When you think of champagne, you probably think first of the French. Afterall, Champagne is a unique location that owns the name; everything else is sparkling wine. And, you probably remember reading that it was a French monk who accidentally invented champagne to the delight of the Brits. Right? Wrong!
The French may have a firm grip on Champagne, but they don’t have a grip on the history of how champagne is made and slowly they are losing some of their grip on the best made sparkling wine. Don’t look now, but the British are coming.
First, a little history. It was an English scientist – not a Benedictine monk named Dom Perignon — who invented the secondary fermentation so unique to sparkling wine. Second, it was the English – confounded by exploding bottles of their favorite wine – who invented a stronger bottle that kept the industry alive. Despite all of these milestones, one thing that has eluded the Brits is its ability to make sparkling wine. That is, until now.
Global warming is shifting the ideal climate for sparkling wine about 200 miles north. Southern England has sprouted many new wineries focused primarily on making sparkling wine. In fact, about 70 percent of the wine made in England is sparkling wine – a dramatic development that couldn’t have happened without improved temperatures.
Arnault Brachet, who’s firm ABCK markets Chapel Down in the United States, said “the south of England now has similar average temperature and sun exposure as Champagne about 40-50 years ago.”
The United States is now Chapel Down’s top export market even though it launched only four years ago. Other English sparkling winemakers – Hattingley Valley, Nyetimber and Gusborne – also are reporting brisk sales here. The awards these wines are getting in international competition are proving that British sparkling wine can compete with champagne.
In fact, we recently put a Nyetimber blanc de blanc in a tasting of French champagne and sparkling wine from other countries. By far, the British sparkling wine was the favorite – and most participants declared it to be champagne. We also have enjoyed Nytetimber’s multi-vintage Classic Cuvee and its multi-vintage rosé, both similar in style and equal to champagne.
It’s not just the weather that is drawing comparisons to champagne. English winemakers are using the same three grape varieties – chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier – for its sparklers. They are using the same traditional winemaking — known as methode champenoise – and have the same limestone soil.
Nyetimber, in particular, can be found in many top restaurants. Founded by Stuart and Sandy Moss of Chicago in 1988, it was the first to plant the three champagne grapes. Eric Heerema, who bought it in 2006, recruited new talent from Canada. Winemaker Cherie Spriggs and her husband Bard Greatrix actually asked for the job when in search of a new challenge they saw the potential in English sparkling wine.
Spriggs was the first female and the first person outside of Champagne to be chosen as Sparkling Winemaker of the Year at the 2018 International Wine Challenge. Nyetimber has won gold medals in international competitions for every vintage since 2006.
Brachet finds English wine to be “drier, fresher, fruiter,” a comparison we heard from others on both sides of the English Channel.
While the Brits are reveling in global warming, champagne producers are growing concerned. As temperatures slowly rise in northern France, most producers are no longer dosaging their wines to tame acidity levels common to under-ripened grapes. For the same reason, they are using less malolatic fermentation – a process to convert harsh malo acids to softer lactic acids. These changes are historic in a region rooted in tradition.
Simon Robinson, owner of Hattingley Valley winery of Hampshire and chairman of WineGB, said the success of English sparkling wine is denting champagne’s foothold in Great Britain. Like they’ve done in other regions, French champagne houses – Pommery and Taittinger — have launched operations in South England.
Robinson said that move is vindication for England’s sparkling wine industry, which was once a joke.
Alas, English sparkling does not have an edge on prices. Nyetimber ranges from $60 for its Classic Cuvee to $250 for its rare Prestige Rose Cuvee. Chapel Down and Gusborne sell for $50 to $80 a bottle.
These prices will discourage many consumers who may prefer to choose a known quantity over one not so well known. However, they will be shocked by the quality of English sparkling wine if they want an adventure.
Get your champagne now
If you plan to host a party this holiday season or have something to celebrate, you should buy your favorite champagne now.
Champagne officials are predicting a worldwide shortage of French bubbles toward the end of the year. Part of the reason is that demand for champagne, particularly in the United Kingdom, has bounced back with gusto. Tariffs placed on champagne by former President Trump depressed sales in the United States, which meant more of the product being sold in the UK. But U.S. sales picked up in the spring as consumers were re-emerging from the pandemic. Now, the U.S. in back to stocking up at a time when producers were reducing production in anticipation of a long-term slow down. Yields in 2020 were intentionally lowered by the Committee Champagne.
The shortage will benefit prosecco producers and even sparkling wine producers from the West Coast, who face no product shortage.
We suspect that consumers are tired of the pandemic, no matter what its risk, and will find reasons to celebrate this Christmas season. Those with the ability to pay higher prices will indulge in prestigious champagne no matter what the cost. — if they can find it.
Daou Paso Robles Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($60). If you like your cabernet sauvignons with a good dose of chocolate, this one is for you. Ripe blackberry and cassis flavors with silky tannins, a dash of spice and a bit of garrigue.
Gotas de Mar Albarino 2020 ($21). Bright citrus and pineapple notes with balanced acidy and round finish.
Sosie Spring Hill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($45). This Sonoma Coast pinot noir comes from three clones of grapes grown in difficult soil on the western side of Petaluna. The aromatics are intense with red fruit notes and a dash of spice. Flavors include plums and earth.