Corks are popping in vineyards across England as winemakers toast what will be the biggest grape harvest in history.
This year has proven to be perfect conditions thanks to the lack of winter frost and warm, sunny weather across the south of England.
Wine is the fastest growing agricultural sector in the UK, with business booming at companies such as Chapel Down, Nyetimber and Gusbourne.
All three growers have reported excellent numbers in recent weeks and praised what they expect to be a record harvest.
“We have a climate that was the same as the Champagne region in the late 1980s,” says Chapel Down chief executive Andrew Carter, at the winemaker’s estate in Tenterden, Kent, as the harvest begins.
“It’s this bittersweet part of global warming.”
Sparkling: Chapel Down boss Andrew Cotter (pictured) says overseas markets are opening up
The chalky soil of south-east England is similar to that found in the Champagne region of France, and warmer temperatures in recent years have meant higher sugar content in the grapes, leading to higher alcohol levels.
Aside from Kent, West Sussex and East Sussex are also becoming key pillars of the growing English wine market, where the process from planting a vine to pouring a glass of bubbles takes at least seven years on average.
A vine will produce a bud in late April and flower around the first week of Wimbledon in July.
Grapes appear in late summer and harvest begins in the last week of September, with each Chapel Down vine picked by hand.
The process of making sparkling wine, which accounts for around 70 per cent of Chapel Down’s sales, follows the so-called traditional method used in leading champagne houses.
This includes taking a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, as well as performing two stages of fermentation. Although work in the vineyard is labor intensive, the must extraction process is carried out using large pressing machines.
The UK used to open its doors to around 70,000 seasonal workers a year to pick the country’s fruit, but this number dropped to just 45,000 after Brexit.
“It’s a little more complicated from a labor perspective, but not insurmountable,” says Carter, explaining how he employs about 180 seasonal pickers from countries such as Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Romania.
As the country’s largest wine producer, Chapel Down owns around a tenth of the UK’s 10,000 wine acres, although Tenterden is one of its smallest units at 19 acres.
Last year, Chapel Down sold 790,000 bottles of sparkling wine, representing 33 per cent of the English wine market. And this number is expected to be even higher next year thanks to excellent harvests.
Harvest Time: Reporter Leah Montebello
However, strict trademark protection laws in France mean that even if English producers follow the same method as companies like Moet & Chandon, only grapes grown in Champagne can use the 326-year-old moniker.
And while there may be some snobbery, English sparkling wine recently emerged victorious in a blind tasting across the English Channel.
Around 60 per cent of French wine drinkers said they preferred wine made in Kent to their local drink during the tasting which took place on the streets of Reims in May.
Disguised under the French label ‘Chapelle en Bas’ (which translates as Chapel Down), French consumers were invited to compare the English wine with Moet.
The French inadvertently described the disguised English drink as “lighter,” “fresher,” and “more perfumed” than its local rival.
Federica Zanghirella, vice-president of the UK Sommeliers Association, told the Mail: “People are always surprised that the quality of English sparkling wine is so high.
‘The thing about countries with a wine tradition is that they can become a bit competitive. There’s a bit of jealousy there.”
Carter seems unfazed and says, “We’re not too worried about the French not drinking it.”
‘We have the English drinking it and many other markets. The French will always be French and drink a lot of champagne.
Although 95 per cent of Chapel Down is consumed in the UK, the company is keen to expand overseas, particularly through Duty Free.
The US market is of particular interest, Carter says, thanks to America’s love of all things British and immense room for growth.
About 33 million bottles of Champagne were shipped to the United States last year.
And this great British appeal has led to extraordinary sales after events such as the Coronation, where tourists are eager to purchase products from the United Kingdom.
The Tenterden site alone receives up to 65,000 visitors each year for wine tastings and guided tours.
But a major goal for Carter, who has been in the role for two years, has been to sign big-name partnerships.
Chapel Down has already replaced Veuve Clicquot as the official sponsor of English cricket and will be the official partner of the Ascot races next year.
Carter’s biggest dream, however, is the Wimbledon Championships, which has been serving Lanson champagne to guests since 1977. “Wimbledon is as archetypal English as it gets,” he says. “Why partner with a French champagne when you can partner with an English sparkling wine?”
For Chapel Down, the goal is luxury, differentiating it from prosecco and cava.
For this reason, Carter says he is in no rush to reduce prices.
Bottles of Chapel Down Brut sparkling wine start at £29.
“It’s about striking the balance between making it accessible and making a statement of everyday luxury,” he says, adding: “In my lifetime, the south-east of England will become a new world wine region.”
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