The UK takes back the bubbles

27 March, 2009

Never work with children or animals" is an old adage from the world of television. For anyone who remembers unintentionally amusing episodes of Blue Peter, when weeping infants poked their tongues out at cameras or elephants dropped steaming turds on the studio floor, they will be particularly resonant. The saying remains as true as it ever was, but it needs updating. In our computerised age, we should add something else to the list: technology.

This thought occurred to me during the opening remarks of the first International Sparkling Wine Symposium, held at Denbies in Dorking recently. Tom Stevenson, arguably the planet's leading expert on sparkling wine, was supposed to give a

30-minute introduction, but his speech collapsed into embarrassed incoherence when his PowerPoint presentation malfunctioned, jumbling his carefully prepared slides like a cack-handed poker player. I felt for the guy.

Tom didn't say a lot, but what he salvaged from his notes was still worth listening to. Four things bear repetition: bubbles don't improve bad grapes; sparkling wines are the technically and technologically involved of all; the UK invented sparkling wine in 1662, or possibly earlier, this being the date when Christopher Merret gave a paper on the subject to the newly formed Royal Society; and, lastly, the British government should use the 2012 Olympics (the 350th anniversary of Merret's speech) to promote the virtues of English sparkling wine.

The second speaker, Australian consultant, Dr Tony Jordan, was better served by his computer. Jordan's characteristically insightful presentation was given against the background of recent weather patterns in Victoria, where he lives and owns a vineyard. Jordan spoke about the two "extreme weather events" (bush fires and an unprecedented heat spike) as an unwelcome sign of things to come. "Today," he said, "the macro

effect of climate change is the single biggest issue confronting the wine industry." And he wasn't only talking about Australia.

Jordan's was a call to action. "I think we are all in denial about global warming and its effects," he said. "Anyone planting a vineyard now will find that it's in the wrong place in 30 years' time." Australia has plenty of areas, currently far too cold for viticulture, that will be ideal if temperatures increase. There are also a number of existing regions - parts of Tasmania, southern Victoria and Western Australia, for example - that will be unaffected, given their proximity to the ocean. Australia's biggest problem in the future will be access to irrigation water.

The UK sparkling wine industry should be in a position to benefit from climate change, providing increased levels of humidity don't render grape growing uneconomic. Jordan talked of a possible scenario, 50 years from now, when the south coast of England will be raisin country, while Scotland and the north of England will be the new homes of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for sparkling wine base.

He wasn't the only person to praise the English wine industry. Michel Salgues, the man behind Roederer Estate in California and an international sparkling wine consultant of note, said that Nyetimber and Ridgeview make "outstanding wines" and that the UK is a "terroir in the making". Not bad from a Frenchman, albeit one who has spent a lot of his life in the New World.

The afternoon panel discussion, entitled The Business of Sparkling Wine, put the UK sparkling wine industry in context. Our annual production of around 500,000 bottles is dwarfed by the 2

billion bottles made world wide. But everyone agreed that the quality of the best wines is good and getting better.

The UK has seven serious producers (Chapel Down, Nyetimber, Camel Valley, Three Choirs, Denbies, Hush Heath and Ridgeview) making traditional -method sparkling wines that rival almost anything under £30. What we have, in the words of Bob Lindo of Camel Valley, is "a microscopic industry with a worldwide reputation."

Do consumers recognise this? Market resea rcher Sarah Mowl presented the results of consumer research which suggested

there's a lot of prejudice to overcome. Nearly everyone she spoke to regarded Champagne as the sparkling wine of choice for a special occasion. Most of them said they would never drink English sparkling wine, although in a taste test a number of them mistook a home-produced fizz for Champagne.

The perception gap between Champagne and other sparkling wines doesn't exist in the world of still wines, but if Champagne prices continue to rise , there will be opportunities for English producers. The symposium ended with a crowded tasting of sparkling wines from around the world, and the English examples more than held their own.

Tom Stevenson may have been let down by technology, but he was right about one thing: 350 years after Christopher Merret gave that historic paper, the 2012 Ol ympics are an opportunity to tell the world about the sparkling wines we make in this country.

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