Grape Britain rivals classic French Champagne

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 November, 2011, 12:00am


A winery in southern Britain is producing sparkling wines that rival Champagne in international competitions. It is even promoting the idea that the drink was invented by a British physicist.

Christopher Merret delivered a paper on fermenting wines for a second time in the bottle to London's Royal Society in 1662. France's Dom Perignon, synonymous with Champagne, started winemaking only in 1668.

Britain's Ridgeview Estate has, for the third time in seven years, won the best international sparkling wine accolade. Its Grosvenor 2007 was awarded the Best Bottle Fermented Sparkling Wine in the 2011 International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC) in Britain. The winery also picked up two silver medals at the Hong Kong IWSC held earlier this month. Ridgeview Fitzrovia Sparkling Ros?2004 was served at a state dinner hosted by Queen Elizabeth for President Barack Obama.

Corks of champagne-style sparkling wine have been popping across Europe, Australia and America for years, although not all carbonated wine uses the same method as France's famed Champagne region, some 130 kilometres northeast of Paris.

Ridgeview's version, far more evolved than Merret's ideas and known as methode champenoise in French, involves a second fermentation in the bottle after one in a barrel or vat.

It uses wine combinations from only three permitted grape varieties - chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. These and other regulations are controlled by a government-affiliated organisation: Comit?Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC). Ridgeview Estate, located on the gentle slopes of the South Downs in Sussex, has adopted the methode champenoise with rapid success.

This family-run winery makes blends and some single-variety sparkling wines. With a similar climate and chalky and limestone terrain as the famous French region, its vines, dating back 17 years, were planted with advice from the Champagne Institute of Oenology. But the winery aligns itself with Merret's philosophies, and all varieties bear the words Cuvee Merret on their labels.

In Epernay, France, a week earlier, I visited perhaps the best known of around 20 Champagne producers in the vicinity: Dom Perignon, named after the Benedictine monk and cellar master of Hautvillers Abbey in the late 17th century.

The champagne house's current head winemaker, or chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, decides whether the growth of grapes on each particular year is up to the high standard required to produce a vintage champagne.

Here, as at Ridgeview, the character of every vintage that was produced reflects the conditions the grapes faced in a particular growing year.

Neither winery produces non-vintage ranges. Dom Perignon's Champagne blend is a little different from most others. It uses only two of the three official Champagne region varieties: chardonnay and pinot noir. Like the newer British label, it produces both white and rose varieties. But it does not produce single grape variety champagnes - no blanc de blancs, nor blanc de noirs. In Sussex, a red sparkling pinot noir and pinot meunier blend, Pimlico, is made in very small quantities - possibly a nod to Australian sparkling shiraz, but much softer-edged.

Ridgeview is not sure whether it will increase production of this blend. Also mooted is a demi-sec - a sweet sparkling white. Dom Perignon is more guarded about its operations and the quantity made of each vintage. In its cellars beneath Epernay Town Hall, chalked coded numbers and letters appear on slate boards in front of each stored batch.

And Geoffroy, once a doctor, tends to speak in emotional, rather than scientific, terms about the wine. 'I compare my job to that of an orchestra conductor,' he said. 'Fine-tuning and intuition are all part of my day's work.'

Regarding the decision to go ahead with vintage production or not in any given year, he said: 'There are clothes that can only be cut from certain cloths. It isn't a value judgment; it is an aesthetic vision.

'We aim to fill Dom Perignon with distinctive aspects of a given year. The most surprising vintage I encountered in the tasting room at the old cloisters was a 1973 ros?' It was one of only six wines tried by Geoffroy that he did not spit out.

Geoffroy wouldn't be drawn on his view of the new methode champenoise sparkling wines, except to say that he thinks it a good idea for each microclimate to try its own methods and grape varieties.