Our two sparkling wines drunk on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were classic examples of the wine revolution currently taking place in England. Chapel Down, Sparkling Bacchus, made from the grape of that name, and Hush Heath, Balfour Brut Rose, made from the “Champagne trilogy” of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, are two of the best English sparklers made in the county of Kent. They are all expanding the revolution of fine sparkling wines winning awards in international wine challenges which have been dominated by Champagne for so long ….. and not a Prosecco in sight! But there has been a much earlier English Wine Revolution 400 years ago, one that completely changed the content and direction of wine around the world. It might surprise you!
Verre Anglais … a very English bottle!
There would be no sparkling wine produced over the past 4 centuries without the creation of a bottle strong enough to hold a liquid at almost 6 atmospheres pressure. And that bottle was invented in England as the first essential component for sparkling wine. At the time, conventional glass bottles made using oak wood to fire glass furnaces were not strong enough, but this changed when the use of oak was restricted because it was needed for ship building as part of the war effort against France. This led to the use of coal, especially from Newcastle and Gloucestershire, resulting in hotter furnaces and stronger glass made into a “shaft & globe” bottle. The example above is from the glassworks of Sir Kenelm Digby at Newnham next to the Forest of Dean coalfield in Gloucestershire. This glassworks was also right next to the heartland of cider and perry production! Have you guessed what came next?
The invention of sparkling wine c1662
Sparkling wine is produced from a secondary fermentation WITHIN the bottle by adding a little sugar to a still wine before corking. This had happened naturally in many cases over many years, but not in bottles, usually in barrels and casks. In the case of wines from the champagne region of France, wine from casks were poured into jugs, allowed to warm up a little, and the secondary fermentation began allowing customers to drink a foaming wine. The production of stronger glass bottles in England however interested the cider and perry makers who began experimenting with adding sugar to their products, corking them up, then allowing them to ferment for a couple of years in the bottle. It was from these cider makers that an English alchemist experimented with doing the same thing with wines. His name was Dr Christopher Merret, a member of The Royal Society in London, and the image above is from the paper he presented to The Society on 17th December 1662 in which he describes how to make sparkling wine. And, the significance of this? It was fully 30 years before Dom Perignon supposedly “invented” how to make sparkling wine in bottles! There’s a simple video about this significant piece of history link below, do click the link to see a summary of how it all happened:
“Verre Anglais provides an answer to the age-old debate as to whether it was the French or the English who invented Champagne. Dating back to the 16th Century, the French were producing wine and shipping it to England, but the bottles would often explode. The English are known to have then invented a bottle strong enough to contain the sparkling wine, referred to as Verre Anglais (English Glass). Reportedly, the English were also the first to document the method of adding sugar and yeast to make the wine sparkle. The French then later perfected this method to develop the taste to be something more along the lines of the Champagne we know and love today. So, Verre Anglais provides the fundamental element in the development of Champagne that the English can rightfully lay claim to and what makes it so different to any other sparkling wine. It has a whole lot of history at its heart.”