Contrary to lore, it wasn't a lucky friar named Dom Pérignon who discovered the secret of sparkling wine. Englishman Christopher Merret in 1662 found that by adding sugar to the Champagne region's still wines he could make them effervescent and stronger. Three decades later the French took his trick and created an industry that last year shipped 253 million bottles of bubbly at top prices to a grateful world.
But what goes around comes around, and today RidgeView Estate located on 12 hectares outside this postcard-pretty village just north of the Sussex Downs is one of several wineries proving that Blighty can make world-class bubbly. Raves Jancis Robinson, co-author of The World Atlas of Wine: "It's the best thing to come out of England in a bottle."
English makers of sparkling wine produce about 300,000 bottles annually, so they're no economic threat to the French. Still, says Chris Foss, head of wine studies at Plumpton College, "They're something that the French are taking more seriously now." Particularly since wineries like RidgeView and Nyetimber now grab top prizes that once went routinely to the Champagne houses. In October, for example, Nyetimber won its fourth gold medal in four years at the prestigious International Wine and Spirits Competition. "Sometimes there are ruffled feelings," concedes Stuart Moss, who co-founded Nyetimber with his wife Sandy.
RidgeView in homage to British invention uses the appellation Cuvée Merret for its range of sparklers. Like Nyetimber, it relies on French grapes (pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay) equipment, methods and expertise. But England's advantage, for once, is geography and weather. The chalky soil of southern England is similar to Champagne's, and the moderate climate produces grapes with the high acid levels needed for bubbly. "We are as near to Champagne in latitude as we are to London," says Michael Roberts, who founded RidgeView in 1994 with his wife Christine. "The result is a high-quality sparkling wine that is, for all intents and purposes, Champagne."
It was Nyetimber that first proved England, a country better noted for guzzling wine than growing it, could produce world-class fizz. In 1986 the Mosses, an American couple from Chicago, bought the West Sussex farm its 11th century manse belonged to Anne of Cleves, one of Henry VIII's exes expressly to make sparkling wine. They weren't encouraged. A government expert suggested they grow apples. Yet their first release a 1992 chardonnay blanc de blancs won the winery its first gold medal. Today Nyetimber, which the Mosses have just sold to British songwriter Andy Hill plans to double its current output of 50,000 bottles a year. That's still small enough to ensure quality, Stuart Moss insists. English sparklers are also gentle on the wallet. RidgeView's retail for about $22 a bottle, Nyetimber's for around $26. Roberts' rule of commercial success reads: "Go to the top end of the market and add value."
Other English wineries are bubbling with promise. Davenport Vineyards, in East Sussex, uses French methods and fruit, though it substitutes the hardier auxerrois grape for chardonnay. Its first 2,000 bottles will be released next fall. English Wines (150,000 bottles this year), mostly uses Germanic grapes, like müller-thurgau, that have long been grown in England. "We want high-quality sparkling wines," says Carl Koenen, sales and marketing director, "but we are not out to duplicate Champagne."
Becoming an English fizzmaker isn't for hobbyists. The Roberts' initial investment in land, vines and equipment hit $1.8 million. And first revenues don't come for four years. But such barriers may not stop the Champagne houses themselves from eventually invading England. "I think they should do. They've gone everywhere else," says wine writer Oz Clarke, noting the big labels' ventures in California, Argentina and Australia.
Still, Britain is their biggest export market, so selling a home-grown bubbly here could affect sales of Champagne. Either way, Britain's fizz-fanciers will have good reason to lift a glass.