Back in June 2019 we offered our Upper Class customers the choice of an English sparkling wine alongside our usual French Champagne. Intended only as a two-week promotion in support of English Wine Week, our chosen bottle, Hambledon Classic Cuvée proved so popular with our customers it now remains a permanent feature on our Upper Class menu.
The great and the good of the Champagne world seem to agree, England is coming of age as a wine producing nation. English sparkling wine is now widely regarded as providing stiff competition to the famous Champagne region. As Oz Clarke put it, “The English wine world is a thrilling place to be now – so full of potential that I sometimes call England the newest new world wine nation.” It’s no surprise then that production of English wines has increased from around one million bottles in 2008 to over 15 million bottles in 2018.
The UK’s oldest commercial vineyard
Take a drive through the stunning Hampshire countryside on England’s beautiful rolling South Downs, and if you’re lucky, you’ll stumble upon Hambledon vineyard in the village of – you guessed it – Hambledon.
First established as a vineyard by Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones in 1952, Hambledon is the oldest commercial vineyard in the UK. But English wine making goes back further than the fifties – way further in fact. English vineyards have existed since Roman times; the Doomsday Book records 42 vineyards in Southern England around the end of the 11th century.
Fast forward to 2021 however and Hambledon vineyard is now set on over 200 acres, with some 100,000 established vines of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (the three grape varieties most commonly used in the production of Champagne), which are painstakingly yet lovingly pruned by hand each September before being pressed, blended and bottled onsite.
A royal affair
Hambledon wine was served by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1972 to the then French president, President Pompidou at a reception in the British embassy in Paris. This was to be the first time English sparkling wine was served to the president of France. Legend has it the notion of wine passing through French customs at that time heading from rather than to England caused something of a commotion among the customs officials processing it.
The birthplace of cricket
As if producing world class sparkling wine isn’t accolade enough, Hambledon village also holds a page in the history books as the birthplace of cricket in around 1750. There were only two stumps back then, but during a match in 1775, ‘Lumpy’ Stevens beat the great Hambledon batsman John Small three times with the ball going through the two-stump wicket of the day. Following this the patrons agreed adding a third stump seemed sensible, and that’s how the three-stump wicket came to be. Look closely at the Hambledon crest and you’ll notice two stumps with a cricket ball, in homage to the area’s sporting heritage. How’s that for trivia.
Meet Ian Kellett
As a keen wine enthusiast Ian Kellett fancied having a dabble at running a vineyard, as one does. “Not one to do things by halves I decided to take on the French Champagne region” Ian recounts, “and so in 1999 I became the proud owner of the Hambledon Estate.”
When asked what’s it like owning a vineyard: “Well, we spend an awful lot of time talking about the weather. We Brits enjoy talking about the weather, but when you run a vineyard you really talk about the weather! From April to October we pretty much ponder the weather on an hourly basis.”
What is behind English sparkling wine’s rise to distinction?
According to Ian, “It all comes down to geology and climate. Hambledon has the same high-grade chalk soil as the Champagne region, perfect for growing Chardonnay grapes, and a marginally cooler climate which gives fabulous acidity to make sparkling wine with.
“It’s been mooted that our terroir (geological and climatic conditions) is on par – better even – for making sparkling wine than that of the Champagne region.
“Then there’s lots of skill involved, of course, in blending the wine in a way that the acidity is refreshing. That’s where our head winemaker Hervé Jestin comes into his own. We’re making the quality to beat Champagne, not just match it, and consumers are increasingly drinking less Champagne and more English sparkling wine.”
So, what would Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones make of Hambledon wine being served in the sky?
“He had a 10-acre vineyard and we’ve turned it into 200 acres with an enormous cellar big enough to hold a couple of million bottles. I love to think that he’d be proud to have Hambledon wine served by Virgin Atlantic at 35,000 feet all over the globe. 55 million bubbles in a bottle at 35,000 feet – it’s just marvellous. I do often wonder what Sir Guy would think of it all, maybe in another 50 years or so when I shuffle off this mortal coil, he’ll tell me!”
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