Corking times for English bubbly

It may be a little early for the French to get anxious, but there's no doubt that England now produces sparkling wines of the highest quality
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Indy Lifestyle Online

"The English invented champagne, of course." Thus, with tongue only partly in cheek, Tom Stevenson, a writer on sparkling wines, once provoked a group of French journalists in a cellar of sparkling wine in Moldova. There's actually more than a bubble of truth in the potentially explosive thesis. In 1662, a decade or so before champagne was even a twinkle in the eye of Dom Pérignon, an Englishman, Christopher Merret, was busy documenting how to put bubbles into wine.

"The English invented champagne, of course." Thus, with tongue only partly in cheek, Tom Stevenson, a writer on sparkling wines, once provoked a group of French journalists in a cellar of sparkling wine in Moldova. There's actually more than a bubble of truth in the potentially explosive thesis. In 1662, a decade or so before champagne was even a twinkle in the eye of Dom Pérignon, an Englishman, Christopher Merret, was busy documenting how to put bubbles into wine.

Merret's name is on the label of the fizz which walked off with the Wine of the Year 2000 trophy at the recent annual English and Welsh awards. The Gore-Browne trophy, along with the year's solitary gold medal, went to Ridgeview Estate's classy 1996 Cuvée Merret Bloomsbury. Ridgeview won a silver medal, too, for its non-vintage Cuvée Merret Belgravia Special Reserve.

Started in 1994 by Mike Roberts and his wife, Christine, on the South Downs in Sussex, Ridgeview is one of only two English vineyards devoted exclusively to the production of fizz made from champagne grapes. With a cool, Atlantic-influenced climate and limestone soils not dissimilar to the Champagne region, Roberts thought he would try his hand at sparkling wine when he sold his computer business.

He invested £1.5m in the winery and the necessary specialised equipment and planted 16 acres of the estate with the champagne grapes, chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Roberts reasoned that still wines would require too high a volume to make a decent return; he felt the way to go was to put the highest added value into the labour-intensive business. Now at last, after six years, "we can almost see as much coming in as going out".

A similar conclusion was reached by Stuart and Sandy Moss, a couple from Chicago making wine in West Sussex. Their world-class Nyetimber 1992 Blanc de Blancs was chosen for the royal family's toast on millennium eve. Other sparkling wine pioneers using classic champagne grapes include Valley Vineyards' Ascot Brut from Twyford, Berkshire, Wooldings Brut in Hampshire, Surrey's Denbies 1995 Millennium, and Bart's Bubbly made at Bookers Vineyard in West Sussex from pinot noir grapes.

According to Bookers' wine maker, Samantha Linter, "we are well placed in England for sparkling wine production with our naturally good acidity levels, essential for sparkling wine to give good depth of flavour and body and ability to age". Yet, despite the evident potential, chardonnay and pinot noir, with just 80 hectares between them at the last Ministry of Agriculture count, are as yet only doll's house-scale plantings in an industry which is still barely more than cottage-sized.

Germanic importations like müller-thurgau, reichensteiner, and seyval blanc, the French hybrid, dominate because they tend to crop more consistently at good levels, ripen early and are more resistant to frosts and humidity than the champagne grapes. But neither Nyetimber nor Ridgeview were affected by frost this year.

The Germanic and seyval-based styles can be pleasantly fruity, if less complex and more hedgerow and citrusy in style. Davenport Vineyards 1997 Brut Sparkling, for instance, is made entirely from the Faber grape, but it's extremely well-made with a grapefruity, dry bite to it. "English sparkling wines are obviously the latest thing," says Will Davenport, the Kent estate's Australian-trained wine maker.

"But there is a split between the followers of the classic champagne varieties and those who are making wines from muller-thurgau and reichensteiner. The first group are making wines for international comparison, while the latter are making a more herbaceous style, which could be seen as more typically English."

Davenport, is torelease a fizz based on pinot noir, feels that the future lies with the classic varieties. He also thinks that with a high percentage of professionally trained wine makers, the English wine industry is well-equipped to deal with the technicalities of sparkling wine production.

No one would agree more than Carl Koenen, of Chapel Down at Tenterden in Kent. The Chapel Down range of bubbly encompasses both Germanic and Champagne styles. It begins with the respectable, if commercial, Epoch Brut, a blend of müller-thurgau and reichensteiner, which sells at Tesco. At the top of the range, the 1996 Pinot Cuvée, made from pinot noir and pinot blanc, is a classy sparkling wine, and it is more than the equal of champagne at the same price.

In a significant move for the English wine industry, Chapel Down has just joined forces with Lamberhurst, a bestseller at Majestic Wine Warehouses, and Carr Taylor to form English Wines plc, which will specialise in sparkling wine production. Economies of scale will allow it to expand production to 300,000 bottles a year to become the biggest English sparkling wine producer. It may be a little early for the French to get anxious about the English sparkling wine threat, but if Moët & Chandon were to eye us up in an acquisitive light, who knows what the future might hold.

The English wine producers' website at www.englishwineproducers.com is due to be officially launched on Tuesday 12 Sept

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