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Spurred on by a high-profile award, English sparkling winemakers are on a roll. But can Sussex really rival Champagne, or is England’s vineyard boom just a bubble? John Stimpfig reports.

December 13 2010
John Stimpfig

At the Decanter World Wine Awards in September, there was little doubt which gong got the biggest cheer. When the home-grown English Ridgeview Wine Estate Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2006 fended off Reims and Epernay’s finest to take the wine magazine’s most prestigious Sparkling Wine Trophy, there was uproar and pandemonium at the Royal Opera House bash.

In the final line-up, the plucky Ridgeview had been up against no fewer than five heavyweight, regional trophy winners from Champagne, including Taittinger, Thienot and Charles Heidsieck. “To put it in context, this award had never left Champagne,” says Sarah Kemp, Decanter’s publishing director. “Everyone was waiting for a routine French victory. Amazingly, it wasn’t to be.” Kemp regards the Ridgeview win as a historic moment. “It’s right up there with the 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting,” she says. On that occasion, a group of arriviste Californian wines beat the best of Bordeaux – and put the Golden State firmly on the fine wine map.

But the impact on the English sparkling wine sector could turn out to be even greater, partly because of the speed at which this story has spread around the world. First, it went viral on the blogosphere. Then came TV, radio and print. Since the award, Ridgeview owner Mike Roberts has lost count of the interviews he’s given, from CNN to TV crews from South Korea. Nor has it done sales any harm. The morning after the win, Berry Bros & Rudd was cleaned out of its entire stock within half an hour. However, corks haven’t been popping everywhere. Across the Channel, news of victory by les rosbifs was greeted with sullen silence.

That said, the French are not alone in their disbelief at the dizzying heights to which increasingly fine English fizz has so rapidly risen. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t find a decent bottle for love nor money. Back then, most English wine was still rather than bubbly. Worse, a lot of it was undrinkable. This was partly because it came from thin, unappetising grapes, such as Reichensteiner and Seyval Blanc. Nor did it help that much was made by amateurs. British wine critic and Master of Wine Michael Broadbent wincingly remembers judging “the dismal line-up of over-acidic whites from unfamiliar grapes, unsuccessful pinot noirs and palely loitering rosés”.

Then, in the late 1980s, a couple from Chicago, Stuart and Sandy Moss, bought Nyetimber Manor in West Sussex, a beautiful medieval property in the lea of the South Downs. The estate was mentioned in the Domesday Book and had once belonged to Anne of Cleves. However, what most interested the Mosses wasn’t its history, but the property’s microclimate and greensand soil. There, they began planting Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier vines with a view to making a world-class, lees-aged English sparkling wine.

In those days, it wasn’t just the French who were bemused by such eccentric behaviour; the English were too. “The Ministry of Agriculture recommended we planted apples not vines,” said Moss at the time. Nevertheless, he ploughed on, pouring a small fortune into his winemaking dream. Much to everyone’s amazement, Moss didn’t have to wait long to taste success. In 1998, his very first vintage release (the 1992) picked up Gold at the International Wine and Spirit Competition and won a Best English Wine trophy. The following year, the 1993 fared even better, winning the best international sparkling wine trophy ahead of a host of established New World brands.

But perhaps the biggest shot across the bows of the French came when an early Nyetimber vintage entered a blind tasting in Champagne. So confused were the French tasters that they were overheard arguing where exactly in the Côtes des Blancs the grapes had come from. When they discovered that this classic, toasty-biscuity fizz came from England, they were dumbfounded.

Having made a pile in the computer industry, Mike Roberts also began to plant Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier at Ridgeview, on the Sussex Downs, in the mid-1990s. “To me, it was obvious that sparkling was the way to go because what you get here in Sussex (and in Champagne) is fully ripe grapes with great flavour, but which aren’t high in alcohol, as this prevents fermentation, which creates fizz. Because we get cold nights even in summer, English grapes have super-acidity – the hallmark of a good sparkling wine. I could never understand why everyone ignored the fact that our climate and geology were so close to the world’s quintessential sparkling-wine region, a mere 88 miles away. Why would you want to make anything else in the South of England?” This is undeniably true; 60m years ago, the chalk seams of Champagne and the South Downs were part of the same geological structure. Jancis Robinson, the FT’s wine correspondent, has long held the view that the only place where you can accurately replicate the Champagne climate is southern England.

