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Connoisseurs say 'non' to Champagne as English wines sparkle

England's vineyards are now giving those in neighboring France a run for their money. NBC News' Theresa Cook reports.

HAYWARDS HEATH, England -- "I imagine hell like this: Italian punctuality, German humor and English wine." Attributed to actor and writer Peter Ustinov, that gibe has long been the conventional wisdom in Britain -- the world's biggest wine importer.

But these days, a small but growing number of English winemakers are having the last laugh.

The Bolney Estate in West Sussex took home a Gold Outstanding award for its 2007 Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine at this year's International Wine and Spirit Competition. The event attracted nearly 3,000 entrants and the English vineyard scored a coup by winning one of only 12 such distinctions conferred in the wine category.

The judges' tasting notes almost seemed to be a metaphor for the industry itself, praising the wine as "youthfully exuberant and with immense charm" and "perfectly dry, harmonious and polished even at this youthful stage."

Sam Linter, winemaker at The Bolney Estate, recalled how her parents started a small-scale planting in the southern England vineyard in 1972.

Her mother Janet Pratt, a horticulturalist, helped realize the dream of husband Rodney Pratt, who discovered a passion for winemaking while studying in Germany and living with a host family which tended its vineyard on weekends.

Experimental varieties
But the Pratts soon discovered they needed more than love of the land.

"They planted the wrong varieties, did the wrong things, scrapped the vineyard, started again, and then started planting experimental varieties, they could really start learning what would really work well here," Linter told NBCNews.com. "And they worked really hard at that for a few years until they gradually got the knowledge base that we have now in order to plant more."

Linter said that English winemakers' inital toils produced very little wine. "The quality -- it wasn't there in the early days, I think we'd all admit that," she added.

Slowly, they figured it out -- the experimentation produced an award-winning wine in the 1980s, and won over their daughter, who would take over in the next decade. "They actually showed that they could do it, too, and so I suddenly realized there's actually a hidden potential here that needs developing."

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A 2007 Blanc de Blancs sparking wine grown at The Bolney Estate in southern England, seen here, took home a Gold Outstanding award at this year's International Wine and Spirit Competition.

Linter and her team have been hard at work building on her parents' legacy.  

But despite the awards bestowed on Bolney and a handful of other winemakers across England, to many it's still far from mainstream. Marketing English sparkling wines is seen as difficult enough to have featured as one of the challenges designed to stymie contestants Britain's version of "The Apprentice" this season.

For the past year, Londoner Julia Stafford has been working to change that, preaching the gospel of English wine. Her pulpit: a tiny stall in London's bustling foodie haven, Borough Market. Her mission: to show customers that tasting is believing.

"If you think about it, we import 1.77 billion bottles of still and sparkling wine every year," she said. "And we're only a tiny little island -- so we appreciate our wines."

English customers, Stafford said, "want to find something to be proud of.” 

"What we find over here is, they come in, they taste, they find something they like and they become repeat customers, and we have a really strong, loyal following," she said.

Stafford herself is a convert.  She left a career in oil and gas to pursue "more sustainable, energy-efficient businesses."  The original plan was to open a completely English-sourced pub in London's Marylebone neighborhood. As part of her research, she turned her attention to the country's wines.

"I didn't actually know anything about English wine at the time. So I basically went on a two-year exploration of the countryside, going around to vineyards. Some of them are so small that they don't even have anybody to man the telephones, they don't have email, and it's almost an inside joke that you sometimes have to send pigeons to get messages to some of the very, very small ones."

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London's Wine Pantry is believed to be the only outlet to exclusively retail English wines.

It was from her travels and meetings that she "got the English wine bug." When back in London, Stafford said she was able to read about the wineries racking up awards -- but there was one problem.

"There was nowhere actually where you could buy or taste them," she said.  

So Stafford changed course, opening up the Wine Pantry -- believed to be the only outlet to exclusively retail English wines.

Her shop is tiny, like the industry itself.  

In England, there are only 419 vineyards and about 2,985 acres in production for all types of wine: red, white, still, sparkling.  That's three-and-a-half times the size of New York City's Central Park. 

In France, in contrast, more than 4,700 winegrowers operate in the Champagne region alone, planting almost 83,000 acres -- the equivalent of planting Manhattan five-and-a-half times over with vines. 

About 385 million bottles of bubbly leave Champagne vineyards each year. England produces a fraction of that, with 2.4 million bottles of white and 611,200 bottles of red.

'A very, very good product'
But despite the disparity in the production numbers, many of the vineyards across England have learned from the trial and error. And the grapes of Champagne don't just grow well in their home soil, they've flourished in the cooler climes across the English Channel.

"It's not just Champagne, Champagne, Champagne," according to manager and sommelier team member Mark Cesareo of London’s The Gilbert Scott, the latest offering from Michelin-starred chef Marcus Wareing. "People are starting to realize that ultimately, English sparkling wine is a very, very good product."

The restaurant -- housed within St. Pancras International Station, from where high-speed Eurostar trains zip between London and Paris -- also specializes in British food. Cesareo said that offers an opportunity to showcase England's finest wine along with the cuisine. Sometimes he orders more cases of English sparkling wines than Champagne -- not quite a regular occurrence, but he said he does see an emerging pattern.

"English sparkling wine -- it's about time, especially this year with the [Queen's Diamond] Jubilee, the Olympics, the [royal] wedding that just passed last year. It's the perfect time for it. Now is the time, now is the time," Cesareo declared.

Standing amid her vines, Linter gives credit to the French and the "massive amount of experience" in a country that supplies vines throughout Europe in addition to growing its own lauded stock. "But of course once the vines come over and we've planted them in our soil, they grow in our climate, in our soil; they're trained and looked after by us -- they become English.  They've almost got their passport, by being planted in the soil."

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