English Sparklers from the Southern Downs - Wine & Spirits Magazine

English Sparklers from the Southern Downs

illustration by Michael Hirshon

There’s a lot of buzz in the UK at the moment concerning English sparkling wine. It wasn’t all that long ago that the English wine scene was considered with mirth: a homespun cottage industry making tart, crisp white table wines that smelled of summer meadows and elderflower cordial. The problem? It was just a bit too cool for classic vinifera varieties to ripen reliably, and so most vineyards were planted with the likes of seyval blanc, reichensteiner, huxelrebe and madeleine angevine. An interesting curio, but nothing of note. Fast forward a couple of decades and we now have a dynamic, exciting wine industry built on sparkling wines made from the classic Champagne varieties, with just over 4,448 acres of vines in the ground, many of which are yet to come on line. Last year, English sparkling wines won five gold medals at the prestigious International Wine Challenge. This was considered quite an achievement, until they won 14 this year.

“In ten years there will be ten million bottles of English sparkling wine going into cellars each year.” —Ian Kellett
One of the leading lights in this emerging scene is Hambledon Vineyards, which back in 1952 was the first vineyard of the modern era of English wine when it was planted by Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones, who’d been a subaltern in the trenches in World War I. The sloping field with chalky soils in front of his property, Mill Down House, seemed a promising vineyard site, so he planted it and, in 1955, he launched the UK’s first commercial wine. In the mid-1990s winemaking stopped at Hambledon, and, in 1999, the property was purchased by Ian Kellett, who’d made some money doing equity research on food and drink businesses in London. Kellett believed in the potential of the site with its favorable climate and chalky soils, and sunk millions into renovating and replanting vineyards, and building a state-of-the-art gravity-flow cellar. He’s aided by Hervé Jestin, who was for 20 years the cellarmaster of Champagne Duval Leroy and who has made more than 250 million bottles of Champagne in his career.

Kellett is serious about making top-quality sparkling wine, and has Champagne in his sights as direct competition. He cites Champagne Pol Roger, with its 1.2-million-bottle production, as the model. “The plan is during my lifetime to build an international brand as big as Pol Roger,” says Kellett. He points out that the UK is the most important market for Champagne in the world (annual sales in excess of 30 million bottles), and that a large part of the growth of UK producers will come “out of Champagne’s hide.”

Facts: The total number of wineries in the UK stands at 135, with 470 vineyards.

There are now 4,653 acres under vine, which represents a 140 percent increase over the last decade, although the area actually now in production is 3,882 acres. Total production in 2013 was 4.5 million bottles.

“In ten years there will be ten million bottles of English sparkling wine going into cellars each year,” says Kellett. Within 15 years, he thinks that there will be three or four producers each with an annual production of a million bottles each year. “We will have at least three producers making one million bottles a year all from their own vineyards,” says Kellett. “No one does this in Champagne.” He says that the capital structure in Champagne, where vineyards are owned by growers and the vast majority of Champagne is made by houses that buy grapes, is a serious weakness for quality. “It exposes a soft underbelly that can be exploited.” Kellett emphasizes the economics. To establish a million-bottle Champagne estate that grows all its own fruit would cost around 130 million euros at today’s vineyard prices. In the UK, it would cost between 15 and 20 million pounds.

“Chardonnay should be England’s metier,” says Kellet, pointing out that the cooler sites in Champagne aren’t far away in climatic terms from England’s warmer sites. “We’re looking to take a quarter of Champagne’s market share in the next ten years,” he says bullishly. He’s surprised that the Champenois aren’t more interested in what’s going on across the channel. “This is Champagne’s most important export market in the world and someone is trying to nick a quarter off them. You think they’d be over here asking.”

This story was featured in W&S Fall 2015.
illustration by Michael Hirshon

Based in London, Jamie Goode is a lapsed scientist who now devotes his time to writing about wine, mainly in the UK national newspaper the Sunday Express, and on his own site, wineanorak.com. The author of The Science of Wine (UC Press 2014) and I Taste Red (2016).

This story appears in the print issue of fal 2015.
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