By ERIC ASIMOV
DITCHLING, England — In January, Michel Roux Jr., a London chef who is on the tasting committee that recommends wines to be served by the royal family, made a suggestion that would have been unthinkable not long ago. Wouldn’t it be nice, Mr. Roux asked a reporter for The Telegraph, if at the wedding reception for Prince William and Kate Middleton the glasses were filled not with Champagne but with English sparkling wine?
“It might be a bit controversial, but I think it would be great to see, and it would say a lot about Britishness,” he said.
Nobody is saying whether English sparkling wine will be poured at any of the events related to the royal wedding on April 29. Yet those who follow these issues note that when Queen Elizabeth II turned 80 in 2006, the wine poured at her reception was an elegant blanc de blancs produced by Ridgeview Estate outside this little village in East Sussex. Indeed, last year the 2006 vintage of the same wine was voted the best sparkling wine over more than 700 other wines from around the world, including Champagne, in a competition put on by Decanter, a British wine publication.
The notion of fine English wine may seem as absurd as the thought of fine English food once did. Yet, just as London has become a dining destination, southern England has become a source of excellent sparkling wines, made in the illustrious mode of Champagne. From Kent, where the white cliffs of Dover face across the English Channel toward France, stretching westward along the southern coast through East and West Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset, even as far west as Devon and Cornwall, hundreds of acres of new vineyards have been planted in the last 10 years, with far more projected.
The same geology visible in those famous white cliffs also plays a role in the rise of winemaking here. In Champagne, the best vineyards often lie in chalky limestone soils, sometimes mixed with clay. A line of this limestone stretches up from Sancerre and Chablis, through Champagne and across the Channel to England, past Dover and across southern England. The vineyards along this chalk belt are mainly growing chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, the three grapes that go into Champagne.
Christian Seely, who owns Coates & Seely vineyards in Hampshire with his partner, Nick Coates, has high hopes for their 30 acres of vines, planted on south-facing slopes of chalk and flint, and their two vintages of sparkling wine, 2009 and 2010, aging in bottles.
“I believe that there is the potential to make something really great, if one finds the right place,” he said.
“Above all, it’s the existence of terroirs that bear striking geological resemblance to what exists in Champagne,” said Mr. Seely, the managing director of AXA Millésimes, the arm of the French AXA insurance group that runs a portfolio of top wineries in France and elsewhere.
If few people in history ever thought to plant Champagne grapes in southern England, it was not without reason. Champagne itself, 49.5 degrees latitude at its northernmost point, pushed the climatic boundaries for making fine wine. In fact, the perennial problem of ripening grapes sufficiently in Champagne made sparkling wine the perfect solution: to achieve a crisp, refreshing quality in sparkling wine the grapes must ripen enough to no longer be stridently acidic, yet they must retain sufficient acidity to be brisk. Hence, grapes destined for sparkling wine are harvested at lower degrees of ripeness than grapes for still wine.
Here in Ditchling, Ridgeview Estate is 88 miles northwest of Champagne, approaching 51 degrees latitude. For centuries Sussex and the surrounding counties were considered too cold to grow grapes for fine wine. Yet climate change has warmed things up just enough to make that possible.
“I don’t know that I buy into climate change, or at least that the cause is human rather than cyclical, but it’s there and has certainly had an effect,” said Andrew Weeber, a South African orthopedist who in 2004 began planting Gusbourne Estate in Appledore, Kent. He now has 50 acres on a slope facing south, looking down toward the flat Romney Marsh and the sea.
The pace of planting has accelerated in the last few years. In 1990, two years after an American couple, Stuart and Sandy Moss, planted Nyetimber in West Sussex, the first major vineyard for sparkling wine, England had about 140 acres of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, according to Stephen Skelton, the author of “UK Vineyards Guide 2010.” By 2007, more than 660 acres had been planted, and by 2010 that figure had doubled, to about 1,360 acres.
Among the newer plantings is Bride Valley Vineyard in western Dorset, a natural amphitheater of chalk soils facing south, owned by Steven Spurrier, a columnist for Decanter, and his wife, Bella. Just after buying the property in 1987, Mr. Spurrier said, he noticed the chalk soil and sent it to Chablis for analysis. It was pronounced auspicious for chardonnay.
As with many of the newer plantings, his vineyard is not yet in production. He estimates the first wines, a nonvintage brut and a vintage blanc de blancs, will come in 2014.
“You need to have two wines,” Mr. Spurrier said. “So instead of saying, ‘Do you like my wine?’ you can say, ‘Which of my wines do you prefer?’ ”
Any thoughts of making money in the English sparkling wine business would have been considered ridiculous before Nyetimber Estate showed the way. The Mosses, who were from Chicago but wanted to make sparkling wine outside Champagne, were drawn to West Sussex in the 1980s partly by the geological similarity to Champagne but also by their love of early English oak furniture. Their first wine was a 1992 blanc de blancs, but the wine was not released until 1997, when it was awarded a gold medal as best English wine. Nyetimber now shows up at top English restaurants like Dinner, the new London venture from the Michelin three-star chef Heston Blumenthal.
If few Americans are aware of these English sparklers — in England many of the better ones retail for about $40 — it’s for good reason: hardly any have been exported to the United States. But this may soon be changing. By the end of the year, Ridgeview hopes to be selling wine in New York and Washington, said Mike Roberts, the vineyard’s proprietor.
“When we started, the very worst words we could put on a bottle were ‘English wine,’ ” Mr. Roberts said. “Now, we can’t satisfy the demand.”