Thanks to Milder Summers, England Takes Some Air Out of France's Famous Tipple
By GAUTAM NAIK
DITCHLING, England—The English invented sparkling wine in the 17th century, but failed to profit from it because their cold, dank summers yielded crummy grapes. Three decades later, a French monk named Dom Pérignon adapted the idea and devised a winning tipple, Champagne.
The Brits are starting to claw back some ground. In January, a little-known bubbly from the U.K's Nyetimber Estate was crowned "world's best sparkling wine" at a prestigious taste-off in Italy, defeating a dozen Champagnes, including Roederer, Bollinger and Pommery. Last year, when Britain hosted the G-20 meeting, another effervescent Nyetimber was served to President Barack Obama, Germany's Angela Merkel and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.
English bubbly is on the rise partly due to better winemaking techniques. But some vintners say they're being helped by another, unexpected factor: a warming climate.
Official data indicate that the past 10 years were the warmest on record globally. In England, this led to plumper and riper grapes most seasons, especially for sparkling wines. The number of vineyards in the U.K. jumped to 416 in 2008 from 363 in 2000, according the trade group English Wine Producers.
"Just 20 years ago, it was really difficult to make good wine in cooler climate areas," says Gregory Jones, who studies the effect of climate change on the global wine industry at Southern Oregon University. "Now it's not such a challenge."
With the help of warmer summers, "some of the risk of making sparkling wine here is gone," says Mike Roberts, founder and chief winemaker of the Ridgeview estate here, 45 miles south of London. "We have everything going for us to out-Champagne Champagne."
Last year, the fifth-hottest on record, Ridgeview's grapes ripened two weeks earlier than usual, allowing for the harvest to be brought in before the onset of wet October weather. Mr. Roberts and other English winemakers say 2009 was one of the best growing seasons they've seen.
Most connoisseurs insist that no sparkling wine can match the range, finesse and flavor of Champagne, made only in the Champagne region of northeastern France. Yet English fizz is bursting a bit of France's bubble.
Mr. Roberts' wines have won dozens of prizes, including a gold and silver medal at Effervescents du Monde, an international competition held in France. Another Ridgeview sparkler, blanc de blanc, was served at a 2004 bash to mark Queen Elizabeth's 80th birthday.
Many English still wines, including white and rosé varieties, have been considered thin and acidic. As the climate has warmed, they've benefited as well, becoming less acidic and more fruity. English reds still struggle, partly because those grapes need a much hotter climate to ripen well.
Sparkling wines have improved most, because England's warmer, drier summers now yield juicier grapes with more flavors—while still remaining cool enough to create the racy acidity so vital to a fizzy wine.
The Romans introduced winemaking to England after invading in 43 A.D. In the mid-1600s, English scientist Christopher Merret discovered that adding sugar to finished wine led to a second fermentation and yielded a fizzy wine. Later, Dom Pérignon came up with the idea of making sparkling wine with bubbles by blending grapes from different vineyards—a key development that gave French makers the sparkling advantage.
France's annual output of Champagne, some 320 million bottles, is much larger than the 1.4 million bottles of fizz England makes each year. Still, representatives of big Champagne houses such as Louis Roederer (maker of Cristal), Pol Roger and Duval-LeRoy have toured England, scoping out vineyard sites—and their smaller new rivals.
Roger Begault, export director of Champagne house Duval-LeRoy, founded in 1859, acknowledges that several English sparkling wines are "pleasant and well made." A few years ago, a Duval-LeRoy envoy surveyed southern England to consider starting up vineyards there. Still, he insists, "Champagne only comes from Champagne!"
Rising temperatures have helped France's Champagne makers, too. But if the trend continues, lower-end bubbly could be challenged, at least on price. English bottles today can cost anywhere from $27 to $37, roughly the same as non-vintage Champagne, and far less than the special vintages bottled in outstanding years.
The U.K. is the biggest importer of Champagne in the world, and today demand for domestic fizz is picking up. Of the 3.1 million bottles of U.K. wine produced in 2009, about 45% were of the sparkling variety, according to an estimate by English Wine Producers. In 2005, only 20% of domestic bottles produced were bubbly.
Waitrose, the grocery store chain that commands a 61% market share for English wines, has its own vineyard. A separate vine-growing project has sprung up just 12 miles from London. One local grower is planning a tiny vineyard in the heart of the city, outside Kings Cross Station.
Plumping up the market hasn't been easy. In the early 1990s, when Mr. Roberts of Ridgeview approached a bank for a loan to start his winery, he was rejected. "The bank manager said, 'You must be mad,"' recalls Mr. Roberts.
Using his own funds plus a loan, Mr. Roberts planted the first vines in 1994 and enlisted three consultants—including two from Champagne. He decided to make sparkling wine because southern England has a chalky soil similar to Champagne, and is only 88 miles to the north.
All of Ridgeview's products are named Merret, a nod to the 17th-century scientist. Since 1996, when the vineyard produced 20,000 bottles, production has grown nearly tenfold.
In an upstairs tasting room overlooking acres of now-bare vines, Mr. Roberts recently poured a 2006 sparkler. It was rich, with honey and caramel notes. "It was a good hot year," said Mr. Roberts.
Write to Gautam Naik at firstname.lastname@example.org