Le Fizz Anglais

Warming forces French champagne house to plant English vineyard
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The Independent Online

One of the French Champagne region's largest and most influential houses has opened negotiations to plant a vineyard in southern England.

For Duval-Leroy, one of Champagne's grandes-marques, it would be a ground-breaking first. It hopes to begin planting the three types of champagne grapes - chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier - at a 200-acre site in Dorset in time to have the first bottles matured and ready to drink by the 2012 Olympics.

Land agents and vineyard owners elsewhere in southern England are reporting an influx of inquiries from large Champagne houses, as fears grow that climate change is causing soil temperatures to rise in their native region.

The wine industry is one where even the slightest variation in conditions can drastically affect the product, and this is why the slightly cooler climes of southern England - particularly around Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset - are now being seriously considered to ensure the long-term future of Champagne.

Frazer Thompson, the managing director of Chapel Down Wines, the largest producer of English wines in the country, said the secret was a shared cross-Channel chalk seam.

"In south-eastern England, the ground itself is almost identical to that of Champagne, in terms of its chalk content and acidity," he said.

"Some of these areas are only 80 or 90 miles north of Champagne as the crow flies, yet the climate is cooler - and champagne is a cool-climate wine. We have the temperature here, the correct soil - and land that doesn't cost around £350,000 an acre, as it does in Champagne."

In recent years, the quality of sparkling wine produced from southern England has noticeably improved. Chapel Down, along with vineyards such as Nyetimber and Ridge View in Sussex, have won international awards. This, along with recent claims that Christopher Merret, an Englishman, was the first to invent sparkling wine, in 1662 - some 30 years before the French monk Dom Perignon claimed to have done so - has helped to turn the English wine industry from something of a joke into a serious business proposition.

The Champagne house Duval-Leroy, based in the village of Vertus in the Cotes des Blancs region, is believed to have already considered a number of sites in Kent for potential vineyards, before it opened discussions with the wine writer Steven Spurrier and his wife, Bella, over their rolling farm in Dorset.

The soil there has already been successfully analysed and Carol Duval-Leroy, the proprietor of the 150-year-old champagne producer, is expected to view the property, situated in the Bride Valley between Dorchester and Bridgeport, in a matter of weeks.

The Spurriers, who currently use the land for grazing sheep, believe that up to 70 of their 200 acres would be prime winegrowing land. "The analysis showed that the chalk content is perfect and the acidity good," said Mr Spurrier. "All of the land is south-east, south or south-west facing with good drainage, and there are existing barns on the site that would convert brilliantly into a winery."

Mr Spurrier said he hoped to see the first harvest in 2009, with the wine ready for drinking by the time the sailing Olympics begin in nearby Weymouth in the summer of 2012. He plans to call the product Bride Valley Brut.

"It would be a joint venture if it goes ahead," said Mr Spurrier, who is a consultant editor at Decanter. "We would only plant the three types of champagne grapes, and would try to make it as close to champagne as possible."