Wine Watch

British Invasion

As climate change reshapes wine regions, southern England could become “the new Champagne.”

BY September 1, 2021
At The French in Naples, manager Alain Rabault includes an award-winning English sparkling wine among the many Champagnes. (Photo by Brian Tietz)

Sparkling wine has long been a source of frustration for the English. First, they had to prove it was an English scientist—not France’s oft-cited Dom Perignon—who first documented the secondary fermentation process that gives sparkling wines their signature bubbles. The Brits also received little recognition for inventing a thicker, more durable bottle, which crucially prevented precious Champagnes from exploding due to the pressure created by in-bottle fermentation. Chief among the frustrations: The English couldn’t make a decent sparkling wine. Until now.

Climate change is disrupting the wine landscape to the point that the next great bottle of fizz you pop may come from Great Britain—mostly, south of London. That’s because as temperatures rise, ideal growing conditions are shifting and traditional wine regions are struggling to adjust. Cabernet-dependent Bordeaux is experimenting with seven, new-to-the-region grape varieties that are more resistant to heat, including Portugal’s touriga nacional. Growers in Burgundy are looking for higher ground and north-facing slopes to reduce the impact of rising temperatures. In Champagne, the undisputed king of bubbly, where wines do best with immature grapes, producers fear how their centuries-old potion will change as grapes ripen more quickly.

Southern England, on the other hand, is warming to the trend of higher temperatures. While the cold weather once challenged British winemakers, it’s now warm enough to make sparkling wine with the same grape varieties—pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay—that have flourished in Champagne. With chalky soil similar to the famed French terroir, this area of English countryside has emerged as an exciting new wine region, bottling wines that rival the prestigious quality of Champagne. Growers have found unprecedented success: Sparklers now account for 70% of England’s wine production, and premier British producers such as Nyetimber, Hattingley Valley, Gusbourne and Chapel Down are racking up awards and critical praise.

Planted in 1988, Nyetimber was the first British producer to grow exclusively Champagne grapes and has since won numerous awards. The French carries the winery’s Classic Cuvée. (Courtesy Nyetimber)
(Photo by Brian Tietz)

If anyone understands the difference between the two products, it’s Alain Rabault, manager at The French Brasserie Rustique in Naples. You wouldn’t expect to find English sparkling wine on a French list, but nestled alongside the Champagnes is Nyetimber’s Classic Cuvée. (You’ll also find the producer’s wines at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, and Truluck’s.)

Planted in 1988 by Stuart and Sandy Moss of Chicago, who sold it in 2001, Nyetimber was the first in England to cultivate exclusively Champagne grapes. Quality took off after the arrival of respected Canadian winemakers Cherie Spriggs and Brad Greatrix—with Spriggs becoming the first person from outside of Champagne and the first woman to win the Sparkling Winemaker of the Year award at the 2018 International Wine Challenge. 

(Photo by Brian Tietz)
(Photo By Brian Tietz)

Rabault finds Champagne more full-bodied, but says English sparkling wines have a similar fruitiness and acidity. “The word I put on it is ‘surprise,’” he explains. “It’s elegant and beautiful in the mouth. It’s not green, but smooth.” Though Champagne is traditionally associated with expensive celebrations, when compared to English sparkling wines, Rabault says, “the line is thin on whether one is better than the other.” Customers who want to leave an impression on guests may still order Champagne, he says, but the adventurous diner is often won over by the quality of English bottles.

What makes English fizz so bloody good? Arnaud Brachet, whose firm ABCK markets Chapel Down in the United States, concurs that British wines are elegant while being “drier, fresher and fruitier” than Champagne. Nyetimber’s Classic Cuvée—the first English sparkling wine to garner a universally respected International Wine & Spirit Competition trophy—is a stunning bottle with surprisingly complex aromas and notes of apple and honey. Its multivintage sparkling rosé bursts with fresh red fruit aromas and raspberry flavors with a sublime roundness. Top producers command prices similar to Champagnes: Chapel Down sells for $45 to $75 per bottle, while Nyetimber ranges from $55 for its multivintage Classic Cuvée to $275 for its rare, 1086 Prestige Rosé Cuveé 2010.

Nyetimber’s multivintage Classic Cuvée is beautifully complex, with notes of apple and honey. Other producers making acclaimed British sparklers include Hattingley Valley and Chapel Down. (Courtesy Nyetimber)
(Photo by Brian Tietz)

Even the French are investing in the region. In 2017, well-respected Taittinger was the first Champagne house to plant vines in southern England, and, in 2018, Pommery, the first to create a commercial brut Champagne, released its first English-grown Louis-Pommery brut through a partnership with Hattingley Valley. The arrival of French producers is a source of validation for England’s sparkling wine industry, says Simon Robinson, owner of Hattingley Valley and chairman of Wines of Great Britain. With prosecco and other affordable sparkling wines chiseling away at Champagne’s world dominance, growing competition has created opportunity for the Brits. “What do you do as a Champagne house? You can cut prices and impact your whole revenue model, stay away and lose market share, or you can invest in another country,” Robinson explains.

Despite the accolades, British sparklers still face a major challenge: the name. “What do you call English fizz?” Rabault asks. While France has Champagne, Spain has cava and Italy has Prosecco, “English sparkling wine” hardly rolls off the tongue. But Robinson isn’t convinced his country’s wines need a catchy moniker. “I ask people to name three brands of prosecco or cava. They can’t,” he says. “I want people to go into a restaurant or store and ask for Hattingley.”

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