Mark Gardner has just sunk the last of 12,500 chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier vines into the chalky loam soil of his Meon Valley farm in the Hampshire Downs.
Mark Gardner has just sunk the last of 12,500 chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier vines into the chalky loam soil of his Meon Valley farm in the Hampshire Downs. It's no coincidence that these are the three grapes from which champagne is made on similar land across the Channel. The Hampshire and Sussex Downs may not yet be carpeted with vines, but as the climate gets milder and our demand for fizz proves insatiable, that may be about to change. For although most English wine is made from Germanic grapes like müller-thurgau, schönburger and bacchus, it's the fizz made from champagne varieties that's causing a stir. And the English wine-producing fraternity knows that the French have a weather eye on our bubbly-producing potential.
Like a number of people sitting on the free-draining, south-facing chalky soils of the south of England, Mr Gardner is tapping into this current buzz over fizz. His inspiration comes from Nyetimber, built up by Chicagoans Stuart and Sandy Moss and bought in 2001 by the Bucks Fizz songwriter Andy Hill, and from Mike Roberts' RidgeView, which, with Nyetimber, is England's best fizz by a country mile. Gardner decided he too would have a crack at growing the three champagne varieties, all supplied from France. The first 10 acres of vines have gone into the ground so far at a set-up cost of £6,000 an acre. Next year, he aims to start on another 20 acres to reach the critical mass necessary to court an experienced vineyard manager and winemaker. Then he'll be ready for French advances.
According to Gardner, a neighbouring farmer has been approached by a champagne house wanting to buy land for planting a vineyard. Meanwhile, Frazer Thompson of English Wines Group plc, producers of Chapel Down, Lamberhurst and Curious Grape at Tenterden in Kent, has been contacted by no fewer than three different champagne companies. One of them, Duval Leroy, makes no bones about its intentions. "The time is right to invest in English land to make sparkling wine. England has the right chalky soil for quality sparkling wine and, thanks in part to global warming, a suitable climate, which is very similar to the champagne area in northern France," says its managing director, Roger Bégault.
Nyetimber and RidgeView have shown they can make sparkling wine every bit as good as, if not better than, champagne. Land prices (many times cheaper) and global warming (with particular reference to the sizzling summer of 2003) have galvanised the champenois, whose own vineyards are limited in extent by the appellation laws. Sparkling- wine grapes command high prices, and the champenois need more of them. "It's the only way you can guarantee having a sufficient supply of grapes at a given price without being held to ransom by the growers," says Bégault. In addition, he'd like the English authorities to start delimiting specific areas for quality sparkling-wine production on the lines of France's appellation contrôlée laws. "I know the French AC laws are a bit outdated, but how else do you limit production and maintain high quality?"
Of course, fizz produced in England can't be called champagne, or even méthode champenoise, because the names are jealously protected. But serious investment by a major champagne house would bring with it the cachet of a champagne brand name. An English Moët et Chandon or Veuve Clicquot, or, who knows, a Krug or Dom Pérignon, would really put the frog among the pigeons.