Who was the first Champagne maker to plant vines in English soil?
While Pommery and Taittinger are the most high-profile Champagne houses to plant vines in English soil, it was another Champagne maker who came before them, and by several years.
As I learnt at a dinner last week in London to try the distinctive and delicious Champagnes of Frerejean Frères, it was this producer’s cellar master, Didier Pierson who was the first person from the French sparkling wine region to plant Champagne grapes in England.
The fifth generation Champagne grower actually planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the South Downs in 2004, which was 13 years before Pommery and Taittinger put vines in English soil in the spring of 2017.
In fact, as Pierson told me at the Frerejean Frères event on Wednesday last week, a French journalist, who had been following Pierson’s foray into the English sparkling wine business, had corrected former Taittinger president, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, when he had claimed to be the first person from Champagne to plant vines in the UK in 2017, having acquired a site in 2015.
As a result, Pierre-Emmanuel had invited Pierson to help him with Taittinger’s Kent-based project, called Domaine Evremond, although Pierson had turned him down due to his winemaking commitments at Frerejean Frères, which is in fact run by cousins of the Taittinger family, with the house headed by Rodolphe Frerejean-Taittinger.
Pierson said that he had become interested in English wines in 2001, having married an English woman, who came from Berkshire, and then discovered the wines of Ridgeview from the South Downs, which he said “impressed me”.
He later met Ridgeview co-founder Mike Roberts MBE, who became a “good friend”, even staying at Pierson’s house in Champagne, and it was from this friendship that the idea to plant vines in the South Downs came to Pierson.
Having spent a year in 2003 researching the soils of this southern part of the UK, looking for something similar to Champagne’s chalky Côte des Blancs, he found an ideal site “between Southampton and Portsmouth, in Hampshire”.
“I knocked on the door of a farmer and said, ‘I want to plant a vineyard on your land’, and he looked at me as though I was mad,’” recorded Pierson.
But the farmer, called Syd Chaplin, came to Champagne with Pierson, even though the landowner didn’t drink alcohol whatsoever. And, after eight months of negotiation, the pair created a company and wine brand together called Meon Hill, after the site where the vines were planted in the Meon Valley.
That was in 2004, when 4 hectares, half given over to Chardonnay and half devoted to Pinot Noir, were put in the ground on a chalky site that had been used for grazing sheep.
While Pierson made his first harvest in 2007, he kept the wines in reserve for blending with the subsequent vintage, to create a non-vintage cuvée like Champagne, where different years are blended to add depth and complexity to the sparkling wine, and in the case of the Meon Hill English sparkling, “to soften the acidity”, said Pierson, before commenting that he found much of the wines from the UK at that time “too sharp”.
Chaplin has since died and the farm is now owned by his children, but managed by an outside company, and Pierson produced around 100,000 bottles of Meon Hill annually until 2012, when Pierson was approached by Ian Kellett of Hambledon Vineyards, which is 10 minutes down the road.
Today, Pierson acts as a winemaking consultant to Hambledon, while supplying grapes to the winery from his now fully established vineyards in the Meon Valley.
He no longer bottles any sparkling wine under the Meon Hill brand.
When I asked him for his view on the sparkling wines he managed to create in the UK, Pierson said that fizz from his project in the South Downs was “better than expected”.
While Pierson has a Champagne brand called Pierson Whitaker (a combination of his name with the surname of his first wife), he is the winemaker for Frerejean Frères, having gone into partnership with the Frerejean-Taittinger family, who created their own Champagne brand in 2005.
Although Taittinger and Vranken-Pommery planted vines in the same year in the UK, the latter was the first of the big Champagne houses to release an English sparkling wine, having launched its debut release from the south coast under its the Louis Pommery label in May 2018, which was made at the Hambledon facilities in Hampshire.
Pommery planted 40 hectares of vines at a place named Pinglestone Estate in Hampshire in 2017.