February 12, 2019 |
Springtime elsewhere in Europe has the sun providing for mild temperatures and people are generally getting in the mood for outdoor dinners and longer days. In Sussex in the south of England, however, spring days are chilly and rainy with an icy wind blowing. Typical British weather you might say. And yet, meteorologists have been observing a significant increase in the average annual temperature since the 1990’s due to global warming. What causes concern amongst environmental experts, holds advantages for some Britons – especially for the growing community of winemakers on the island.
Winegrowing in England has so far been a lottery game as it is an eternal fight against the inhospitable weather. Nowadays however, the summers are much sunnier and warmer – which makes the grapes happy. Until about 20 years ago, only a handful of hyperactive retirees dared to cultivate a few rows of vines with mediocre German varieties despite the most adverse conditions. English wine was considered a curiosity that did not even inspire the most enthusiastic patriots.
It was not until the mid-1990’s that highly motivated career changers began to produce sparkling wine on a bigger scale. Instead of Müller-Thurgau or Reichensteiner, they now planted Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier, all the grape varieties from which champagne is made.
The grapes where not chosen without reason, as the counties of Sussex, Kent and Hampshire, where most sparkling wines are produced, have some of the same geological structures as the Champagne region. The coveted chalk soils, which are considered the ultimate prerequisite for the noble sparkling wine, run under the English Channel from France to England.
Today the region attracts many investors, and the vineyards have doubled size over the past ten years. Apple orchards are now constantly being cleared and replaced with vines and wealthy entrepreneurs buy up whole tracts of land.
Even if the land prices in the south of England compared to Champagne are considerably lower, it takes a lot of chutzpa to start a wine business there. It can take years until the newly planted vines are ready for harvest and before the first bottles are sold. Since many investors are complete laymen when it comes to wine making, they engage renowned oenologists. After all, if you want to compare your wine with the products of the Champagne, nothing should be left to chance. So far, the ambitious plan seems to be working and a country whose wine had the worst possible image has now become one of the most exciting sparkling wine regions. A collateral benefit of climate change, so to speak.
If the temperatures continue to rise in the next few years, it could be a close call for the Champagne, since the grapes prefer a fresher environment. This is the only way to maintain the distinctive acidity that is indispensable for elegant sparkling wines.
Andrew Jefford of the renowned English wine magazine Decanter sees the sparkling wine scene of his homeland as the “most promising oenological development of this epoch”. Some british wine producers are already at the forefront of international tastings – including the most well-known English winery Nyetimber, in West Sussex. A Dutch entrepreneur bought the estate several years ago and enlarged it to a stately 170 hectares. With the help of an international team of oenologists, he already produced some excellent vintages and was able to win one award after another. His sparkling wines are complex and creamy following the classic style of the big champagne houses in France.
Some of the old French wineries already showed interest in this British development as for example the famous champagne house of Taittinger has recently acquired nearly 70 acres of land in the south of England, and Pommery wants to follow suit soon.
That alone is an accolade for England’s sparkling wines.
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