If you ever question the value of tasting wines 'blind', stop by Camel Valley vineyard in Cornwall, southwest England, for a chat with owner Bob Lindo and his son, Sam. 'For years, the only way to get people to take our wine seriously was through blind tastings,' says Sam with a good-natured shrug.
'When you put a bottle of English fizz in front of someone, they would invariably laugh, but tasting blind levels the playing field and no one can argue with the results. We rely on that reaction. The Brits thrive on an underdog mentality, and we like to blow people away when they find out what they're drinking.'
Ex RAF-pilot Bob Lindo started making wine in 1989 on land that had previously farmed sheep and cattle. His son remembers that, 'at the time, the best wines - according to the critics - had the biggest, fattest flavours, with the most colour and the highest alcohol. Our wine was the polar opposite of that - we liked it, but it was very different from the reigning tastes. But we embraced its qualities as English character - understated, with freshness and delicacy. Now general wine tasting has gone 180 degrees, and the trend is more in our favour.'
Certainly, it's less of an uphill struggle to be taken seriously these days. In 2010, prestigious British wine magazine Decanter handed out its Top Sparkling trophy to English producer Ridgeview Estate for their Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs, the first time the award had gone to a producer outside the Champagne region of France. And if a British competition sounds a little too cosy, neighbouring vineyard Nyetimber Classic Cuvee 2003 was chosen as the best bubbly on the planet in a blind taste test at the World Sparkling Wine Championships 2008 in Verona, Italy.
Camel Valley - just 13 kilometres north of the Eden Project - has won its own fair share of awards, and is seen as one of the leading producers in a country that today claims more than 400 vineyards and a production of about three million bottles a year. That clocks in at just 0.02 per cent of the world's wine production (compared to 2.5 per cent in Bordeaux). The Champagne region, in contrast, produces about 300 million bottles per year, meaning it is unlikely to be losing too much sleep about the challenge from the other side of the English Channel. But there are similarities between the two.
Professor Richard Selley, emeritus professor of geology at Imperial College London and author of The Winelands of Britain, says: 'New vineyards in England are being planted on areas of chalk that stretch across the southeast of the country into Hampshire and up through Berkshire and East Anglia. One feature of the chalk downs - besides the similarity to the terroir of the Champagne region - is that there are many sheltered valleys, and most vineyards are planted on sunny south-facing slopes.'
The country has even attracted a Champagne producer. Didier Pierson of Champagne Pierson-Whitaker in Avize, established a vineyard in Hampshire in 2003. The first wine is due for sale in June. Although his English wife, Imogen, may have influenced his decision, he is very happy with the results.
'Of course, many of my neighbours back in France think I am crazy, but for me, it's the adventure of making a wine that will have its own English character, but is grown on a similar type of chalk soil I am used to back home. My wine is a 50/50 blend of chardonnay and pinot noir, and the grapes have responded very well to the English climate. The only real change is that I allow the English wines to age a little longer before putting them on the market, to soften the acidity that comes from cooler summers.'
Larger champagne houses such as Louis Roederer, Duval Leroy and Pernod Ricard (Perrier-Jouet) have also scouted for suitable sites, although not yet made any investments. There are financial incentives to do so, as the price of one hectare in Champagne starts at about Euro1 million (HK$10 million), and in England about GBP20,000 (HK$240,000).
In the meantime, several Champagne consultants are working in England, including Jean-Manuel Jacquinot, who leads a government-funded mentoring programme. And there are other clear signs of a vineyard on the up - namely increasing numbers of big name investors. Christian Seely, director of grand cru classe Chateau Pichon Longueville in the Pauillac appellation of Bordeaux, and Quinta do Noval in the Douro, Portugal, has his own vineyard in Hampshire in a partnership with old friend and ex-banker Nicholas Coates. They are due to launch their first vintage this year, and use Champagne consultant, James Darsonville to steer the wines. Also in Hampshire is the vineyard of South African Formula One champion Jody Scheckter, whose first biodynamic vintage is due next year (it remains to be seen if he calls the wine, as he once suggested, Schampagne). In Dorset, renowned wine critic Steven Spurrier is quietly planning his own sparkling wine launch of Bride Valley in 2015.
'There's no doubt the Champagne houses are aware of what is going on,' says Mike Roberts of Ridgeview, the man of the moment in English sparkling wine. 'For me, sparkling wine production has always seemed the most natural fit for the English climate. When I started out in 1994, I wondered why people grew strange German varieties that no one had heard of. If you start a business, it's a good idea to look at your nearest neighbour, and we are only 100 kilometres north of Champagne, just one-degree of latitude between us, with same geological features under our feet.
