NEW ALRESFORD, ENGLAND (AFP) - With climate change pushing up temperatures, English winemakers are rubbing their hands as their sparkling wines start to give top champagnes a run for their money.
Strolling through the Pinglestone vineyard in Hampshire, southern England, under a pale autumn sun, winemaker James Bowerman is smiling broadly.
"The (Pinot) Meunier really enjoyed itself this year," the vineyard manager says, surveying the vines.
This year's temperatures have taken Vranken-Pommery, the prominent French champagne house that bought the estate in 2014, by surprise.
"We had to water the vines in June, which is pretty incredible. Given the reputation of the English climate, we were not expecting that," said Mr Clement Pierlot, director of vineyards and champagne cellars at Pommery.
Intrigued by the rapid growth of vineyards in England, Vranken-Pommery jumped into the market after falling in love with the chalk hills of Hampshire.
Fifteen hectares of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the three primary champagne grape varieties, were planted here last year. A further 25ha will be added over the next two years.
While waiting to harvest the first crop of grapes, Vranken-Pommery produced a first sparkling wine with grapes brought in from elsewhere on this side of the Channel.
Dubbed Louis Pommery England, the test was deemed a success.
"We can have wines which are fine and expressive but with a nice style and freshness," Mr Pierlot said.
English sparkling wine will "soon bring a level of cheer to British drinkers greater than that provided by French champagne", said Environment Secretary Michael Gove, talking up the "opportunities of a changing climate".
SPARKLING WINE 'NICHE'
While English vintners have made sparkling wines for decades, the number of hectares given over to their production has soared 150 per cent in the past 10 years, tripling since 2000.
At some four million bottles, sparkling wine represented 68 per cent of wines produced in Britain last year - a share that is set to increase in the coming years.
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier account for 71.2 per cent of the grape varieties planted.
"We have gone from a small cottage industry to a real, proper, thriving industry," said Ms Cherie Spriggs, head winemaker at Nyetimber, whose first vines were planted in 1988, also in south-east England.
Ms Spriggs was named sparkling winemaker of the year at the 2018 International Wine Challenge in July - the first time the prize has gone to a vintner outside the Champagne region of north-eastern France.
She is also the first woman to have won the prestigious award.
English vineyards have found their "niche" with sparkling wines, and now produce "delicious" bottles, said Mr Chris Foss, head of the wine department at Plumpton College, Britain's centre for excellence in viniculture.
"Thirty years ago, it was impossible to ripen the Chardonnay grapes. The wines were green, hard and very acidic. It didn't work. But now there's no problem," he said.
"We have almost the same climate as the Champagne region did 100 years ago."
Besides Vranken-Pommery, France's venerable Taittinger champagne house has set up in Kent, just across the Channel in south-east England.
Their first sparkling wines are expected to be sold in 2023, after three years in the cellars.
Besides English pioneers like Ridgeview and Chapel Down - official wine suppliers to the British prime minister's Downing Street office - newer names such as Rathfinny and Gusbourne are also in production.
Most vineyards are in the south-east, but climate change is opening new possibilities.
A scientific study found that 34,400ha in England and Wales were suitable for growing grapes thanks to warmer seasons - including counties north of the River Thames in eastern England such as Essex and Suffolk.
English sparkling wines are beginning to nibble into the market, but the champagne giants still dominate.
And though the Brits love a bit of bubbly, English sparkling wine is expensive compared with Italian prosecco, an undisputed hit on the supermarket shelves.
Land and labour costs are high in England compared with the continent.
Brexit is also a concern for winemakers, who often rely on an EU workforce.
"The worry for us is the movement of these people in the future," once Britain leaves the EU on March 29, said Mr Bowerman, whose operation currently employs skilled workers from Romania.
"They have taken this industry in their hearts and it contributes to the quality of our wines.
"If they can't come, it is going to be difficult to find enough skilled people."