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Champagne grower plants vineyard in Hants

Published:  23 July, 2008

After years of speculation and rumour, a Champagne producer has finally taken the plunge and planted a vineyard in southern England. But it's a small grower from Avize and not a well-known house that has made the first move, planting 3 hectares (ha) of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir near Hambledon in Hampshire.

The grower in question is Didier Pierson-Whitaker, who, with his English wife Imogen, farms 1ha of vines in the grand cru of Avize and premier cru of Grauves. Unable to secure extra vineyards in Champagne and needing to expand their production - currently between 15,000 and 20,000 bottles a year with the help of bought-in grapes - the Pierson-Whitakers have spent several years looking round southern England for a suitable site. They found it on a south-facing hillside in the Meon Valley north of Portsmouth and, in a joint venture with landowner Sydney Chaplain, this spring they planted 3ha of vines on Little West End Farm they hope will give a first commercial crop in 2008.

The idea is to make high-quality English sparkling wine working in exactly the same way as we do in Champagne,' says Imogen Pierson-Whitaker. We visited practically every English producer in our search for suitable land, and now we've found it we've planted lots of different clones to see what ripens best here. You can see the Isle of Wight from the slopes of the vineyard.' The plan is to press the grapes on-site bringing over equipment from Avize. There is room to build a winery and expand plantings in the future.

The biggest player from Champagne known to have looked at leasing vineyards or planting vines in Kent is Duval-Leroy, which is the fifth-largest owner of vineyards in Champagne after LVMH, Pernod Ricard (Mumm & Perrier Jout), Taittinger and Louis Roederer. Their plan was also to produce a quality English sparkling wine, and although they failed to reach an agreement with the two farmers with whom they had discussions, Duval-Leroy it still understood to be interested in the idea.

Frazer Thompson, managing director of the English Wine Group, the largest English sparkling-wine producer that buys in grapes from all over Kent, Sussex and Essex, commented: I'm not in the least bit surprised - we're selling all we can produce. It's world-class, and that's why we've added 125 acres this year and plan to add a further 150 acres for the next five years, bringing our production to 1.5 million bottles by 2011.'

Demand for vineyard sites in the UK has been driven by the fact that there is very little suitable unplanted vineyard land left within the present Champagne appellation, and current production is barely keeping pace with demand.