One of Britain’s biggest names in fizz is heading to Paris to take on the bastions of Champagne, writes Olenka Hamilton. Sacre bleu!
Notorious across the Channel for cherry-picking – and never more so than in these days of Brexit – the British now have another fruit in Europe’s cross-hairs: our grapes, and more precisely what we’re doing with them. For Britain’s most prolific wine producer, Kent-based Chapel Down, has announced it is taking on the French at their own game – on home turf, too – by exporting its sparkling brut to Paris.
Naturally enough, Chapel Down’s boss Mark Harvey, formerly of Moët Hennessy no less, is bullish about the move, insisting that quality will overcome any Gallic prejudice of the English upstarts: ‘Overall, freshness and vibrancy are key features which we look for in wines and English fruit really delivers on this, whether in our sparkling wines or in our stills,’ he insists.
No one’s denying it’s a bold move, but can Chapel Down really compete with the centuries-old production traditions of the Champenois? Jo Cowderoy, general secretary of the UK Vineyards Association, is undaunted: ‘Getting international wines into France, a particularly difficult market to enter, is to be applauded,’ she effervesces. ‘It’s very exciting for the industry.’
Not everyone agrees that Chapel Down’s success is ensured. The iconic wine guru and wine-maker Steven Spurrier reckons they’ll fizzle out. ‘It will have a small take up from people who want to know what an English Sparkling Wine tastes like, but not much more than that,’ he sniffs.
But Tom Harrow, a wine consultant who runs Honest Grapes, an online wine market place for the discerning drinker, is more upbeat. He says the move is simply validation of the quality of English wines and that have the potential for success: ‘It’s proof that within the trade there’s sufficient recognition of the potential of the product,’ says Harrow.
And others agree too that the English are coming. In 2015 Champagne giant Taittinger announced a joint venture in Kent with its UK importer Hatch Mansfield to produce an English sparkling wine called St Evremond. Meanwhile at a blind tasting in Paris in early 2016, French tipplers surprised themselves favouring the English fizz mistaking it for their own. Chapel Down has also been winning internationally.
The Brits can’t take all the credit, however: climate change is helping to drive English wine’s burgeoning success. Where Champagne producers are fretting about falling acid levels, southern England’s acid levels are sky high: a perfect environment for making fizz. (In fact, south east England’s climate is similar to that in Champagne in the 1950s and 60s, when a number of excellent wines were produced.) And you can taste the difference, says Harrow: ‘Quality has never been higher.’
Not for nothing has the total area under vine in England more than doubled in the last eight years.
Whereas pre-Brexit Champagne and its English counterpart cost the same, the drop in sterling means that for British bibbers the price of Champagne has risen by around 20 percent. The export market is looking strong, too, for the same reason. ‘Why would the export market not be buoyant?’ Harrow asks. ‘All of a sudden it’s in the interests of the French, Spanish and Italians to consider it because it’s cheaper.’
There’s a downside, of course. Champagne’s rising prices is obviously bad news for Brits who drink more that 30 million bottles of the stuff per year – and without British sparkling wine to fill the hole… Bacchus forbid that the pound stays weak for too long, leaving nothing for us to export. After all, beating France at its own game has never been so pleasing to the palate.
Photography by Chapel Down