MAY 21 — Ahh, champagne!
That most evocative symbol of haute couture par excellence, capturing the essence of Gallic flair and joie de vivre. Could anything be more French?
Well. Actually, a few years from now a significant and growing proportion of the fizzy stuff imbibed at celebrations all over the world will, in fact, be... English.
Ok, it might not technically be called champagne, because that particular title is legally reserved exclusively for sparkling wines grown in the specific region of northern France around the rolling hills of Epernay, for reasons of competitive advantage which are fiercely guarded by jealous French vintners.
In the same way that Spain has cava and Italy has prosecco, which are essentially the same product as champagne but with a different name, the English wine growing world will have to dream up its own suitable moniker.
Nevertheless, much of the sparkling wine we drink in 2027 will be from England rather than France, assuming the latest venture of renowned champagne house Taittinger comes to full fruition.
Earlier this month, Taittinger took a major step towards English entry into the market by planting the first vines on a 69-hectare site just outside the quaint village of Chilham, located in Kent, the so-called “garden of England” in the south-eastern tip of the country.
Production will be a slow process because Taittinger are following all the necessary procedures to create a high-quality product, with the vines needing time to grow and the wine allowed three years of ageing before being released for consumption in 2023.
In the long-term, though, the project is expected to yield significant results, with Taittinger planning to build a fully-fledged winery and turn the area into a major tourist destination.
It’s rather ironic that a traditional heartland of England is becoming devoted to the cultivation of a symbol of Frenchness at a time when Britain is turning rapidly away from the European continent in favour of regressive isolation, but the plans of Taittinger and other wine companies who are establishing a presence in the UK reflects commercial, rather than political, realities, which are being shaped by an even more powerful phenomenon: the weather.
The change in the British climate being caused by global warming is creating ideal situations for the cultivation of grape vines, something that would have been unthinkable even 50 years ago when even the southernmost points of England, the warmest parts of the country, regularly encountered frosty nights late into spring.
Now, though, the warmer weather is creating perfect conditions for the growth of vines, with the English wine industry already producing five million bottles per year and delivering labels which are good enough to win awards in prestigious international competitions.
Simultaneously, climate change is taking those perfect conditions away from the traditional champagne growing heartlands in France, which are becoming too hot and too dry for the necessary vines to flourish.
Apparently, an increase of just one degree Celsius in average temperatures sends the ideal conditions for the cultivation of vines 400 kilometres to the north. As the impact of global climate change is only just starting, we should probably expect the British wine market to go from strength to strength: our grandchildren will probably grow up in a world where Canterbury is the new Champagne, and Birmingham the new Burgundy.
This could lead to a more significant wider perceptive shift, because so much of a country’s global reputation depends upon the food and drink it produces. Among the first images conjured by the word “Italy” are pasta and pizza. You think of India, you think of curry. Ireland? Potatoes and Guinness. America? Burgers and fries.
Britain has never fared particularly well in this respect, with stodgy pies, fish and chips and warm brown beer among the few culinary “delights” traditionally associated with the isles.
Somehow the thought of Britain being defined by elegant sparkling wines seems as incongruous as the idea of Americans turning their backs on fast food and Coca-Cola, but that could be the direction in which we’re heading.
From a historical perspective, it has always been that way, and a surprisingly high number of supposedly traditional national dishes have their origins far, far away from the lands which with they are identified.
Potatoes, for instance, were not native to Europe and were only brought to the continent after Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492. It’s a similar story with India and chilis, which originally hail from Central and South America.
This all goes to show how national stereotypes are relentlessly on the move. There’s really no such a thing as an inherently “French” gastronomic product: just a product which is suited to the particular social, political and climactic realities of a specific but brief period of time.
All those factors are subject to constant change. Champagne is French by historical accident, not because it has to be French forever, and from a wider point of view there is nothing strange whatsoever about a particular foodstuff being grown in one place rather than another.
The same is true of countries themselves. Mexico wasn’t Mexico when its chilis were first discovered by the Europeans — it was an assortment of independent city states and foraging societies with flexible borders and everyday rituals which would nowadays appear insane and barbaric.
That rewriting of borders will continue too, no doubt. By the time French champagne becomes truly English, maybe even England won’t be English anymore. The only thing that stays the same is that nothing stays the same c’est la vie.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.