Ironically, just as Moss and Roberts were gearing up for growth, the UK’s deeply unpopular still-wine sector was drifting into decline. From 1994 to 2004, its vineyard area slumped by 30 per cent. Two things reversed the trend. First was the haul of trophies, plaudits and column inches that Nyetimber and Ridgeview were starting to amass. The second was global warming. “Without it, English sparkling wine would have been stillborn,” asserts writer Stephen Skelton, also a Master of Wine and the best-known English winemaking consultant. The catalyst was 2003, he says: “As soon as you get a hot summer, everyone thinks of growing grapes.” But the real turning point was climate change, which made it easier to ripen the holy trinity of Champagne grapes (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier) and thereby produce exceptional English fizz. Where Nyetimber and Ridgeview led, others started to follow.

Like many wealthy oenophiles, businessman Richard Balfour-Lynn always imagined he would make his own wine in France. Then, in 2001, 400 acres of land came up for auction around his home in the Weald of Kent, which he snapped up. “Surprisingly, it was my wife Leslie who suggested growing grapes and making pink sparkling wine,” he recalls. Then he called in Skelton, who gave the idea the thumbs-up. “I’ve always dealt in English brands and with Balfour Brut-Rosé I wanted to make a wine that would take on and rival Laurent-Perrier and Billecart-Salmon,” he says. Ten years on, his impressive boutique fizz from the Hush Heath Estate has clearly hit the spot with aficionados. Apart from getting into award-winning ways, and many top-class restaurants, it was also poured at last year’s G20 summit.

But Balfour-Lynn won’t rest on his laurels. This year’s vintage will be handled by a new winery with high-tech kit from Champagne, which he hopes will improve quality. He is rigorous: “I’m incredibly proud, passionate and perfectionist about it. I’ve spent a lot of time and money developing this. I want to get it exactly right.”

Significantly, Balfour-Lynn also represents a new type of investor/vintner who wants to put the sector on a more professional footing. Another is Christian Seely, who is MD of the Axa Millésimes, the vineyard-owning arm of Axa Insurance that includes Château Pichon-Longueville in Bordeaux and the historic port house Quinta do Noval. Like Balfour-Lynn, Seely never expected to make wine in England, especially after nearly two decades of making it abroad. But three years ago, with Nicholas Coates, an old friend from Insead business school, he established Coates & Seely, which has vineyards ideally situated on the south-facing chalk slopes of the North Hampshire Downs.

Sceptics have wondered whether the dapper Seely is putting his well-earned reputation on the line. But he is having none of it. Apart from being extremely excited about making wine in England for the first time, he is also thrilled by the quality of his début vintage, which has been made with the assistance of consultants from Champagne, as well as his wife, Corinne Chevalier, an eminent French winemaker. “There’s no reason why we can’t make a world-class sparkling wine. If I thought that we weren’t capable of that, I wouldn’t be here,” he says. “Besides, I’ve tasted the wines and know how good they are.”

These aren’t the only serious or well-known names making wine in England’s green and pleasant land. Even supermarket Waitrose has gone into the business. And four years ago, Dutch businessman Eric Heerema bought Nyetimber with a view to turning it into a global luxury brand. Then there’s the veteran wine critic Steven Spurrier and former F1 champion Jody Scheckter, who have staked respective claims in Dorset and Hampshire.

These are just a mouthwatering apéritif of what we can expect to taste in the next few years. According to Skelton, who has written the UK Vineyards Guide 2010 (£22.95; www.lulu.com), there are now over 400 more English wine producers, some of which are very small, and most of which make sparkling wine. “Mind you, not all of it is good; there are still some shockers out there,” he warns. Nevertheless, the pick of his bunch include complete newcomers Wiston Estate, Gusbourne Estate, Nutbourne, Pebblebed and Jenkyn Place, alongside more established names such as Nyetimber, Ridgeview, Hush Heath, Chapel Down, Camel Valley and Breaky Bottom.

But how do they benchmark against Champagne? That, of course, depends on whom you ask. “The best are half the price and twice as good,” replies Skelton bullishly. “If you put the 2001 Ridgeview Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs [release price £21.95, now available only in magnums at £63] against similar champagne costing £40-£100, many tasters would prefer the Ridgeview. So I wasn’t too surprised by the Decanter result. Similarly, the Nyetimber 2005 Classic Cuvée is an absolute steal at £27 – it’s less than you’d pay for many a non-vintage Grande Marque.”

