French champagne makers say they have no plans to sell UK government’s Brexit pint bottles

Government’s Brexit push to bring back Winston Churchill’s favourite champagne measure met with indifference

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Saturday 05 February 2022 07:48
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French champagne producers have said they have no plans to sell their sparkling wine in pint measures any time soon, despite the hopes of Brexiteers.

The government has touted bringing back the pint measure for champagne as a supposed "Brexit win" – but practical difficulties mean the product is unlikely to actually hit shelves.

Even Pol Roger, the champagne house famously favoured by Winston Churchill and the former producer of pint bottles, told The Independent the idea was a "non-story".

A relatively small number of pint bottles were sold in the UK before Britain entered the European Common Market until 1973 – but their production ceased because they did not comply with EU weights and measures rules.

Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, is said to be keen on bringing the smaller bottles back as a way of highlighting the supposed benefits of Brexit. Brexit-supporting newspapers have repeatedly touted the idea, with encouragement from the Cabinet Office's "Brexit opportunities unit", which is desperately seeking to justify the break with Europe.

The bottles have a historic link with Churchill, who claimed they were the perfect size.

But the idea would require French champagne makers to actually choose to use the imperial measure, and a number of practical problems are preventing a comeback.

One is that the glass bottles needed are largely produced in France, but the last mould to produce pint-sized sparkling wine bottles was lost long ago.

Pol Roger, which once shipped pint bottles to the UK in cases of 16, says it would cost tens of thousands for glassmakers to create a new pint mould – making it a risky business proposition with no obvious benefit.

“We tried to encourage our French [operation] to look at it and they've looked at it,” James Simpson, managing director of Pol Roger Ltd in the UK, told The Independent.

The requirement for champagne to be aged in its bottle means that even if producers wanted to, and started producing pints this year, they would not be ready until 2026 at the very earliest

"We can't just decant from the bottle in the pint bottle and say 'hey we've got it'. How do I put this gently? It's a non-story trying to be a story which we've sort of encouraged over the years because it amuses us, and it harks a bit back to the Churchill link," Mr Simpson said.

The government has also been dragging its feet on legalising the measure, and has not yet actually done so. It is understood that officials are debating whether to introduce actual imperial pints, or to opt for the easier 500ml measure.

The latter size would have the advantage of potentially being exportable to other countries, meaning the wine might one day be able to be sold outside the UK – whereas a true imperial pint of 568ml unlikely to be useful anywhere except the UK.

Non-sparkling wine is already allowed to be sold in 500ml under both EU and UK rules, and bottle moulds already exist for the size – but going with the decimal measure would undermine the government's claims that it can bring back imperial measures now Britain has left the European Union.

One English sparkling wine house, Rathfinny in Sussex, has already produced 800 of bottles of its drink in 500ml bottles in anticipation of a rule change for the decimal measure.

France’s other champagne makers have also confirmed they have no plans to produce pints, or simply ignored the situation. Moët & Chandon, the largest of all the champagne houses, declined to commit to the measure when approached by The Independent, while a spokesperson for GH Mumm, another one of the big four producers, said: “We can indeed confirm that we have no plans to produce and sell champagne in pint bottles.”

Industry insiders say English sparkling wine producers are keener on the rule change, but actual French champagne houses have shown little to no interest in bringing anything to market.

“I think actually the English sparkling wine boys are pressing rather harder than we are at the moment,” Mr Simpson said.

“We’re also in a lucky position that we’ve sold every bottle of Pol Roger that we've released, so we’re not desperately rushing to come up with another size because there's just not the booze to put in it.”

The Pol Roger chief also threw cold water on the idea that the pint was once a hugely common measure of selling champagne in Britain – as claimed in some newspaper reports.

“Probably 3 per cent" of champagne shipped to the UK was in pint bottles rather than the 60 per cent claimed in a recent Daily Mail article, he said. But he added: “The story continues to run and run because people are amused by it.” He added that if “everyone weighs in I’m sure we will eventually follow” but that the barriers were difficult to resolve.

Churchill once said that a pint bottle of champagne was the “ideal size”, being “enough for two at lunch and one at dinner”.

A UK Government Spokesperson said: “As part of the government’s work to maximise the benefits of Brexit, officials are reviewing EU derived wine regulations, including bottle size requirements, with a view to making regulatory reform recommendations”.

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