The economy may be flat, but one aspect of British industry is bubbling – English sparkling wine. And today, the drive by the domestic wine industry to beat the great French champagne houses at a game they have long dominated takes a big step forward.
The unveiling of a winery at the Hush Heath vineyard in Kent, is a double celebration for the estate's owner, hotelier Richard Balfour-Lynn. British Airways has announced it will serve his award-winning Balfour Brut 2007 in its first class cabins and lounges.
While there are other vineyards, such as Nyetimber and Ridgeview, producing bespoke and highly praised English sparkling wines, Hush Heath is the only one created solely to make sparkling rosé.
For Mr Balfour-Lynn the BA deal further endorses his conviction that his estate can produce wine as good as, if not better than, the big French names and that £35 a bottle is a competitive price in a market where rosé champagne can cost £40 or £50 plus.
He said: "I'm absolutely thrilled about the decision by British Airways to stock Balfour Brut. It shows we can compete with the best. At blind tastings, Balfour Brut beats French champagnes like Veuve Clicquot and Laurent Perrier.''
But producing great wine – as any vineyard owner knows – is not an overnight matter. Today's unveiling is the culmination of almost a decade of investment and patience by Mr Balfour-Lynn, owner of the Hotel Du Vin and Malmaison hotel chains, who bought the 16th-century manor house at Hush Heath, near Marden, in 1986.
In 2002, after buying back the surrounding 400 acres he began planting traditional champagne grapes – pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay – in a system carefully planned to maximise the clay soil and mild Kentish climate. Mr Balfour-Lynn, who repaired each one of the 5,000 original Tudor roof tiles when restoring the manor, does not leave much to chance.
The first vintage, 2004, hand picked, then made and bottled at nearby Chapel Down winery using the traditional méthode champenoise, was an immediate triumph, winning a gold award at the 2008 International Wine Challenge; successive years have been similarly garlanded, with critics praising its blend of summer fruits and elegant structure. About 25,000 bottles have been produced annually and it is sold at a number of restaurants, venues such as the Royal Automobile Club and the National Portrait Gallery and over the counter at Waitrose.
The success led to Mr Balfour-Lynn investing in the new state of the art winery and bottling plant, and recruiting the former head wine maker at Chapel Down, Owen Elias, who supervised the earlier vintages.
Although its official opening is today, the winery has already been used to press the 2010 vintage, to be released in about four years. The aim is to increase annual production to about 100,000 bottles within a couple of years; almost 30 acres are now under vine. In the meantime, a small amount of Hush Heath's first still wine, Nannettes English Rosé, going on the market this month, has been produced.
* Chapel Down Rose Brut
From the same Kent winery that once pressed Hush Heath grapes this won a 2011 International Wine Challenge Gold. Refreshing, salmon pink. www.englishwinesgroup.com
* Ridgeview Grosvenor Blanc de Blanc 2008
A great sparkler produced on the Sussex downs. Made using chardonnay grapes, it won the 2010 Decanter World's Best Sparkling Wine award. Creamy, toasty. www.ridgeview.co.uk
* Camel Valley Pinot Noir Rose Brut 2009
The 2008 – Best in the World at the 2010 World Sparkling Wine Championships – has all gone. But the 2009 is as good. www.camelvalley.com