Time to get fizzy about a thoroughly British bubbly

Our sparkling wine wins many plaudits, but it’s still an exclusive affair. Now one man aims to change all that  – with the country’s biggest vineyard

On Monday night, we’ll open a significant number of the 35 million bottles of champagne Britain imports every year. Corks will fly, too, from countless crates of sparkling wine. Few of these bottles, however, will bear English labels. On the average day we guzzle more foreign fizz than we do homemade in a year. But a man in a field in Sussex has a bold resolution: to transform our festive drinking habits and beat the French at their own game.

Mark Driver is a former hedge-fund manager who left the Square Mile for a 400-acre farm on the South Downs. His Rathfinny Estate, near Alfriston, is the newest addition to a growing list of English vineyards. Climate change has helped turn counties from Kent to Cornwall into perfect ground for the same grape varieties used to make the best sparkling wines. As English vintages collect international awards and supermarkets clear shelf space, champagne houses are even eyeing up British soil in search of  “le fizz anglais”.

“We’re still just a pimple in terms of production compared to champagne,” Driver says, standing in his wellies  between his vines. Last year, Britain produced about three million bottles of wine, about 60 per cent of it  sparkling. Champagne alone produces 385 million bottles a year, more than 100 times as much.

But, Driver adds: “the best quality sparkling wine in the world is now being made in England.”

Driver planted his first 75,0000 vines in March on about 50 acres of the land he bought for almost £4m in 2010. The gently sloping estate forms a natural amphitheatre facing the Cuckmere river, which meanders  towards the sea and the rolling chalk cliffs known as the Seven Sisters.

On a sunny day in November, the Chardonnay vines show early signs of growth. Further down the gentle slope, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier complete the trinity of grapes also used in champagne. After they are pressed, likely two years from now, their juices will be blended and fermented in Driver’s vast winery. The wine will be bottled and left for at least another two to three years to complete its bubbly transformation. If all goes to plan, Driver says he’ll eventually produce a million bottles a year, making Rathfinny England’s largest vineyard.

He’ll have stiff competition. A bubble beltway stretching across southern England includes at least half a dozen serious vineyards with a growing focus on sparkling wine. More than 80 British wines won prizes at this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards, with two sparklings, from Camel Valley in Cornwall and the Hush Heath Estate in Kent, claiming coveted gold medals. Even Wales excels. Ancre Hill Estates’ 2008 vintage, made in Monmouthshire, last month beat rivals including Bollinger to be named best sparkling wine at an international competition in Verona.

Supermarkets are helping to drive the growth. Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Sainsbury’s have all added English sparkling wines to their ranges. Waitrose has more than 15 labels and reports a 20 per cent rise in sales on last year thanks in part to patriotic drinking during a “Jubilympic”  summer. At the Leckford Estate in Hampshire, bought by John Lewis himself in 1928, the supermarket is  expecting to produce its first bottles in 2014 with the help of winemakers at Ridgeview in Sussex, one of England’s biggest vineyards.

The boom is luring big investors. Lord Ashcroft, the Tory peer and  dollar billionaire, announced plans in October to buy 150 acres of land in West Sussex via his Shellproof  company, of which he owns 76 per cent, with a view to producing 400,000 bottles of sparkling wine a year.

The rush isn’t just as a result of pride in all things British. Rising average temperatures have helped to create an optimal climate, while the chalky soil in the south is similar to that found in Champagne. “Higher night-time temperatures can have as much an effect on the way grapes grow because they wake up earlier in the day,” says Stephen Skelton, a master of wine and a viticultural consultant. “Sugar levels are up to double what they were 40 years ago.”

Skelton remembers a flatter English scene largely characterised by little-known still German varieties. Thirty-five years ago, he established vineyards in Kent that are now home to Chapel Down Wines, another of England’s most decorated estates. “When you had to explain that English wine was a bit like German wine, you lost the customer,” he says. “Now if you  explain English sparkling you just say, well, it’s like champagne.”

Early interest that arose when  vineyards such as Nyetimber in West Sussex started to win international awards in the 1990s is now bearing fruit. Driver first saw the sparkle in English wine when he staged an informal blind tasting for his wife Sarah’s birthday. “We got six English and six French, including Moët, Veuve Clicquot and Pol Roger,” he says. “Everyone preferred the English.”

After giving up his life in the City, Driver was helping one of his four children navigate a Ucas clearing list when he spotted a wine course. He  enrolled at Plumpton College near Lewes in East Sussex, where demand is booming among would-be wine growers and makers. He was already looking for land during a two-year foundation course.

To make his wine, Driver  recruited Jonathan Médard, who was born in Champagne and trained at some of its top houses. The Frenchman says he revels in the freedom of English vineyards, away from the tradition and rules that govern champagne. But, he says: “I’m not allowed back in France!” He’s only half-joking. Driver recalls a visit to Epernay, Médard’s home town, where the men were looking at wine presses. “We walked into this bar and were greeted with open arms by the owner, who remembered Jonathan. ‘Where have you been?’ he asked. Jonathan said, ‘Well, I’m now making wine in England.’ This chap said, ‘Shame on you,’ turned and walked off. It was just fantastic.”

Many more enlightened French wine people are, like Médard, going English. Reports circulate in the English wine world of champagne houses prospecting for English soil. One house, Pierson-Whitaker, run by Didier Pierson and his English wife, Imogen, is already producing English sparkling at its Meonhill vineyard  in Hampshire.

Many houses will be compelled to branch out by changing tastes and budgets. In total, British drinkers spend £1.4bn on fizz a year. But, according to market analysts Mintel, champagne sales have fallen by 32 per cent since 2007. In the same period, sparkling wine sales have jumped 55 per cent. Cost has been key but English sparkling wines are booming in spite of their premium price, typically at around the £20 mark, making them an attractive proposition for French makers forced to diversify.

What England will never offer is consistent weather. While 2012 has been great for sales of English sparkling wines, it has been a disaster for the vines. Nyetimber, which has capacity to produce 400,000 bottles a year, announced in October it was scrapping its harvest after cold and wet conditions ruined its crop. England isn’t uniquely vulnerable. Champagne harvests were down 40 per cent, according to the French Agricultural Ministry. “It was by any measure the worst year on record anywhere, whether you’re in Sussex, Burgundy or Bordeaux,” Skelton says.

At Rathfinny, Driver is confident in his long-term plans to turn this strip of beautiful countryside into England’s biggest vineyard. He hopes to be able to bring in 2017 with a glass of wine from his own estate, and is prepared for the wait. “My ambition is that in 15 years time you’ll walk into a bar and the barman will say, would you like a glass of champagne, or would you like a glass of Sussex?”

Five great English sparkling wines

Chosen by master of wine Stephen Skelton, EnglishWine.com

Breaky Bottom Cuvée Princess Colonna 2008

Ridgeview Blanc de Blancs Magnum 2001

Balfour Brut Rosé 2009

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2007

Camel Valley Cornwall Brut 2010

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