With the French pouring money into the English wine industry, Christine Austin foresees a sparkling future

 

I was really glad of my several layers of rainproof clothing as I watched vines go into the ground just two weeks ago. In cold blustery weather, with the rain beating down, a team of 5 French pépinièristes – plant nursery workers – gradually worked their way up and down a chalky hillside, planting vines, one by one, guided by a very precise GPS. This was the Simpson Wine Estate, in Barham, near Canterbury in Kent where 10 hectares (around 25 acres) of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier were being planted. This adds to the 10 hectares planted in 2014 and another 10 hectares in 2016. Soon they will produce enough grapes for 250,000 bottles of English sparkling wine each year.

A team of French nursery workers plant vines at Simpson Wine Estate

The winery is already built and stocked with a gleaming array of stainless steel tanks. An automatic riddling machine, to clear the bottled wine of its yeasty lees will soon arrive. ‘We really don’t need it yet, but we received a subsidy from the EU to buy it so it has to be installed this year’, said Charles Simpson. Behind an insulating curtain, to help maintain a steady temperature there is a stack of bottles containing wine from the 2016 harvest, already going though its bottle-fermentation process. The surprising detail is that most of this wine has been pre-sold through a crown-funding exercise by Naked Wines. Apart from a severe frost which destroyed early growth on the vines planted in 2016, the project to establish Simpson Wine Estate as a major producer of English Sparkling Wine is continuing apace.

On the same day, 13 miles down the road, in Chilham on the other side of Canterbury, there was a crowd of people ready to plant. Around 150 people from the wine trade, journalists and several neighbours from the picturesque village of Chilham were gathered at the invitation of Champagne house Taittinger to plant vines at Domaine Evremond.

Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger and Patrick McGrath plant the first vine at Domaine Evremond

This is a major investment by the French into English wine and they too are planning on making sparkling wine. Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, president of Taittinger, led the way onto a 20 hectare hillside which until 2 years ago was covered with fruit trees to plant the first vine, then each one of the guests was handed a trowel and a vine and we all planted our own contribution to this huge new venture.

Christine Austin, The Yorkshire Post wine writer, plants her own vine at Domaine Evremond

Why England for this multi-million pound investment? ‘We feel that this part of England, with its chalk-based soil, good drainage and increasingly good climate has all the right elements to make excellent wine,’ said Pierre-Emmanuel. Eventually Taittinger will plant 40 hectares of vines at Chilham and there are already plans to build a winery and visitor centre. The vines should yield around 300,00 bottles of quality English sparkling wine and with Hatch Mansfield, the UK importers of Taittinger champagne as joint investors in this project, the wine should have a ready route to market. The venture is named after Charles de Saint-Evremond, a 17th century French poet who moved to England and increased the popularity of champagne during the court of Charles II.

These two major investments represent just some of the progress being made in the English wine industry. Overall 1 million vines will be planted this year, bringing the total area of land under vine to 2330 hectares. In a country which started out 40 years ago planting German varieties such as Müller-Thurgau and Reichensteiner for still wines, the emphasis is now very much on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier for sparkling wine. These 3 varieties now make up almost 60% of all plantings.

Although the main plantings are in the south of England, many of them concentrated in a swathe across the South Downs, where the soil is a continuation of the same band of chalk from the champagne region of France, there are several vineyards in Yorkshire.

Laurel Vines is a new venture by Ian and Ann Sargent and their family in Aike near Driffield where they now have 8500 vines planted and in production. ‘We stated planting in 2010 with varieties such as Rondo, Ortega and Solaris but this year the emphasis will be on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier,’ said Ian.   ‘Other Yorkshire wine growers such as Stuart Smith at Ryedale Vineyards and Chris and Gillian Spakouskas at Yorkshire Heart Vineyards have been a great help during this setting-up period’. This week Laurel Vines received planning permission which will allow them to move winemaking from a converted stable into a new purpose-built winery.

Investment has also been going into Yorkshire Heart Vineyard in Nun Monkton with the opening of a new visitor centre.

All this investment is not just good for farmers and drinkers, it is also good for exports. Currently around 5% of all English wine is exported but within a few years this is expected to grow to 25% of production, about 2.5 million bottles per year. English sparkling wine has really made its mark in quality terms, capturing a quintessential style of light, crisp, delicate, ‘English-garden’ aromas and fresh, lively flavours.

I tasted through dozens of English sparkling wines recently. Here are my top picks.

Lyme Bay Classic Cuvée 2013, Devon/Dorset, Marks and Spencer £20

Made from 81% Pinot Noir and 19% Chardonnay from vineyards in East Devon and Dorset, this wine has citrus and stone fruit aromas with a rounded, baked apple flavour and long clean finish.

Ridgeview Bloomsbury Brut, Sussex NV, Waitrose £26.99, down to £19.99 until 6 June

Chardonnay-dominant, the vines for this wine are already 20 years old and are producing elegant, smooth flavours.   Crunchy red apple and clear citrus fruit.

Gusbourne Estate Brut Reserve 2013, Kent, Field and Fawcett £32.95

Yeasty brioche notes on the nose lead into ripe stone fruit on the palate and a soft, rounded finish.

Jenkyn Place Rosé 2009, Hampshire, Martinez Wines, £36.99

Pale copper-tinged pink with raspberry and wild strawberry fruit. Creamy texture with a light toasty finish.

Exton Park Pinot Meunier Rosé, Hampshire, The Fizz Company (0800 313 4470, Wetherby) £40

A gold medal winning wine, made from pale coral in colour, with delicate floral notes, red summer berry fruits and a hint of ginger spice.

England’s green and pleasant land is gradually being planted to vines

 

 

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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