England finds its Sparkle

“Since we have embarked upon our export sales our wines are now listed in three of the world’s top 50 restaurants (2012 listing). The appetite for English sparking wines abroad is very strong and we have to turn down a high number of enquiries due to limited stocks,” says Roberts.

Nyetimber caused a stir last year when it announced there would be no wine from the 2012 vintage due to the poor harvest.

A hasty announcement from the EWP stated that other producers would be producing wine. Frazer Thompson, chief executive of England’s largest producer, Chapel Down, tells Drinks International it managed to harvest enough good quality fruit to make wine from 2012 grapes.

Chapel Down is probably the most commercially set up of English wine producers and, while its sparklers are vital in providing the necessary halo effect, its still wines – such as Flint Dry, Bacchus, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – are equally important.

In fact, Thompson, who has a marketing background and was a global brand director at Dutch brewer Heineken is sceptical of what he sees as a “slavish” following of what the Champagnois do. His argument is why try to replicate what the most experienced, most affluent, most branded wine category has been doing for hundreds of years?

He perceives a point of difference, saying that English sparkling wines are “fresher, fruitier and zingier than Champagne”.

The introspection among producers about what he regards as minutiae also frustrates him. “It is all about brands and quality,” he says. To that end all Chapel Down wines have a classy, distinctive black label with an eye-catching red band. The quality is without question.

Thompson quips that beer is a rational, democratic business, whereas wine is irrational and often about a person wanting the romance of growing a vineyard then putting his or her name on the bottle of wine.

Focused on fizz

Ian Kellett is a man who has bought a vineyard, is growing grapes and has built a winery but the wine will not have his name on it. Within minutes of talking to Kellett, who was a senior food and drinks analyst with city investment bank Kleinwort Benson, you realise that Thompson’s epithet does not apply to him. 

Kellett is overseeing a massive investment in Hambledon, which is claimed to be England’s oldest commercial vineyard having been established by Major General Sir Guy-Salisbury-Jones in 1952. In fact, he disagrees with Thompson that English producers are too focused on sparkling wines. Having had 55,000 Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier vines planted in 2011, under the direction of Hervé Jestin, former chef de cave at Champagne house Duval Leroy, he is entirely focused on fizz.

Kellett tells DI: “Two billion bottles of sparkling wine are drunk around the world. The English get their knickers in a twist over to 2-4 million bottles. There is no capacity for export – Nyetimber, one of England’s best known sparkling wines, is only starting to export this year. There is a lot of interest and appetite, but no supply. Companies such as LVMH are planting sparkling wine varieties in India and China.

“At Champagne’s level of quality I think there will be a shortage of good quality sparkling wine. We are talking about decades. The cooler climate in England and a lot of vineyards on chalk give good level of acidity necessary for quality sparkling wine,” he says.