I thought I was possibly alone in asking what the hell was in my bottle of wine. No one else seemed that bothered. Just happily glugging away whilst eating their vegan zucchini spring rolls and lime cashew sauce. But did they not realize that most of the wine they were drinking may not be vegetarian, let alone vegan and who really knows what’s in the bottle?
Yet could we be more obsessed with what we’re eating now? Absolutely not. We pore over every ingredient, where it’s come from, who’s picked it and did they wash their hands… Wine is still mysterious juice in a bottle. Why? I wanted to know and I wanted things to change. So I started to shake up the industry with a few awkward questions of my own. Like, ‘why does wine have so much sugar?’.
Am I disrupting an industry that’s remained ostensibly unchanged for decades, if not centuries? You’re goddamn right!
It all started one day in 2009. On a whim, with little reason other than my obsessive love of Champagne and the glamour of the French capital, I convinced my husband with two small children in tow to literally up sticks one day and move from Hampshire to Paris.
This was in November of that year and by 2 January 2010 we were stood freezing outside our rented apartment two blocks from the Eiffel Tower and a stone’s throw from the Seine with not a word of the French language between us. But I remember us stood there shivering and laughing. ‘What have we done?’ my husband said with a gritted smile. I had absolutely no idea.
I enrolled in the Cordon Bleu School’s inaugural wine course as one of 20-odd guinea pigs set to be bombarded with hundreds of French wines and very little from anywhere else - I almost began to think the French were unaware that other countries made wine, so blinkered were they to the idea of a new world bottle of Pinot.
But not long after, we were invited one evening to a Champagne tasting a few Metro stops away from our tiny sixth floor bolthole. I met a maker called Alexandre Penet, a tall, smart Frenchman who had studied Engineering at Chicago University but was called home eventually to run his fifth generation vineyard in Verzy. He made the most delicious Champagne, but I discovered, did not add any sugar at the end of the process. Instead, he added reserve wines from the family cellars that gave it a beautifully expensive flavor. ‘No sugar?’ I cried with joy whilst the other wine guests gargled and spat out wine around me. ‘Do you export?’.
On the metro home I was so excited I couldn’t stop dancing around the handrail. ‘We could bring it to the UK and call it Skinny Champagne’, I said to my husband, who at this point was giggling at my little feet skipping around the carriage. ‘Umm…OK’, he said. And my adventure began.
Some years later and my company Thomson & Scott has brought no and low sugar Champagne and Prosecco to delighted drinkers across the country from London to Liverpool, Leeds to Llandudno. It’s now reaching out to the U.S., Canada, South Africa - you name it. It’s something I wanted to drink and luckily others around the world do too.
We’ve spent years asking what’s in our food - ‘are there preservatives?’ ‘What’s the fat content?’. The dreaded E numbers took a pasting a while back but we still wanted to know more. Now we’re boiling it down to the small details - flaxseed or hemp oil, rye or sourdough, oats or spelt?
But still no one says, ‘What’s in my bottle?’. Possibly because most assume it’s grape juice and alcohol and not a lot else. But that’s where it becomes interesting and where I get quite noisy. Not all wine is vegetarian or vegan. How? Well, animal byproducts are sometimes used as part of the winemaking process known as ‘fining.’ Additives help to sink unwanted molecules to the bottom of the vat and the clear wine can then be slurped from the top.
Natural wines are starting to break through in the market now and are fashionable, having had many years in the shade. They rely on neither adding nor removing anything during the winemaking process. But they are difficult to make and may fail to wow wine drinkers looking for something exciting. They can spoil easily because they don’t have sulphites or preservatives to stabilize them. Even winemakers who claim to be natural winemakers often add tiny amounts of sulphites as an antioxidant and antibacterial measure.
So discovering that Champagne and Prosecco could be made with no or low sugar lead me to believe this was a very good place to start. The calorie conversation is old hat. We now know that not all calories are made equal and I’m certainly not a fan of diet drinks, which my products most certainly aren’t. It’s all about removing some of the quantity of the deadly white granules that permeate our eating and drinking habits.
If we can crack the sugar problem, many of the other dietary issues people battle with might also become less relevant to their daily lives. Clean food and drink is most definitely the future. But if anyone would have asked me in 2010 if it would have made such an impact on the way in which the food and drinks industry is going, I would have regarded myself as going very much against the tide. Champagne is still alcohol and there’s a big responsibility to make sure people drink more carefully than they have over the last few decades in the UK. But let’s not kill the fun of great bubbles, just bury the sugar levels. Cheers to that.