“WE HAVE even arranged for bubbles to fall from the sky,” laughed Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, president of the eponymous Champagne house, as he prepared to plant the first vines at Domaine Evremond, the French producer’s vineyard at Chilham, in Kent.
His joke drew nervous giggles from the crowd of journalists, drinks industry veterans and fellow winemakers as they eyed the gathering rain clouds at yesterday’s planting ceremony.
It’ll take more than a spring shower to dampen Taittinger’s enthusiasm for Evremond though.
The company is planting the first 20 hectares of chardonnay, pinot meunier and pinot noir – the classic sparkling wine triumvirate – and will eventually have 40 hectares under vine, producing around 300,000 bottles a year once the plants have matured in six or more seasons’ time.
Taittinger’s investment in Evremond is part of the wider growing confidence in English sparkling wine – more than one million vines will be planted south of the Border this year, including some by Champagne Pommery, which is already buying fruit from other producers to make its first English fizz, while indigenous brand Chapel Down recently launched the country’s first £100-plus sparkler.
Getting on with the neighbours
Throughout his speeches – both out in the vineyard and back in the giant marquee afterwards as the crowd hid from the showers – Pierre-Emmanuel emphasised the “friendship” element of the project; his company teamed up with its UK distributor, Hatch Mansfield, and a group of unnamed private investors to buy the land for the vineyard back in 2015.
“Finding this new place was not an easy task,” Vitalie Taittinger, the company’s marketing director and Pierre-Emmanuel’s daughter, explained to me.
“We had a look in China, we had a look in other places, and finally for us the most beautiful was this place for many reasons, a big one being the friendship we have with Patrick McGrath from Hatch Mansfield and the long relationship me have with him.”
England and the wider UK are likely to be the initial market for Taittinger’s English Sparking wine – some 85 per cent of the wines produced at Domaine Carneros, the joint venture the company launched with Kobrand in California back in 1987, is sold at the winery, illustrating the importance of a local market for a product.
“To start with, it will be for the English market and after that we never know,” adds Vitalie. “This is a new experience for us and so we don’t want to close any doors.”
Setting a high bar
Taittinger invited English wine producers from its local neighbourhood in Kent along to the planting ceremony and asked them to bring some of their bottles with them; the French company has a lot of live up to when it joins the ranks of Kent’s bubble makers.
The 2010 Pinot Reserve (£26.80, www.biddendenvineyards.com) from Biddenden – one of England’s oldest vineyards in continuous operation, having been founded in 1969 and now being run by the third generation of the family – has all the classic green apple and pear aromas and flavours, along with an exciting freshness. Look out for its still wines too, including its characterful Ortega, which featured in my round-up of English still wines last month.
Moving up a gear, the 2013 Kit’s Coty Blanc de Blancs (£40, Harvey Nichols) from Chapel Down, known for both its fizzy and still offerings, adds a red apple flavour to the orchard fruits and a sniff of white flowers on the nose. This is a serious fizz that can hold its own against Champagne or Franciacorta at the same price.
Hush Heath is another producer that has mastered the mix of still and sparking wines: its Balfour 1503 Rosé (£21.99, Majestic Wines) was one of the stars of last autumn’s Edinburgh Fizz Festival with its strawberry and red apple fruit aromas and flavours, while I’m still raving about its 2015 Hush Heath Manor Pinot Noir (£19, Hushheath.com), which was the stand-out wine for me at its The Bull & The Hide pub with rooms near Liverpool Street Station in London, combining jammy red fruit with smoke and white pepper.
One of the most intriguing wines on show was the 2016 Roman Road Chardonnay (£22.99, Simpsons Wine Estate) by Scottish winemaker Ruth Simpson and her husband, Charles, veterans of the Domaine Sainte Rose winery in the South of France. The Simpsons are planting vines to make sparkling wine in Kent, but this experimental still bottle was packed full of pronounced pear and white flower aromas on the nose, leading onto green apple and lemon flavours on the palate, with plenty of fruit to balance the acidity.
While we’ll have to wait for several years before sampling Domaine Evremond’s maiden wine, there’s no doubting the potential of the site, nor its winemakers. It’s an exciting time, not just for Taittinger but for the wider English wine market.