'We do have to work hard at trying to get people to forget the myths of English low cloud and drizzle, which just doesn't happen where we are. We get cool nights, which keeps the acidity, but that is desirable for quality fizz. I decided it was impossible to make a business out of still wines, as they need lower acidity, riper grapes and more reliable heat. But sparkling wine is sustainable; we charge the same as a non-vintage [NV] branded champagne, around GBP20. The first year we made 24,000 bottles, this year about 200,000 - that's a worthwhile business.'
The growing conditions, while they might cause a snigger in Reims, also make English fizz an excellent match for Asian food. The Michelin-star Hakkasan restaurant in London, which was started by Hong Kong-born Alan Yau, has several English sparkling wines on its list, and plans to expand. Wine buyer Christine Parkinson says, 'Good English sparkling wines are very similar to champagne, so the same qualities apply: depth of fruit, lees [sediment] character, freshness, balance and minerality. The savoury, brioche and biscuit character can be particularly good with dishes incorporating soya beans and soy sauces.'
You can find a few examples in Hong Kong, mainly in upscale wine stores, and if you don't want to commit to a bottle, the Langham Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui is serving Ridgeview by the glass (following tastings held in both Hong Kong and Shanghai by Roberts after his Trophy success last year).
Nick Pegna, director of Berry Bros Hong Kong, is confident it has a future here. 'English sparkling wine is beginning to garner some real interest. At present, most buyers are private customers, who are buying it to drink and discuss, and we believe that the interest will really take off once people get a chance to taste the wines.'
Gary Boom, managing director of Bordeaux Index, with stores in London and Hong Kong, is a little less upbeat. 'We know how good the top English stuff is because we have tasted it, but you still have to hand-sell it; you have to physically phone people up and tell them to buy it. Vintage Nyetimber comes out at the same price as NV Pol Roger, but most people drink champagne for the brand, and serving Nyetimber will only cut it with the connoisseur crowd. Unfortunately, 95 per cent of people do look at the label, and if you have to explain something, you know you are on the back foot.'
Nyetimber is easily the fizz with the widest acclaim, often called the Rolls Royce of English wine. Owner Eric Heerema, a Dutch businessman who bought the estate in 2006 and has made it the biggest vineyard in Britain, with 177 hectares under vine, says the main challenge facing producers of English fizz is not the quality of the product, but getting it to market. 'Contrary to mature wine regions, there is no infrastructure, which makes it much harder to operate in an efficient manner and adds to the cost. English sparkling wines, in general, don't have the reputation that others such as champagne have been able to build up over generations, so there is no separate retail category yet and that makes it harder to explain the high prices which the product itself easily justifies. Ultimately, it's all about perception and that is something which can only be built slowly over the long term.'
The English have long been the world's largest consumers of champagne, so it is perhaps not surprising they have high standards for their own production. Most commentators agree that English sparkling wine should concentrate on building up its image, rather than trying to emulate champagne. Camel Valley is doing that with its Cornwall cuvee ('if Champagne can put the name of the area on the label, why can't we?'), and some of the best producers are working the English connection, with names that sound to have stepped straight from the pages of a Beatrix Potter story: Hush Heath, Breaky Bottom, Gusbourne Estate, Nutbourne, Pebblebed and Chapel Down. The dominant tastes reflect the flavours of England - crisp apples in the white and sparkling, and strawberries and roses in the pink. With a royal wedding and the London Olympics coming up, there is a great chance for the English wine industry to capture the world's attention. Maybe Gary Boom is right when he says, 'Great wines, great quality, great price point... now they just need to find a way to let everyone know.'
Stock lists in Hong Kong
2001 Nyetimber Premiere Cuvee Blanc de Blanc
Berry Bros & Rudd, tel: 2907 2112, www.bbr.com. (They also plan to offer Ridgeview Estate starting in March 2011).
2005 Nyetimber Classic Cuvee
Bordeaux Index, tel: 2504 1122, www.bordeauxindex.com
Chapel Down Brut NV and Chapel Down Pinot Noir Reserve 2004
Altaya Wines, tel: 2523 1945, www.altayawines.com
Ridgeview by the glass at the Langham Hotel Hong Kong, 8 Peking Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2375 1133, www.hongkong.langhamhotels.com
Further info: www.englishwineproducers.com