Come Quickly, I am Tasting the Stars
The Entente Cordiale remains strong as English sparkling wine receives the recognition it deserves
Champagne has long been used to commemorate special occasions. From weddings, to christening ships and being handed out to podium winners, the sparkling bubbles from the Champagne region in France have become synonymous with celebration and success. No surprise then that those in charge of the hallowed effervesence have been protective of their product for as long as it’s been popped. Starting in 1891 the term Champagne was reserved for sparkling wine made only in the region and adhering to the standards defined, legally protected by the Madrid system recognised by the EU, protection that was reaffirmed after World War 1 in the Treaty of Versailles. Since then similar legal coverage has been given by over 70 countries who have either passed laws or signed agreements with Europe to aid this trademark. The far reaching nature of French protectionism reached so far to forbid the terms methode champenoise and champagne method in a 1994 EU court decision and even banned the Swiss village of Champagne calling their own traditional wine ‘Champagne’ in 1999. When the term was finally phased out in 2004 sales of the Swiss product dropped from 110, 000 bottles a year to just 32, 000.
However, in a move that will both delight and shock traditionalists, the rules of Champagne classification have been relaxed and a welcome hand has been extended to English sparkling wine producers. To industry insiders, this entente cordial is no surprise. Both products are made from the same grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) and the same terroir; the same seam of chalk that runs under the Channel influences both the Champagne region and the South of England. Added to this is England’s increasingly warm climate which is ideal for producing bubbly and similar production and taste. It is hard for the French to disagree, with English sparkling now regularly beating its French cousins in blind tastings. So rather than make war, it seems that love is the order of the day.
Indeed the similarities have been given as reasons for the huge success of English sparkling wine. Record vintages have been seen recently, contributing to the almost £100 million in sales, expected to grow to 10 million bottles by 2020 (and with the price of Champagne set to increase this year due to a poor Chardonnay grape crop, the price of English bubbles will look even more attractive). Champagne Taittinger was the first to establish this Franco- British alliance with the purchase of 69 hectares of Kent real estate in 2015 and with a cost of approximately £25,000 per hectare on average in the UK compared to £870, 000 per hectare in Champagne, the queue of illustrious French buyers is starting to grow.
So is it all good news? Despite increased headlines and investment into the English sparkling wine scene, many English producers see this offer as undermining years of work. Naturally proud of their achievements, English vineyards have worked hard to distance themselves from France counterparts and establish their own unique brands and products. The brotherly love being extended from across the Channel sees this work go to waste as well as the threat of England’s native product being subsumed with the inevitable loss of identity. However will English consumers care, or will they be proud that they’ll be drinking English Champagne? Given that it was an Englishman, Christopher Merret who first documented and presented in a paper what is now known as methode champenoise (ie the addition of sugar to create a second fermentation in the bottle) in 1662, surely it is only fitting that English sparkling wine receives the recognition it deserves? Either way, or whatever the fall out, it’s hard to predict anything but increased international sales and prestige for the Made in England label. Santé!
First published April 1st 2017