The UK can claim to have produced sparkling wine before Dom Perignon (1697), beating him by thirty-five years (1662). However, the crown goes to the monks of Saint-Hilaire who first produced crémant de Limoux in 1531.
Indeed, the UK has a surprisingly long history of viniculture. The Romans introduced grape growing in what was then a period of relatively warm weather, with evidence of vine planting as far north as the East Midlands, and of wine making along Hadrian’s Wall.
But in 1860 the Liberal government of Lord Palmerston slashed the duty on superior foreign wines and English wine production all but died. The final nail in the coffin was driven home by the First World War when land was given over to much-needed food production.
A winemaking renaissance
Growth in the brew-your-own market during the 1950s and into the 1970s saw increased interest in the commercial production of grape juice for the home winemaker. But the UK’s general geology, combined with its cool wet climate, make it harder for grapes to develop the sugars and flavours required for heavier-bodied wines without growing under glass. Most production, therefore, focused on German grape varieties such as Müller-Thurgau and Reichensteiner.
The cream of the crop
It is the specific geology of the Champagne region that makes grapes grown in Champagne more acidic than other grape varieties, giving the finished wine its characteristic freshness and lightness.
The geology of Champagne extends in an uninterrupted band through northern France to the British Downs. This makes Southeast England an ideal location for growing grape varieties used in the production of Champagne-style sparkling wines. When we look at the amount of land give over to vine growing in the UK, around 75% of it extends along the South and North Downs from Hampshire to Kent.
British sparkling wine has something to celebrate
The first modern commercial British sparkling wine was made available to the public in 1984 but this was made with German grape varieties. Then in 1988 Stuart and Sandy Moss decided to try growing traditional Champagne grape varieties at the Nyetimber estates. The first sparkling wines made from traditional Champagne varieties went on sale in 1997 winning a gold medal at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in that same year.
And in 2003 one of their wines beat Bollinger and Louis Roederer in a blind tasting at the Sparkling Wine World Championships. In the years since wines from Essex, Dorset and Kent have all been declared the best in the world. This is a clear indication of the high quality of British sparkling wines and how they rival the best in the world.
What makes British sparkling wine so special?
As the wine industry continued to evolve, British sparkling wines have grown in popularity because they offer a distinct character and flavour profile. They often have a more pronounced fruitiness and acidity compared to Champagne, which can make them more refreshing and livelier.
In 2017 the French champagne house Taittinger gave Britain its seal of approval by planting vines in Kent with the expectation of releasing its first vintage this year.
British sparkling wine comes of age
The English sparkling wine industry has been growing rapidly, and today there are more than a hundred wineries in the UK producing both sparkling and still wines as winemakers overcame the challenges of the British climate by carefully selecting the varieties they grow and using sophisticated production methods. It has been estimated that more than 100 million bottles of sparkling wine were produced in 2018.
British sparkling wine has earned a well-deserved reputation on the global stage for its unique character and exceptional quality. So whatever happens at Wimbledon, British bubbly is sure to be a winner!
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