News that Champagne Taittinger intends to plant a vineyard in England and produce English sparkling wine could mark a new chapter for the country's fledgling wine sector.

Little has been said publicly so far, but trade body English Wine Producers was privately enthusiastic about the Champagne Taittinger English vineyard plan, describing it as a possible ‘new chapter’.

Taittinger announced yesterday that it has joined with other investors, including its UK agent, Hatch Mansfield, to buy 69 hectares of farmland in Kent. The plan is to produce a ‘premium’ sparkling wine under the name Domaine Evremond and using classic Champagne grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.

It has been a well-kept secret, apart from perhaps in Chilham, the nearest village to the vineyard site, where locals have been openly discussing the arrival of some unnamed Champenois, after hearing discussions in French in local cafes.

‘Strong endorsement’

No wine will be available for several years, but this is believed to be the first Champagne house to invest in UK vineyards and it is being seen as a ‘strong endorsement’ of English wine’s rising reputation.

That is, though, to take nothing away from the heavy lifting done by many domestic producers.

UK vineyard plantings have grown strongly in the past decade, in particular, and domestic companies such as Ridgeview, Nyetimber, Hambledon, Camel Valley, Hush Heath and Chapel Down – plus several others – have invested significant sums.

There is inevitable talk that more Champagne houses may seek to follow Taittinger’s lead in England, and comparisons have been drawn with Champenois planting vineyards in the US.

Some estate agents believe English agricultural land prices will rise for potential vineyard plots, but prices are still attractive compared to Champagne – around £25,000 per hectare on average in southern England versus £850,000 per hectare on average in Champenois territory.

‘I don’t like nationalism in wine’

‘I don’t like nationalism in wine,’ Pierre Emmanuel Taittinger told Decanter.com during an interview at Westminster Abbey in London yesterday (9 December).

Both he and Patrick McGrath MW, of Hatch Mansfield, were very much keen for the venture to be seen as a ‘Franco-British alliance’ – and an English wine venture in its own right, rather than an extension of Champagne.

‘Maybe one day we will be ordering a glass of Kent,’ quipped Pierre Emmanuel.

Once the dust of the launch settles, however, a long, meticulous process will ensue.

‘We dug 50 holes in the ground [of the site] last week and some of the team spent a lot of their time sitting in holes examining soil,’ McGrath said, alluding to the less glamorous side of the project.

It has taken up to four years for the team to choose a vineyard site. The first few vines could be planted by May next year, but serious planting is more likely to be 18 months away.

‘Kent is not Champagne’

Much has been made of the similarities between southern England’s chalky soils and those of Champagne, around 300km further south.

But it’s not quite that simple, according to Damien Le Sueur, Taittinger’s MD.

‘There are differences to Champagne and we will have to adapt. We won’t be using the same rootstocks as we use in Champagne, for example.

Pierre Emmanuel added, ‘There is also a lot of wind in Kent, which is something new for us, and also the influence of the sea.’

Le Sueur said that choosing rootstocks would be the next job on his list.

He said it was too soon to talk about the precise style of wine to be made, but that it would fit the light, feminine character that Taittinger is known for. The Champagne house has a 55% stake in the venture.

Ultimately, it is hoped around 300,000 bottles of premium English sparkling wine will be produced from around 40ha of vines. Most of it is expected to be sold domestically.

‘I don’t see this as a financial move,’ said Pierre Emmanuel. ‘I see it as a project between friends. I have always enjoyed being in England. I started my career here, living in Chelsea, so for me, this is like coming full circle.’

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