A Brief History Of English Sparkling Wines

  • By Somm360
  • 16 Jun 2021
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 101
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Grapevines in the winter in Sussex - Credit : Gill Copeland - Shutterstock

Although England is a country mired in a drinks history of ales and mead, there are mentions of 38 separate vineyards in 1086’s Domesday Book, and this is probably something to do with the Norman conquest a couple of decades earlier. Indeed in 1662 it was a London-based physician and scientist, Christopher Merret, who was the first to document the practice of adding sugar (or molasses) in order to make sparkling wine, some time before Dom Perignon is considered to have “invented” Champagne in 1697; Merret was also responsible for the production of much stronger glass bottles to contain the pressures inherent to sparkling wine production.

Over the years, vinous attempts with hardier varieties and hybrids were, for the most part, pretty lousy, and it wasn’t until the early 1990s that English winemaking began to come into its own.  As of today are over 3,500 ha of vineyards in UK soils, planted mainly to the top sparkling varieties (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier), with the hectarage of vines planted growing by 194% in the previous decade.

Production levels have, for the most part, been increasing year upon year, with approximately 78,607 hl of wine produced in the UK (there are some vineyards in Wales) in 2019, a decrease from the output of the previous year when around 98,289 hl were produced.

Today there are over 500 commercial vineyards and over 165 wineries; even Champagne houses Taittinger and Pommery have realised the potential here, having established operations in the English countryside. I’d like to note here, that to my palate at least, English bubbles taste decidedly more firmly malic than their Champenois counterparts.

The trend has been a switch from still to traditional method sparkling wines, with some 70% of production involving bubbles. Viticulture is now one of the most buoyant sectors of UK agriculture in general, and this can be put down to climate change. Times have certainly changed since the 1980s, when July temperatures across southern Britain struggled to crest 15°C; today, summer days increasingly cross the 29°C or 30°C threshold, allowing for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to ripen perfectly for sparkling production.

Saying this, England is still a marginal climate at the mercy of maritime influences  so most vineyards are located where it is driest and warmest, in the southern counties of Kent, Sussex, and Hampshire. Dorset and Cornwall in the southwest, as well as Essex and the Chiltern Hills, outside of London, also have suitable spots. In some parts of the English south coast, the soils are almost identical in makeup to those of the Côte des Blancs in Champagne.

Wines To Seek Out: Kit’s Coty “Blanc des Blanc”, Simpsons “Flint Fields Blanc de Noir”, Henners “Brut” NV, Kingscote “Blanc de Noirs Brut”

Grapevines in the winter in Sussex - Credit : Gill Copeland - Shutterstock