to put methode champenoise on our bottles. It should be called Merret Method on all French bottles."

Mr Thompson insisted there was no smug satisfaction when the French vineyards approached him. He said it was a practical and understandable business move. With strong objections to expanding the region appellation boundaries laid down in 1927 in the interests of quality and exclusivity, land in Champagne costs up to £250,000 per acre. Terrain in the south of England with a matching combination of chalky-clay soil sells for between £2,000 and £2,500.

With their own land at a premium, the family-owned business has already begun expanding into other good areas for growing such as cooler parts of Chile and California. Rising global temperatures have also had an effect, with the French suffering from last year's hot summer as the British climate climbed to an almost ideal level. In the heat, the acidity required suffers when the grapes become too ripe and full of sugar.

The French may not be allowed to use their famous name on bubbly produced in this country but just the Dom Perignon or Veuve Clicquot brand could be enough to sway the snobs.

Paul Milroy, of the upmarket retailer Berry Bros & Rudd, said: "People won't change. They buy champagne for the same reasons they buy a Ferrari; they know where it has come from and its reputation.

"But the problem with the UK is consistency. The advertising of sparkling wines is not necessarily consistent because they are not necessarily consistent. The combination of factors makes it very difficult for them. It doesn't fly off the shelf no matter how good it is. People want champagne."

Could Chapel Down ever rival Krug's Mesnil?

By Christopher Hirst

There's no reason why we can't get into the fizz biz. The South Downs enjoy the same chalky soil as the Champagne area and, thanks to global warming, the British climate is better suited to producing dry sparkling wine (our grapes are not as sugary at the end of a long, hot summer).

It will not be the first time that the perfidious rosbifs have come to the rescue of the Champagne vignerons. In fact, the world's best-known wine only became a practical proposition thanks to British glassmakers.

The sparkle in champagne, which comes about when the wine stops fermenting in winter and starts again in spring, was regarded as a problem until the late 17th century, when British glassmakers developed bottles strong enough to contain the effervescence.

Whether Chapel Down will ever be ranked alongside Krug's Mesnil vineyard is a moot point, but it would be gratifying to see Ashford bracketed with Epernay and Tenterden with Bouzy.

It seems likely that Sir Winston Churchill, who almost singlehandedly consumed the entire output of Pol Roger from certain years, would have been gratified at the thought of the champagne houses augmenting their stock from vines virtually growing in the shadow of Chartwell.

The sole bitter element in the deal is that most British devotees of sparkling wine will only start purchasing our homemade version when it bears the imprimatur of a French grande marque .

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