Sussex, UK – Though spring is almost at end, when the night comes, portable heaters are sometimes used to warm the vines here on this bit of Sussex down. Frost could be costly without them for their owner, the Ridgeview Wine Estate, for these are no ordinary grapes, these are for Champagne production.
English Champagne? The suggestion alone is likely to cause heart-stoppages in some parts of France. But it is true, in large due to climate change.
Since 1994, the Ridgeview Wine Estate, located in rural Sussex and close to the chalky South Downs, has been producing a range of wines including "English Sparkling Wine" or Champagne with some success. It’s first bottles came on the market in 1999, named Bloomsbury and Belgravia.
These two wines both won medals in the London International Wine and Spirit Competition.
The estate also bagged the Silver Medal on the 2004 Wine Magazine International Wine Challenge and many others.
All this must Napoleon turning in his grave. Indeed the old dictator himself was very fond of a tipple of champers before engaging in major battles (don’t drink that one he quaffed before invading Russia!).
Indeed, the well-known Champagne producer Moet Chandon even build another country pile to accomodate Napoleon and his staff, who used to drink the Champagne before setting out on military exploits.
Oddly enough – drinking Champagne before battles is regarded as something of a ritual in many armies – the only time Napoleon did not drink Champagne was on the eve of Waterloo. Enough said.
The underlying reason why French Champagne producers are buying up suitable land in the south of England is rising temperatures which could threaten the taste in the future.
To some extent this is already happening, with scientists saying a garden in the UK endures a climatic shift of about 60 metres south, per year. Hence, southern English fields are warmer than ever and this is good news if you maintain grapevines.
Not surprisingly, this has led to a quantum leap in the quality of English wines, whose world image was something like a badly-dressed country girl at a sophisticated city do.
Aside from the success with Champagne, English Cabernet Savignon and Merlot red wines are gaining prestige. All due to the warmer climate.
Some years ago, the British Ambassador in Paris invited some leading French vinyers to the British Embassy in Paris for a dinner. The wine was decanted and reportedly an English Cabernet Savignon, though the guests were not informed of this until after dinner.
The ambassador then informed them that the wine was actually English, which stunned those present.
With some foundation, many English wines of yore were fruity and tasted a bit odd, doubtless as the cool climate did not allow the right flavour to develop.
Now the chalky soil of south coast and a few other similarities to the Champagne region of northern France, make southern England an area of great interest to French wine producers.
This may be slightly awkward under EU legislation, which classifies Champagne as being from that region only, much to the chagrin of Catalan Cava producers and the like.
As it seems inevitable that companies like Moet Chandon and Verve Cliquot will be basing most of their Champagne production in the south of England, then this EU law may be up for review.
Although climate change is proving a boon for English wine producers, temperature rises should not be taken lightly, as warmer climes don’t just bring better grapes. Sea level rises, more dangerous insects, increased coastal erosion and unpredictable weather, to name but a few are the other results of higher temperatures.