For several years, the south of England has started to fill with Champagne vines. Faced with global warming, French wine-growers are choosing to diversify their production sites.
PETERSFIELD — Earlier this fall, yellow leaves dotted the green pastures beneath a grey sky with the occasional blue hole that let sunlight filter through. At the corner of a small path in the rolling hills, an old red brick pub, "The Bat and the Ball," stood with a sign for its "famous' fish and chips.
We're just outside the town of Petersfield, in Hampshire County, a scenic stretch of southern England. But just a few kilometers away, as the landscape winds around — surprise! — we find ourselves between two rows of vines. Bordered by trees on either side, the path turns towards another brick building that overlooks the Hambledon estate vineyard where fieldworkers are already busy in the fields. Behind it, the winery house's presses, vats and bottles. October harvest is approaching.
Stocky and grey-haired, Didier Pierson, 50, has a firm handshake and a warm demeanor. A French winemaker from the Champagne region, he owns six hectares of vines in Villers-aux-Bois, where he produces 80,000 bottles of Champagne per year under his label, Pierson Whitaker. Now, he also has the distinction of being the first "Frenchie" to cross the English Channel and set up shop in this stretch of the United Kingdom.
In 2005, he bought five hectares of land on the southern slope of one of the main hills in the Meon Valley, not far from the Hambledon estate, to plant his new vineyard. His business partner in this venture is Ian Kellett, a British agro-industrialist who took over Hambledon in 1999. Created in 1952, with an original size of 25 hectares, the estate fell into disuse but has since come back to life. Acting on Pierson's advice, Kellett uprooted the old German vines and replaced them with grapes for Chardonnay and Pinot noir.
"Before making my decision, I spent a year studying the climate and soil in South Downs," recalled the winemaker. "I wanted a chalky soil as similar as possible to that of the famous Côte des Blancs, in Champagne."
Now, the hill bordering the Meon Valley is covered with two types of Champenois vines to make sparkling wine, according to the regional methods. "Don't say ‘Champagne,"" said Pierson. Here, the winemakers call it "sparkling wine" and nothing else. The Interprofessional Committee of Champagne Wines makes sure of that.
Since 2011, Pierson has produced 5,000 bottles per year under his new label Meonhill. But this past year, he zoomed up to 30,000 bottles. His association also claims 120,000 bottles per year for his different Hambledon vintages.
This resurgence of southern English winemaking has sparked more and more curiosity and interest among French Champagne producers. This past year, the Taittinger Champagne house arrived, purchasing 60 hectares of land near Chilham, a village in Kent county, 15 kilometers from Canterbury. "It used to be planted with apple trees," notes Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, who runs the storied Champagne brand. "We have already planted over 20 hectares of vines. We're aiming for 40. The rest will be used mainly for reception areas for our clients and the winery."
A colorful personality, Taittinger has vowed his investments will increase to up to 10 million euros ($11.85 million) over the next decade. "The English have a profound sense of harmony," said the French Champagne maker. "What's more, in 1962, while my father Jean was deputy mayor of Reims, that city twinned with Canterbury."
The vineyard plots are divided between Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Kent County has chalky soil, like that in Champagne, which dates from the Cretaceous period, when England was still attached to the European continent. The first grape harvests will happen in 2019, but the wines won't be available for sale until 2023 or 2024. "I hope to produce 250,000 bottles of sparkling wine per year. Later on, we may consider producing non-sparkling wines, either red or white," Taittinger says. The aim is for vintages to be top quality, and to be baptized Evremond, a nod to the 17th-century French moralist and libertine critic Charles de Saint-Evremond.
The vines are moving north
The Vranken-Pommery house also moved to Hampshire in 2015. It entered the capital of England's Hattingley Valley estate, where it will grow some 10 hectares of Champenois vine species. Other big Champagne houses could follow. On the other side of the Channel, the new wine-growing environment has attracted discreet Champagne spies.
There are many factors to explain the English wine renaissance, but chief among them is climate change. "In the Middle Ages, an episode of global warming helped develop wine culture around monasteries in the south of England," explained Jean-Marc Touzard, a researcher at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (Inra) and director of research on wine and climate change.
Today, the same causes are producing the same effects. "The vines are moving back up north. New regions will be able to participate in wine culture, whether that's in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland or Russia," predicts Touzard.
Didier Pierson notes that over the next 30 years, the temperature in the south of the United Kingdom will have increased by 1.6 degrees Celsius.
Simultaneously, the French climate is going awry. Winters are milder, and so the vines are maturing earlier. The late winter freezes, while there is growing risk of rain and hail that can endanger the vines. "This year, we lost about 30% of our harvest due to having to sort out rotten grapes during the harvest," said Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger.
Touzard notes that southern England's chalky soil offers an interesting alternative. "The big Champagne houses have a vested interest in diversifying their production sites for the largest market of sparkling wines," he explains.
Another factor in UK wine expansion is the British royal family, which is very attached to the development of national vineyards. The Duchess of Cornwall Camilla Parker Bowles, the second wife of Prince Charles, was at the Hambledon estate opening party in 2013, notes Didier Pierson. The English have always adored sparkling wine, and that love can only flourish if they produce it themselves.
Another factor is financial: property value is largely in South Downs' favor, with the price of a planted hectare ranging from 100,000 to 150,000 euros. "We have complete freedom in our choices here," explains Pierson. "We can plant what we want. There are no time constraints imposed on our harvest. Compared to Champagne, where the harvest takes place over two weeks and the dates are fixed by decree." British liberalism has some benefits.
As a result, the development of English vineyards is accelerating across all varieties. English Wine Producers, one of two associations of UK winemakers, predicts a record planting in for this year, with one million feet of vines getting added to the existing stock. In terms of surface area, that's the equivalent of London's Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park combined. Since 2000, English vineyards have more than doubled in area, reaching a bit more than 2,000 hectares today. The association anticipates growth of about 50% between now and 2020. Statistics from the United Kingdom Vineyards Association reveal that production has grown from a little more than one million bottles in 2012 to more than 5 million in 2015. But the UK bubbly is just a small percentage of that. English wine producers are also faced with tough competition from other sparkling wines, such as Italian Prosecco.
Is Champagne at risk of disappearing from British tables? Not at all. The British are the second-largest consumers of the drink in the world. But British vineyards are still limited in comparison to the 35,000 hectares of Champenois vineyards.
In 2013, an American study predicted the disappearance of nearly 66% of French vineyards due to global warming. "But it didn't consider the proactivity of French winemakers and their capacity for innovation and adaptation," declares said Jean-Marc Touzard. "Tomorrow is not the end for vineyards in Burgundy, Bordelais or Champagne. As for England, it will take at least 30 more years to create and establish a real vineyard label."
For now, top-quality English sparkling wine is still reserved for a happy few. But in the years to come, and with the help of the experts from Champagne, it may be toasted around the world.