English wine: Is sparkling wine better in England than France?
The Duchess of Cornwall has called for a new name for English sparkling wine to match the grandeur of champagne. And for the first time, domestic wine is the most popular in the government’s cellar. Have Britons developed a taste for a home-grown tipple?
Someone arrives with a bottle of English wine. Cue excitable voices saying, “Gosh, English wine is really quite good, you know – it gives champagne a run for its money.”
The surprise used to be palpable.
But English wine has grown up. Today it regularly wins awards – there were four gold medals at the International Wine Challenge (IWC) this year.
It’s a far cry from English actor Peter Ustinov’s put down: “I imagine hell like this – Italian punctuality, German humour and English wine.”
But is there something holding English wine back? It accounts for just 0.25% of total wine sales in the UK, according to industry body English Wine Producers.
This week the Duchess of Cornwall called on producers to come up with a name.
“People should put their heads together and think of a new name for English sparkling wine,” she said while visiting Hambledon Vineyard in Hampshire. “It should be something with much more depth. I plan to find a new word for it.”
So is new terminology the final piece in the jigsaw?
English wine has been through a revolution. Old grape varieties are out, new owners are in. The area of vines planted in England and Wales has doubled from 761 hectares in 2004 to about 1,500 hectares today. The country now has 434 vineyards.
Figures just released by the Foreign Office on the government’s wine cellar, show that for the first time more English wine was drunk at government hospitality events than wine from any other nation.
Andrew Neather, Evening Standard wine critic, says the new winemakers tend to be go-ahead types from the City or wealthy lawyers, who want to carve out another career.
They are focusing on sparkling wine, planting more of the traditional champagne grapes – chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. In 2010, for the first time more than half of the vintage went into sparkling wine.
Three of this year’s four IWC gold medal winners were sparkling wines. In June, Majestic announced that sales of English sparkling wine trebled in 2012, encouraged by the Jubilee and Olympics.
There is logic to England focusing on fizz. Kent and West Sussex, where the best English sparkling wine originates, are only about 90 miles north of Champagne. The chalky soils around the North and South Downs are very similar to the earth where famous names such as Bollinger and Dom Perignon plant their grapes.
The best English sparking wine is as good as “decent” champagne, Neather says. England’s top seller – Nyetimber – has more to offer than a mass market champagne like Moet Imperial, he argues.
“It’s more interesting, has more complexity and better acidity.” The Moet costs more at £32.99 – although it is sometimes discounted – while Nyetimber is £29.99.
The Financial Times wine critic, Jancis Robinson agrees, albeit with a couple of caveats.
“Most English fizz is now very well made and attractively dry and zesty. But very little has any real complexity since producers generally cannot afford to age it very long.” And cost is a problem. “It’s never a bargain,” Robinson says.
“It is generally made by people who have invested a great deal in new vineyards or winemaking and need to see a return.”
The competition can be significantly cheaper whether prosecco, cava or own-brand champagne. Aldi, for example, sells champagne for just £12.99.
Despite the cost premium, patriotism and the fashion for local provenance suggests that current levels of production are outstripped by demand.
“The industry sells everything it produces,” says Julia Trustram Eve, spokeswoman for English Wine Producers. “Demand is exceeding supply.”
If the English are planning to supplant the Champagne name, they’re going to have to come up with something more dramatic than Nyetimber or Dorking.
Just imagine that rolling off your tongue, “Here, have a Dorking!” or “I’ve brought the Dorks, darling!” when you compare it with the much more regal sounding, “Here have a Champagne!” or “I’ve brought the Champers, darling!”
I put it to you, is there an English county name that equals the magic of Champagne? I think not. Pity, because without that magic ring, Champagne will always be king.