Champagne welcomed on English soil

on 07 January, 2016

When the news emerged that Taittinger had become the first champagne house to take the plunge in the English wine business, the most immediately striking thing about it was how happy the natives were with the development.

As far as I’m aware, there was no “Oi! Get off of my land!” when English farmers learned the Taittinger family had snapped up nearly 70ha for their English fizz project in Kent. Rather, everyone I spoke to saw it as a good thing, confirmation from the French masters of sparkling wine that the south of England is world-class terroir.

But then that seems to be the way all over the world. From the Bordelais winemakers of the late 19th century, who fled their phylloxera-ravaged vineyards for Rioja and effectively set the stylistic template that marks the Spanish region to this day, to the line of star consultants that began with Emile Peynaud in the 1970s and ran through Michel Rolland to Stéphane Derenoncourt. Whenever the French bring their expertise, the locals are almost always glad.

The irony, of course, is that the reverse is rarely true. While the champagne trade has German merchants in its DNA (Krug, Deutz, Heidsieck), and the British did so much to shape the fortunes of Bordeaux, more recent attempts by foreign companies to get a foothold in French wine have been met with, at best, classically Gallic shrugging indifference, at worst outright hostility (I’m thinking of Mondavi, hounded in the Languedoc in the early 2000s by the impish Aimé Guibert of Mas de Daumas Gassac, or the various violent, anti-globalisation interventions of the Comité Régional d’Action Viticole, CRAV).

This is all part of the curiously conflicted attitude the French have towards globalisation in any form. This, after all, is the country where the phrase Coca-colonisation was dreamt up, but which has exported its grape varieties and practices to pretty much everywhere wine is made.

It’s also the country that deplores the hegemony of the hamburger, even as it provides McDonald’s with its biggest market outside the US and even as it congratulates itself on the spread of the croissant to every bakery from Tokyo to Tulsa.

I doubt any of this will much bother the Taittingers as they embark on their English adventure. Of rather more concern will be to ensure they avoid the pitfall that has beset so many French overseas vinous missions: the niggling feeling that whatever they do abroad will never quite match what they do back at home.

Too many French exchanges end up suffering from what I call the Hollywood remake effect. Good as the new versions may be, most of us would choose Mouton- Rothschild over Opus One and Almaviva, DRC over Hyde de Villaine or Chapoutier Ermitage La Pavillon over Tournon Lady’s Lane Heathcote, just as we’d rather see Jean-Paul Belmondo A Bout de Souffle on the streets of Paris than Richard Gere Breathless in LA.

Taittinger has had a taste of this problem already, its perfectly competent Californian project at Domaine Carneros forever overshadowed by the original back in Reims. Will the Kentish cuvées prove an exception? We’ll have to wait until 2020 to find out, but I have a feeling southern England’s soil and climate, so much closer to Champagne in every respect than California, may prove as hospitable to the Taittingers as its people.

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