Across the Channel, they tend to take a different view, but there is no doubt that the Champenois now regard le fizz anglais with greater respect. So much so that some houses, including Louis Roederer and Duval Leroy, have been investigating England’s Downlands, looking at buying land. To date, no Champagne house has taken the plunge. But many believe it is only a matter of time, not least since agricultural land prices in southern England are a snip compared to those in Champagne, where a hectare could cost up to and over €1m. In England, the average cost per acre is £5,000-£6,000 – unless you mention the “v” word. “If sellers know you’re looking to plant vines, it goes up to £20,000,” says Roberts.

The returns provide further inducement: wheat prices are £130 a ton; average grape prices £1,300. Perhaps most importantly, the end product is selling well. More fine wine merchants are shifting stock – sometimes at impressively high prices. The Balfour Brut-Rosé, for instance, retails at £37, while the impressive new Nyetimber Rosé will be up to £45 a pop. “The ‘buy local’ campaign has helped, especially in the affluent South-East,” says Gareth Groves at Bibendum. “But quality is key.”

So where’s the catch? Unfortunately, there are several for anyone thinking of jumping on the bandwagon. “Last year, I planted more vines than ever before,” says Skelton. “But a lot of the time, I try to put people off – usually because they don’t understand what’s involved, let alone what it costs. For some, it will undoubtedly end in tears.”

In particular, it can take several years before you sell a single bottle – during which time you could easily rack up planting and inventory costs of £75,000 per acre. In 2006, Eric Heerema paid a reported £8m for Nyetimber. But that was before he embarked on an ambitious programme of vineyard expansion or constructed a massive new winery to cope with a fourfold increase in production. As a result, Nyetimber will make a loss for some time yet. “I hope that in about five years’ time, we’ll move into profitable territory because this certainly isn’t a vanity project,” says Heerema. “But I’m also doing it because I love the product and because, ultimately, I believe England really does have the potential to be the leading sparkling-wine region in the world. However, you can’t just stroll in and expect success. It’s very, very capital intensive, extremely complicated and highly competitive. Nor do you get any government subsidies or support, unlike in France.”

Another problem is the fact that it’s getting harder to find the right vineyard sites. “You need to be down low for protection,” says Skelton. “It’s not just the soil. What is arguably more important is shelter, altitude and exposure to the sun.” When I asked why Roederer hasn’t bought in England, CEO Frédéric Rouzaud’s initial response was simple and precise: “Too windy.” Like many, he prefers Champagne’s warmer, more regular summers to England’s rather variable conditions.

None of this has deterred a mushrooming of vineyards from Cornwall to Kent. Over the past five years, the number of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines has increased fourfold. As for the future, England’s vignoble is expected to double in size to over 2,500 hectares over the next decade. Inevitably, more vines mean more wine. But will it be too much too soon for England’s fledgling sparkling-wine industry, causing the bubble to burst? Earlier this year, Jancis Robinson went on record with her concerns about an oversupply scenario. Nor did she think that the situation would be helped by “the current glut of champagne and the number of special deals on what many wine drinkers regard as real fizz”.

Balfour-Lynn is also unsure about how things may go: “Wearing my business hat, I worry about the amount of vines being planted because I’m not convinced that growers have thought through how they are going to sell the surplus. Right now, it is all terribly fashionable and romantic because grape prices are high and the wines are selling. But big volumes mean selling through supermarkets, which like to drive down prices, and this can erode quality. Getting this right will be one of the industry’s toughest challenges in the coming years.”

Others are more sanguine. “You do worry that in 2013, there will be a lot more wine to be sold,” says Roberts. “But if you add it all up, it would only come to around 5m bottles, which is only around five per cent of what the UK imports from Champagne and other sparkling-wine regions. “Of course, there’ll be a bit of indigestion. But in this business you don’t plant one year and sell the next. That means we’ve got plenty of time to organise ourselves properly. As for Ridgeview, all our wines are now on allocation. Even so, we’re looking at opportunities in new international markets. That’s where the Decanter trophy has given us a boost. Since September, the response from abroad has been incredible. So I’m feeling very optimistic for the future.”

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