Attempts in the UK to create a sparkling wine that can be judged up against the best of Champagne are wrong-headed and ignore the very characteristics that can make English Sparkling Wine a quality product in its own right, not a cheap imitation of the French product.
That is the opinion of an Englishwoman whose Champagne house in France is releasing an English Sparkling Wine this year.
Imogen Whitaker, who resides in the village of Avize, just south of Epernay in the heart of the Champagne region and runs Pierson Whitaker Champagne with her French husband Didier, was commenting as she launches Meonhill, an English Sparkling Wine.
She says: “I think English Sparkling needs to stop comparing itself to Champagne. It is a negative and rather degrading exercise and also makes the English look slightly ridiculous. We are best at creating and innovating, so it’s time to sell English Sparkling Wine and produce a great product with its own characteristics, that is consistently of a high standard, and that has absolutely nothing to do with Champagne.”
Meonhill, which is due to retail for around £20, uses Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes grown on land leased by Whitaker in southern England. It is named after the plot on which the grapes are planted.
She says: “We sourced the land, tried to buy it but then went into partnership with the farm owners. The land is now being leased. We planted our own grapes using clones from the Champagne region.”
Vive la difference!
Despite its Anglo-French parentage, Meonhill will be most decidedly an English Sparkling Wine, which is very important to Whitaker.
She says: “It is an English Sparkling wine, and yes that matters a lot. English wine makers should put their energy, skills, and effort into making a unique English sparkling wine with English (or Welsh, Irish or Scottish!) characteristics which will stand on their own bubbles, instead of always comparing themselves to champagne where they necessarily will always be a poor relation.
“Despite over the top press reports, and occasional prizes won by English wine makers, in my opinion English sparkling is nothing like Champagne, and it shouldn’t be! Champagne has 6,500 small producers, all producing something completely different. The climate the soil, the expertise is all different. Thank goodness, vive la difference!”
Whitaker has seen the recent press coverage and background noise that suggest there has been a recent dramatic growth in sales and interest in English Sparkling Wine and refutes that Meonhill is just an attempt to jump on the bandwagon.
She says: “Not at all. The project started because I was English, running our Champagne House in Champagne, and felt that I wanted to have a “foot” back home. We visited lots and lots of wineries, and decided that it was possible to make wine there, in the existing conditions, nothing to do with global warming (although it would be nice if the weather were loads better!).
In its heyday, Champagne Pierson Whitaker produced 20,000 bottles a year. With some restructuring, there will now be a lower production. Meonhill, which will have an initial planned release of 5,000 bottles, will be marketed by “word and taste of mouth, friends, family, press, present Champagne Pierson Whitaker customers – the usual ways,” says Whitaker.
Does Whitaker consider this wine as a ‘one off’ or the start of a long-term market development? If it is a longer-term trend, does it have more implications/potential for the Champagne industry or the English industry?
She says: “There is too much investment for a “one-off”. There is much room for development in the UK, but not only in terms of more production. Champagne makers have 300 years of expertise behind them, in small communities whose every day involves some way of improving, tasting, changing, living their Champagne, exchanging ideas with the maker next door, and refining (if possible) a palette so attuned to every taste, quirk, and delight in their bubbles. This is the area that English wine makers need to address most.
“Anyone can make wine – just follow the instructions and put in the graft – but what does it taste like? What is wrong with it? How to rectify that? What should it taste like…..BIG subject…”
While they remain in office, could any future falling out between Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy be solved by a chilled glass of Meonhill?
Whitaker’s political analysis is straightforward: “No, it would just wind Sarko up even more; he’s already miffed by being a quarter of the size of Mr Cameron!”
What do you think? Is Imogen right to think English Sparkling Wine is produced just to be a poor imitation of Champagne or are producers actually striking out and producing a distinctly English product? Let us know what you think on firstname.lastname@example.org.