Sparkling Wine Production

(My thanks to the author TOM STEVENSON for his contributions to this history)

Champagne was a French invention, and the name is currently trademarked - hence the unfortunate Thorncroft Vineyard case where the developers of a sparkling Elderflower drink had their legal knuckles rapped for daring to call it Elderflower Champagne. However its current popularity owes much to a 17th. Century timber shortage in Britain!
The original drink was developed by blending noble grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and the black Pinot Noir) to produce a white wine. One of the original 16th. Century producers, the legendary Dom Perignon regarded the presence of bubbles as the sign of a poor blend. Problems arose when the cold winters of northern France stopped the fermentation- only for it to restart in Spring, with disasterous effects on the low grade bottles.

Champagne was imported to England from the village of Ay to Cardinal Wolsey in 1518, although we can assume that the Royal Court enjoyed champagne on occasions since as early as 1359 when Edward III decided to lay siege on Reims. It is unlikely that he came back empty handed!

Photo: Stuart Moss, Pioneer of UK sparkling wine production using classic grapes- enthuses with members of the Thames & Chilterns Vineyards Association at Nyetimber

Champagne in cask was popularised in London society by the exiled Marquis de St Evremont in 1662. It became fashionable under Charles II, largely as a result of changes in the method of glass making

Champagne, with its tendency to re-ferment, requires a container that can withstand 5 atmospheres of pressure. One opinion is that normal wood-burning furnaces failed to reach a high enough temperature to produce this. Changes were also necessitated by a ban on the use of charcoal for glass making. Admiral Sir Robert Mansell had concerns for the future of British shipbuilding as the forests were being decimated by the charcoal burners. In 1615, he persuaded King James I to forbid glass furnaces to be fired by wood.
Necessity thus resulted in the development of coal-burning furnaces which produced stronger, darker glass bottles which were ideal for storing champagne. Many noblemen would order the wine in casks, add a dose of sugar and bottle it. The English were inveterate improvers, but in this case, as Merrett points out, the sugar was added for the express purpose of making the wines sparkling and to increase alcohol.
The technology spread to France and bottling champagne became far less of a high-risk operation. The drink became popular at the court of the Duc d'Orleans. However, despite the new bottles, only 10% of champagne was fizzy. This changed in the 19th. century after experimentation succeeded in regulating the second fermentation process. Until this time, the French made Champagne by the 'Rural' method' i.e. Continuation of the first fermentation

Jancis Robinson - The Oxford Companion of Wine
LaRousse -Encyclopaedia of Wine
RJ Charleston English glass and the glass industry in England circa 400-1940

Sparkling Wine making in England and Wales

Many vineyards, now make a Sparkling wine using the Methode Champenoise. A variety of grapes are used, including the traditional Pinot Meunier , Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well as Seyval Blanc and some aromatic grapes. The grapes are pressed and fermented. When the fermentation has finished, the cuvees are then often blended before bottling. A sugar and yeast mixture is added to the wine in bottle in order to create a secondary fermentation in the bottle - the cause of the fizz. The yeast deposit is persuaded tomove to the neck of the bottle by a process of exact bottle turning on the wooden racks. This is known as pupitre. The bottle neck is then usually frozen, the cork removed and the yeast 'plug' flies out.Some wine makers 'degorge' by hand at a rate of 350 per hour - a process they tend to learn fairly quickly in order to avoid too many fizzy baths ! A dosage of sugar and wine is added and the bottle is corked and wired.

Several specialists have developed skills since the early 90's.David Carr Taylor have been winning prizes in England and France for over 10 years, and Nyetimber in Sussex are gaining wine-press headlines for their newly released product. Will Davenport at Rotherfield and Mike Roberts at Ridgeview have vineyards dedicated solely to the production of Sparkling wine. On a smaller scale,Cornish patriotism and no little skill has ensured that Camel Valley Brut (made with Seyval)outsells French brands around Bodmin and won an IWC Gold in 2005 while at local level, both Stanlake Park and Fawley have won gold medals for their sparkling - the latter using the Bacchus grape

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