English winemakers raise a glass to Brexit

Is this English bubbly as good as Champagne?
Is this English bubbly as good as Champagne?

Across the sun-kissed vineyards of England's south coast, there's no sour grapes over Brexit.

Britain's winemakers are instead finding their glasses half full thanks to a steep drop in the value of the pound, which has made their wares more affordable abroad.

"The fall in the currency will help our export operations, which are considerable," said Frazer Thompson, CEO of Kent-based winery Chapel Down. "And in order to create a brand in the true sense, we have to have an international reach."

Like other winemakers, Chapel Down is benefiting from a resurgence in interest in English wine. The firm's sales have risen 30% from a year ago, and the price of its listed shares has doubled in 2016.

To meet the surge in demand, Chapel Down is adding almost 100 new acres of vines.

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Brexit won't be entirely positive: Europe is an excellent source of skilled workers, and they could find it harder to come to Britain when the country leaves the European Union, said Thompson.

But the disruption to trade ties with the EU is less of a concern. The winery's biggest export markets are in Asia and the U.S. -- not Europe.

Plus, the key to success in the long term will be consistent quality from the winery.

Beset by bad weather and high production costs, English wine languished at the bottom of the barrel for years.

"I remember in the early days we would grow all these Germanic grape varieties and people would taste them ... and then you told them it was English and they would say 'oh horrible,' " said Thompson.

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But by planting the same grapes as those used in France's fabled Champagne, Chapel Down have turned a novelty bottle into a prized product in less than two decades.

"We are 120 miles from the northern reaches of Champagne -- the most famous wine producing area of the world -- and we have exactly the same type of soil," he said. "That's what makes English wine so fantastic."

English sparkling wines even beat Champagne in a number of blind tastings last year, cementing the country's place in the world of wine.

Chapel Down's wines are even served at the tables of Buckingham Palace and No.10 Downing Street.

-- James Frater contributed reporting.

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