The high quality of English sparkling wines comes as something of a shock to most people. England seems too far north, too cool and too rainy, doesn’t it? And it doesn’t have much history as a wine-growing country. True, vineyards date back at least as far as the eighth century, and the warm period between the 12th and 14th centuries produced some English wines of real quality, if contemporaneous reports are to be believed. But the 14th century brought the Little Ice Age and the Black Death, and the end of English wine along with them.
It wasn’t until 1952 that a (1.5-acre) commercial vineyard appeared, and it wasn’t until decades later, after a string of unusually warm, sunny summers, that English growers replaced the original German hybrid grapevines with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the three grapes of Champagne.
The ancient calcareous rock formation largely responsible for the success of Champagne extends north into southern England, where the soil is remarkably similar to that of Champagne. And climate change has warmed southern England enough so that grapes now ripen adequately and consistently enough to create sparkling wines that compare favorably with — and sometimes even top — their more famous French counterparts.