'Mad' Frenchman making 'champagne' in southern England
Every year, Didier Pierson produces around 100,000 bottles of champagne from 10 hectares, which he owns in Avize in the Champagne region of northeastern France.
Chidden -- "Yes, lots of people say I'm mad," said Didier Pierson, a French champagne producer who has decided to start growing in England, convinced that British bubbly can match the real thing.
Pierson has planted his vines on a wind-swept hill overlooking the English Channel in Chidden, southern England, where cattle, not grapes, are a more typical sight in the fields.
Every year, he produces around 100,000 bottles of champagne from 10 hectares (25 acres), which he owns in Avize in the Champagne region of northeastern France.
But he wanted to expand his operation, and doing so in France was pricey -- a hectare of land in Champagne costs around one million euros (1.4 million dollars).
His English wife urged him to look on the other side of the English Channel, where a hectare fetches more like tens of thousands of euros, said Pierson.
He picked the pretty coastal county of Hampshire, bought four hectares in 2003 and embarked on what he calls "an adventure."
"We are right in the chalk here, like in Avize," he told AFP. Chalky soil is ideal for growing vines because it drains well and this part of southern England, like Champagne, has it in abundance.
Britons have long been among the world's biggest consumers of champagne, and more of them are now producing it, as well -- the number of vines planted here has leapt by a third since 2004, many of which are used to make sparkling wine.
Nevertheless, Pierson's project has not gone down too well with some of his countrymen.
"The French think I'm completely mad," he said. He is not allowed to sell his wines as champagne and cannot even mention that he owns a vineyard in Champagne itself on his bottles.
His friends, though, are watching eagerly to see if he can defy centuries of tradition and see if he can produce a fine "champagne" from English soil.
Pierson said he "really hopes to show them that you can make a quality sparkling wine in England."
But, despite having harvested his first English vines in 2007 -- the wines from which will be ready by the end of 2011 -- he says it will be some time before the vines reach their full potential.
"I think it is too early to know if we will be able to make good wines in England -- we need to wait 10-15 years," he said.
The 42-year-old has one eye on that date and another even further ahead -- to a future where his children, who are aged nine and 10, will be able to take over the English project.
"If it goes well, other French producers will come over," he said, highlighting the "big names in champagne, which are already looking towards England -- Roederer, Moet, Duval-Leroy."