English Sparkling Wine has experienced something of a meteoric rise over the past few years. Peter Ustinov’s phrase “I imagine hell like this: Italian punctuality, German humour and English wine” would have had little argument even in the very recent past, with English wine being the parochial and somewhat comical poor cousin of the fizz being produced across la Manche. English wine is now, however, going from strength to strength and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that there has been an explosion in production, with a staggering 6.3 million bottles of English and Welsh still and sparkling wine being produced in 2014, somewhat dwarfing the previous year’s total of around 4.5 million. Some estimates suggest that sales of domestic wine will this year reach £100 million, putting English and Welsh wine firmly “on the map” as a viable and serious industry. Yet English wine only accounts for 0.1% of our domestic sparkling wine consumption. Of course the dominance of cheaper Proseccos and Cavas is unlikely to be seriously challenged by the growth in English Sparkling production, but how likely or significant a challenge is English Sparkling Wine to one of the great Behemoths of the wine world?
First off, how to explain the recent surge in production (and consumption) of English Sparkling Wine? It is in no small part due to the changing climate in the South of England which, according to leading (and reluctantly enthusiastic) winemakers from the Champagne region, is now enjoying temperatures the same as were usual for Champagne around 15-20 years ago. Perhaps all those Boeing 747s and gas guzzling “Chelsea tractor” 4x4s have had some advantage after all. Another reason draws on the geological makeup of this part of Western Europe, which gives the English vineyards a strikingly similar “terroir” to that found in one of the most famous wine-growing regions of all. Huge increases in investment and press coverage have also been invaluable in raising the profile of English Sparkling Wine.
So can English Sparkling begin to challenge the dominance of Champagne? There is, without doubt, a shift in people’s perception of this country’s domestic fizz. Not long ago, one would have been surprised to see an English Sparkling darken the doors of a Michelin starred establishment, whereas now there are many fine dining restaurants whose lists boast a diverse range of English sparklers. During a masterclass at Vinexpo this year, Gerard Basset declared that, “English wine is like New Zealand in the late 1980s. It’s very exciting”; a stark reminder of how much the English wine market has achieved in a very short time and the potential it has to pose even more of a challenge to Champagne in the future.
If English Sparkling is to take on such competition as the grand and ubiquitous Champagne houses, it will have to do so on a platform of quality, which has thus far been the case. The very basis of English fizz, and what has made it so exciting, is a commitment to only producing wines of the very highest quality, arguably something that has been recently lacking for some of the bigger Champagne houses. With low yields and cool temperatures, the quality is assured and the stunning freshness of the wine can be showcased to its very best. It’s fantastic to see more and more British restaurants celebrating English Sparkling Wines, many even encouraging people away from the traditional Champenois favourites by listing Britpop as their house pour. Of course Champagne remains the standard-bearer for high quality fizz, and wines from that region to occupy a very special place in many people’s hearts, some having remained loyal to their favourite brand to mark a lifetime of occastions. Yet the inner patriot does rejoice a little to see English Sparkling reach new heights, and hopes that, one day, it will truly be as mighty as its French brother.
Written by Jennifer Heyes
Photo credit: Aurore Kervoern