England is not what traditionally comes to mind when wine aficionados think of when considering quality sparkling wine producing regions, but this attitude has changed drastically within the last decade. Wine hobbyists and professionals alike are clamoring to celebrate the nuance and quality of the sparkling wines currently produced in southeast England. Why southern England, and why now for the meteoric rise of such a classic style of wine?
Wine is intrinsically an agricultural product that expresses certain characteristics depending on the geographic region, climate, and grape varieties. Champagne receives its glowing reputation for several reasons, not least among them for its celebrated chalk soil and elegant grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Champagne also possesses its distinctive flavor and quality due to the method of production employed.
This production process, called the Methode Champenoise (Champagne Method) or the methode traditionelle (traditional method), requires that the wine undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle. This secondary fermentation creates the natural effervescence in the wine due to the buildup of carbon dioxide within the closed bottle — a byproduct of this process. These two major factors, terroir and production method, create the classic qualities within Champagne.
Southern England shares these traits with the storied French wine-producing region. The same major chalk formation that creates the favorable soils of Champagne underpins the soils of southeast England as well. Southern England, which traditionally has long rains and cooler temperatures, had trouble ripening wine grapes. Vineyards would frequently succumb to mold, but due to climate change and rising temperatures in the region, the climate and precipitation rates have improved and grapes planted there are reaching the same levels of ripeness and acidity that occurs naturally in Champagne.
Although some still wines are made in the area, it is the sparkling wines that have captured the hearts and minds of the international wine audience. Today, sparkling wine comprises 65% of the wine produced in England. As of 2012, more than 3,500 acres of land were being cultivated for wine production, mostly planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The southern coastal counties of England produce and cultivate wine, but it's Sussex, Kent, and Surrey that have been the force behind quality sparkling wine in the country. The neighboring county to the west, Hampshire, is home to the first vineyard planting in 1951, and the region has been steadily developing ever since. In recent years, British bubbly has proved itself by winning blind tastings that pit English sparkling wines against classic French Champagnes. Although British wine country is striking and beautiful in its own rustic way, English wine producers have largely eschewed the pomp and circumstance of the highbrow French Champagne houses across the channel. Tasting rooms and cellars are more intimate and reminiscent of Napa in its early days, with farmers and winemakers bustling about to do the day’s work while casually showcasing their product to an ever-increasing body of customers.
Sussex, in the coastal southeast, is the warmest and driest region in the country. Vineyards here still occasionally struggle with late-season frost, rain, and rot issues; however the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier vines gain great complexity and depth planted atop the deep limestone chalk soils. The cool, breezy climate helps the developing grapes maintain their natural tartness — a trait they share with their French rivals to the east.
The area also produces a hybrid grape variety called Bacchus, which is a genetic crossing of Riesling, Sylvaner, and Müller-Thurgau developed in Germany before World War II. The region has received much acclaim, and applied to be a Protected Designation of Origin for wine in 2012 (the first region in England to do so). Sussex boasts the most wineries in England, and contributes about 25% of the total wine produced in the country. Sparkling wines from Sussex are often described as bright and citrusy with a flinty mineral backbone and crisp acidity.
The region’s largest estate, Denbies, began cultivating its 265-acre vineyard site in 1984 to produce still and sparkling wines. The area perches atop a large chalky bluff that can suffer damage from frost in early spring, but due to rising global temperatures, these risks are steadily diminishing.
Surrey received early agricultural advice from German winegrowers that led to several lackluster grape varieties, but in recent years the increased production of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir has begun to turn the area around, especially for sparkling production. The newcomer, Albury Estate, was established in 2009 and focuses on organic cultivation. Although not much wine is exported from this region, wine tourism in the area has continued to increase, especially among British citizens.
Once home to Roman vineyards, this area has been cultivating wine for ages, though the resurgence of sparkling wine in the area is a somewhat recent development. The area’s Biddenden Vineyards recently celebrated 50 years of production and produces both still and sparkling wines.
As the growing conditions continue to improve, so does the quality of wine from southern England, especially when it comes to bubbly. As a result, wine tourism continues to be an ever-increasing sector of the British economy.