French Champagne In English Vineyards, A Sparkling Twist To Climate Change
Climate change has prompted some French champagne houses to take up planting in the southern English countryside.
HAMPSHIRE — It's a bottle similar in every way to a Pommery champagne — well, in almost every way. On the shelves of Sainsbury's, Louis Pommery England is not stamped as a champagne but as an "English quality sparkling wine," the new generation of white sparkling wines that are proliferating on the country's southern hillsides.
"This year, for the first time in six seasons, we didn't suffer from frost in England. In terms of quantity, the harvest will be good," says Clément Pierlot, cellar master at Pommery.
As for quality, this will depend on the amount of sunshine during the final weeks of ripening. While in France, it's August that's decisive, English winegrowers count on September's weather. "There's a three-week to one-month gap between the harvest in France and in England," Pierlot explains. "It's sometimes a challenge when you have to harvest in a cold, wet climate."
Clément Pierlot describes his experience in English vineyards as a "pioneering adventure."
It's been eight years now since Pommery began to take an interest in the Hampshire hillsides, first buying grapes locally, then acquiring land, then teaming up with a partner, Hattingley Valley, for production, and finally planting their own vines.
Winegrowing in England is no longer just a hobby for wealthy landowners but a playground for investors.
Each year, the Champagne house plants a few hectares of vines on land that was once covered in barley. Today, 40 hectares (1 hectare = 2.4 acres) are under cultivation. Clément Pierlot believes that this is the “critical size".
Harvest season in 2022
No longer a hobby
Pommery isn't the only winery to have tried its hand across the Channel. In 2015, Taittinger made a high-profile investment to acquire 70 hectares in Kent, teaming up with local distributor Hatch Mansfield.
Spain's Freixenet Wines acquired Bolney Wine Estate in Sussex in 2022.
These developments made it clear that winegrowing in England is no longer just a hobby for wealthy landowners but a playground for investors. According to property specialists Strutt & Parker, nearly £480 million ($579 million) has been invested in English wine since 2018. Land prices have risen in tandem, to around £16,000 to £20,000 ($19,000 to $24,000) per hectare.
Curse and blessing of climate change
Thanks to climate change, milder temperatures have made production possible in England. Today's temperatures in southern England are said to be close to those in Champagne fifty years ago. The subsoils, rich in chalk, are similar in both regions.
"In recent years, we've benefited from favorable conditions that have enabled exceptional ripening," says Pierlot. This has enabled us to make a wine without chaptalization, i.e., without adding sugar to the must.
But global warming also means unstable weather. And English vineyards regularly have to contend with spring frosts. This results in losses ranging from 30% to 80% of the harvest.
"The most effective way to protect against frost is to spray with water, but English vineyards don't yet have the infrastructure for this technique," he adds.
A Louis Pommery England stand in central London
Not rivalling Champagne
Pommery's production in England reached 70,000 bottles this year, mainly sold in the local market. Eventually, production should exceed 200,000 bottles.
There is no question, however, of competing with champagne. Priced at 26 pounds, Pommery England is positioned far below the French house's 43-pound brut champagne. "We're not here to copy Champagne, our aim is to make a great English sparkling wine," Pierlot insists.
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