As a nation we’ve fallen in love with prosecco, but thanks to climate change, the right soil and oodles of passion, we’re now producing world-beating sparkling wine... just up the road
Bubbles have got up the noses of Brits with an insatiable thirst for prosecco, so much so that last year we consumed 112 million bottles of it. We currently buy more than a third of its entire annual production.
The UK is the Italian sparkling wine’s number one export market and now, like it has done for beer and gin, Portsmouth is about to host fizz festivals – strictly for prosecco.
But while the sparks in a glass of what’s been dubbed ‘everyday fizz’ fade, they remain in top-drawer products, like Champagne.
However, even that is facing fierce competition from something so good, it’s hitting the French rivals out of the park.
With several international awards under its belt, Hambledon Vineyard is at the forefront of the English sparkling wine industry and along with the warming climate in which it sits, is leading Hampshire on its way to becoming ‘France’s equivalent to Champagne in the next 25 years’.
You wouldn’t buy a case of it [prosecco] for your godchildAlistair Gibson
Despite big differences in the way it’s made and the complexity and time involved, prosecco is still far more popular than English sparkling wine.
Phillip Kellett, brother of Hambledon owner Ian Kellett, says there are a number of reasons for that – and it’s not because it is better quality.
‘There’s a widespread distinction between prosecco and Champagne, but because English sparkling wine is quite new, it doesn’t have that same distinction yet,’ says the Yorkshire-born 51-year-old, who hails from a building background.
‘Prosecco is cheap and fun – an everyday fizz – but it’s nowhere near as complex as Champagne or English sparkling wine.
‘It’s popular among younger crowds because it’s sweeter but as we age our palate changes and we like drier things.
‘Prosecco is a starting point to the world of fizz where better quality products lie. We need to educate people about the process in which it’s made, compared to how English sparkling wine is made, which is in the same way as Champagne.’
In April, English Wine Producers revealed a record-breaking one million vines will be planted in the UK this year as the nation’s wine industry continues its impressive growth.
Prosecco is from Veneto in northern Italy. It’s made from the glera grape, unlike Champagne and English sparkling wine, which can be a blend or single varietal wine made from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes.
Before it gains its sparkle each still, base wine has a second fermentation. This creates the carbon dioxide which makes the bubbles.
Champagne and English sparkling wine use the Champenoise or ‘traditional method’ so that second fermentation happens in the bottle. Yeast is added with sugar and the bottles are left neck down in racks so dead yeast cells collect in the neck.
Next, disgorgement happens. The bottle necks are frozen and dead yeast cells released. The wine is resealed and left to age.
Non-vintage wines must be left for a minimum of 18 months, vintage wines for three years.
With prosecco, yeast and sugars are added but the second fermentation happens in a large tank sealed to prevent the CO2 from escaping. This means the wine sparkles before it’s bottled.
Phillip adds: ‘People are gradually starting to recognise that English fizz, generally, is better than prosecco, but I’m not deriding it.
‘Prosecco is something you can go out and get easily. You might not have a lot of money but you can buy a couple of bottles, have one and put the other in the fridge. There are some good proseccos out there.
‘To some degree its success helps us because people try and like prosecco and then become more interested in fizz and want to try something better. But, yes, we are fighting a little battle with it.
‘However, our biggest fight is at the top end. When people drink Champagne on a night out, they don’t usually notice of the brand.
‘Big Champagne houses are only bothered about their brand. It’s the smaller, not-so-good houses that benefit from having the word Champagne on their bottles, because the name of their vineyard means less. That’s the fight we’ve got.’
Phillip’s brother Ian bought Hambledon Vineyard, England’s oldest commercial vineyard, in 1999.
As a passionate wine lover he was intrigued by the winemaking heritage of the property.
After analysing the commercial potential for English wine, he began studying oenology at Plumpton College, Sussex, with a view to restoring Hambledon to its former glory and prove it could produce top quality chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes.
He was convinced English sparkling wine was the future and appointed Hervé Jestin, formerly one of Champagne’s leading chefs de cave and an expert in minimal-intervention winemaking. Hervé directs all winemaking at the site working with a 13-strong team, including Phillip and Ian and another French winemaker, Felix Gabillet.
Hambledon Vineyard now comprises more than 50 acres of vines and is the only gravity-fed, state-of-the-art winery in the UK. Only Hambledon grapes make up its three classic rosé and première products and shortly Phillip will build a £2m cellar there.
He adds: ‘If you went to a good pub or restaurant in 2013 and English sparkling wine wasn’t on the list, it was acceptable. In 2014 it was still acceptable. In 2015, you’d expect to see at least one on the list.
‘But if there wasn’t one on the list in 2016, the sommelier wasn’t doing their job properly.’
His love for his job effervesces like his products
‘At Hambledon Vineyard one thing you can almost see oozing out of the door at harvest is passion, it’s the extra ingredient that make good wines great.
‘In 25 years I believe Hampshire will be the equivalent of the Champagne region. The reason for that is our warming climate plus other top quality winemaking essentials.
News wine columnist Alistair Gibson, (see Page 5), says: ‘The climate in the south has increased marginally, enough to allow the ripening of the grapes that make Champagne. The French region is getting warmer also and at some point be too hot to make Champagne.
‘The South Downs and in particular Hampshire contain very similar soils to those in Champagne, chalk.
‘Champagne is in north-east France where there’s this outcrop of chalk that goes under the channel and comes up again on the downs.
‘So you’ve got the climate, the chalk and the grapes, vines which are planted on south-facing slopes for maximum sun, plus the traditional Champagne-making method, and you have top-quality English sparkling wine that rivals Champagne.
‘Prosecco is a wine for the times. It’s easy to drink, appealing, inexpensive – but you wouldn’t buy a case of it for your godchild.
‘Unfortunately, there’s an awful lot out there that’s not good – which is a deterrent, sadly, to prosecco itself, because there is also good stuff available.
‘I’ve written about Hambledon Vineyard many times, and the sparkling wine made there is one of England’s finest.’