French Champagne with an English accent

A French Champagne maker has made English sparkling wine for the first time and it is set to go on sale, giving the clearest indication yet that British fizz is truly coming of age. Meonhill is made from grapes that were grown in Hampshire from French root stocks, and will be available to buy early in 2012.

This is the first time French wine makers have invested in cultivating the grape in Hampshire, Kent and Sussex, three counties that have close resemblances to both the climate and the chalky geology that are found in Northern France.

The first planned release is for 5000 bottles from Didier Pierson-Whitaker, who owns a grand cru vineyard in the Champagne region of France, and they come at a time when a dramatic rise in demand and sales of Champagne style sparkling wines has been   reported by established English vintners.

Waitrose have said that sales of the 18 English sparkling wines they carry has risen by nearly a third  compared with last Christmas’ sales, whilst Ridgeview, a sparkling wine maker from the South Downs have reported that in the last two years their sales have trebled. Mardi Roberts is the sales manager for Ridgeview, and has said that they can’t keep up as the demand is outstripping the production and exports have shot up.

Sir Gilbert Scott, the restaurant recently opened in London by top chef Marcus Waring, is selling more glasses of sparkling wines made in England than they are of Moët et Chandon, the biggest global brand to come out of the Champagne region. Mark Cesareo is the restaurant’s head sommelier, and he said that when he first added English sparkling wine to his list 5 years ago customers were scared but now that has completely changed.

He added that it had been the English that had been the most adverse to trying it, with French guests happy to try it out. He now stocks three English wines that sell by the glass; Ridgeview, Nyetimber and Gusborne, and if he sells 10 cases of Moët in a week he will sell 6 cases if Gusborne, 5 cases of Ridgeway and 3 cases of Nyetimber.

According to data released by the Foods Standard Agency, UK cultivation of three main grape varieties used to make champagne style wines; Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, has quadrupled since 2005. These grape varieties now cover more than half of the space in the UK that is devoted solely to vineyards, stretching across 1235 acres.

Farmers are also catching on, and recently 4 parcels of arable land in Barham Court, Kent, that has previously always been used for cereal crops, are now being sold to be used as a vineyard for sparkling wine. Waitrose also pressed the first grapes last autumn from their own new vineyard in Hampshire, and will have their own brand sparkling wine on the shelves in either 2013 or 2014.

Although the industry is now looking rosy, it is not without a lot of hard work and determination from those involved as they have not received the kind of support that is given to wine makers in France, a fact that makes this current success even sweeter.