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Jefford on Monday: Avoiding the Royle Warrant

"To my ear, 'Britagne' evokes Pomagne, a Bulmer product conceived and advertised back in the early 1900s as 'Super-Champagne Cider de Luxe' under the banner ‘Hereford – The English Rheims'..."

Peter Hall wasn’t impressed. “Don’t you think it’s stupid?” he asked me. “It looks like a French word, for a start. Why do we need a fake French word to describe an English product?”

We were sitting at the worn wooden table in Breaky Bottom farmhouse. It was, for once, a cloudless summer’s evening. I was shelling the broad beans we’d just picked from the kitchen garden, which were sweet enough to eat without cooking; there were freshly pulled carrots beckoning from beneath a snow of brown earth and filigree leaf; a green woodpecker was quartering the vineyard outside with long bounds. Both barn owls and little owls had produced chicks this year. As we tasted the latest still wines in the barn, a juvenile swallow surveyed us – African visitors back in 2011 after an eight-year absence. This small, snug wine farm just under the South Downs Way seemed more contented, in sum, than I can remember it in 20 years of visits.

Peter Hall was thinking of changing his label supplier, and one of the samples showed to him by a rival hoping for his custom was a Coates & Seely example, vaunting the description ‘Britagne’ as a substitute for ‘English Sparkling Wine’. Christian Seely and his business partner Nicholas Coates have, by dint of taking over two established vineyards as well as planting just over seven hectares of their own, become English sparkling wine producers in very short order; they only shook hands on their partnership in October 2007,and the rosé can already be ordered from the website. Having admired the improvements Seely brought about at Noval and at Pichon-Baron, I’m sure this is a serious debut in an increasingly crowded field. But ‘Britagne’?

There’s usually a smile playing around Seely’s lips. Might this coinage be at least half-humorous? Indeed the fact that he apparently expects us all to pronounce it in a heavy Spanish or Italian accent, as Manuel in ‘Fawlty Towers’ would have done, adds to the faint loopiness. (The idea is that it then sounds like ‘Britannia’.) No cap-doffing to the ‘traditional method’; this is ‘Méthode Britannique’, which sounds as if it might be a French military historian’s description of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

To my ear, Britagne evokes Pomagne, a Bulmer product conceived and advertised back in the early 1900s as ‘Super-Champagne Cider de Luxe’ under the banner ‘Hereford – The English Rheims’. Needless to say, the Champenois eventually saw that off, and Pomagne plunged downmarket, fetching up as the beverage of choice of the favourite telly-addicts of an entire nation of telly addicts: the BBC’s Royle family. Swopping ‘Brit’ (a devalued shortening, post-Blair) for ‘Pom’ hardly lifts it. I rate the chances of this Coates & Seely-registered term being adopted by other English sparkling wine producers as zero.

“What’s wrong,” said Peter, “with English Sparkling Wine? Let’s call it what it is. In English. They’re beautiful words.” ‘Wine’ may be a common noun, but it has a long, reverberative historical trajectory; the polyvalent adjective ‘English’ has been yoked to it, with increasing success, for half-a-century or more; and ‘sparkling’ is an exuberant and lustrous adjective in its own right, evoking not just celebratory wines but much else, including gemstones, witty conversation and the fine weather which follows rain. To regard them as plain merely because they aren’t French is what the Australians call a cultural cringe. We don’t need it.

The better that English sparkling wine gets (and I’m sure Coates and Seely will help propel it forward), the more authoritative ‘English Sparkling Wine’ will begin to sound. Names do indeed matter; but novelty in nomenclature is hazardous and ephemeral, while the plainest names, like the simplest tools, have a habit of enduring.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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