Traditionally the Champagne producers have dismissed the idea that any worthy competitor could ever be made over here in England. But in the past few years, at least two of the major Champagne houses have looked at vineyards and potential vineyards on our side of the English Channel, where similar chalky soils and warming temperatures have prompted interest in english wine-growing.
Executives from both Duval-Leroy and Champagne Louis Roederer have toured vineyards in Kent and Sussex. Neither has bought any land nor gone into business with English growers, but Stephen Skelton, a wine consultant, said he expected that a large Champagne house could do so in the future.
“Warmer temperatures are making life a lot easier for winegrowers in England, especially if you are growing Champagne varieties,” said Skelton, who led Roederer executives on a tour of English vineyards in September.
Last year, Egon Ronay expressed frustration that a range of English sparkling wines made by RidgeView that he had honored with an award, could not be called Champagne. “The fact that they cannot call it Champagne is an absurdity and I take great issue with this silly rule,” Ronay told Decanter.com, an online news service for the industry.
Supporters of English sparkling wines say that they regularly hold their own against the top Champagnes in blind taste tests. Mike Roberts, the founder and director of RidgeView, said that his vineyard’s sparkling wines had been served at the British Embassy in Paris and at Queen Elizabeth II’s 80th birthday in 2006.
The term Champagne is protected by EU law to distinguish products from specific geographical areas. Under those rules, only about 32,000 hectares, (79,000 acres), of vineyards in Champagne may use the name.
Some producers have increasingly been using their expertise to produce sparkling wines from new world areas, particularly California and New Zealand. But Stephen Charters, who does research on the Champagne business at the Reims Management School, said that Champagne producers were cautious about buying land in England, even though land prices there were far lower than in Champagne.
The problem is that producers remain wary of marketing wine from a country like Britain, where the modern wine industry is comparatively new and small.
“Our interest was to see what’s happening in a place that’s not very far away from Champagne,” said Michel Brismontier, who is in charge of exports and sales at Duval-Leroy. He did not rule out future investments in England, but he said that the company had other priorities for now.
Yves Dumont, the chairman of the Champagne house Laurent-Perrier, is among the executives who say that they would never invest in sparkling wines outside of the Champagne region. Conditions in England now “could allow the creation of some very interesting sparkling wines but without the same taste as champagne,” Dumont said. “But the semi-continental climate of Champagne and the blustery island weather of England produce very different products”.
At the same time, Dumont acknowledged evidence that a changing climate created “worrying points” for the French industry. More frequent frosts have become a greater threat to harvests, he said. And while drought would not be a problem in Champagne because the chalk under the soil retains so much moisture, heat waves can roast grapes on the vine, badly eroding the quality of harvests, as happened five years ago.
“We’re seeing an aggravation in contrasts between periods that are very hot and periods that are very cold,” Dumont said. Yet another concern is that the level of acidity – a main characteristic of Champagne grapes – has dropped over the past six years because of steadily rising average temperatures.
Dumont said that increasingly sophisticated growing and blending techniques had made such challenges manageable. He also said that changes in the weather that might turn out to be cataclysmic for Champagne producers still could be as long as five decades away.
But some experts say changes could come sooner than the Champagnois expect.
“Some regions in Europe have had great vintages, thanks to climate change,” said Pancho Campo, a Spanish wine-maker who organised the conference on the implications of climate change for the wine industry in Barcelona in February. “But they have to understand that if these changes continue to increase, on a business-as-usual scenario they may have only 15 or 20 years to adapt.”
“The increasing quality of sparkling wines from the newer regions, such as like England, will create more competition for the Champagnois in some markets”, said Mark Goldrich, director of Euromarque Personalised Wines, but the romance and image of champagne will always give it an edge for celebrations and special occasions.