HAMPSHIRE, England (CBS) -- