THEY may be fiercely patriotic about their wine, but the French are now so impressed by our tipple that they are looking to set up here too

Over the past 20 years the English wine industry, with Sussex leading the way, has been establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with, even being served at Buckingham Palace during state visits. And Paul Morgan, of Fourth and Church wine bar and restaurant in Hove, said it is therefore not surprising that the Grande Marque Champagne houses of France have been looking to invest in farmland in Sussex, Kent and Hampshire.

He said: “Kent and Sussex are just shy of 100 miles north of Champagne and the chalky soils around the North and South Downs are very similar to the terroir where famous names such as Bollinger and Dom Perignon plant their grapes.”

The French see the attraction for growing vines here because the ‘terroir’ – the climate, topography and soils – of the South Downs is particularly suited to growing the traditional Champagne grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Mr Morgan sees some positives in French involvement in the English wine industry, particularly when it comes to marketing and distributing in a global marketplace.

He said: “Not only does French involvement validate the potential of English sites for investment. Also established French Champagne houses can market and distribute English sparkling wine into their global channels already established by the Champenois.”

Taittinger planted their first vines in England in Chilham near Canterbury in Kent in May of this year, having also considered Sussex and Hampshire. The first planting was 20 hectares of classic Champagne grapes, with a view to a further 20 hectares by 2019. The first English sparkling wine under their Domaine Evremond label should be released for drinking in 2023, after three years of ageing in bottle.

Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, president of the Grand Marque Taittinger Champagne House, said: “Our family has always had a great affection for the UK and Kent. My father Jean Taittinger twinned Canterbury with Reims when he was mayor of the latter in the 1950s. We have been very impressed by the quality of English sparkling wine being produced, and we believe the combination of chalk soils, climate and topography of our site in Kent are ideal for producing quality sparkling wine. These attributes are perfect for grape growing, and are very similar to the terroir in Champagne, for us it was a natural step to do this.”

Whilst it is generally felt that the French Champagne houses starting production in England is a positive endorsement of the quality of production here, some native English wine producers have questioned whether they have the best interest of the emerging English wine industry at heart.

By entering the English market with significant investment and production, the French could effectively crash the price of English wine to protect the premium price point of Champagne.

Simon Broad of Ten Green Bottles shop and bar in Jubilee Street, Brighton, said teh French influence will bring down the price of our wine.

He said: “It’s inevitable that more and more bottles will be produced over time and this will affect the price point of English wine.

“On the one hand, I don’t think it’s a bad thing that companies with experience are coming in, as it should result in a quality product. But on the other, it would be a shame if bigger companies started to push the smaller ones out of the market”.

Projected demand for sparkling wine from UK consumers is expected to grow to 15 million cases by 2020. As traditionally a non-wine producing nation, the UK is one of a handful of EU countries that are still legally allowed to plant vines anywhere without any of the Protected Designation of Origin restrictions that are found all over Europe, thus allowing huge potential for growth in the industry.

“Planting in England is one of the few ways the French can expand production”, said Alison Nightingale of Albourne Wine Estate. Buying existing vineyards in France can be difficult, if not impossibly expensive, in the Champagne area”.

Collette O’Leary of Bluebell Vineyard, near Haywards Heath, said costs are higher here and that shows the French influence will be positive.

She said: “It is expensive to produce wine in England due to the cost of land, labour and the sometimes-fickle nature of our climate. Any French producers entering the industry will be planning for the long term and I expect they will be looking to work with UK producers not undermine them. It’s one thing for English wine producers to say world-beating wines can be produced in England, but overseas investment lends an independent authority to that belief which should benefit the industry.”

Bryonie Grieveson of Bolney Wine Estate, said: “I believe French producers growing in England have both our and their best interests at heart and will bring with them experience and knowledge of producing a premium product.”

Tamara Roberts, chief executive of family-owned and operated Ridgeview Wine Estate in Ditchling, believes the French houses will be a wake-up call to the English wine industry.

She said: “We mustn’t forget that the Champagne houses are mainly large, corporate businesses at heart used to working in a fiercely competitive marketplace. Their interest in England will be focused on growth and profitability”. The fact that they are interested in investing in England will significantly raise awareness of the industry with consumers, both domestically and internationally. It will be seen as an endorsement of the bright future for English sparkling wine.”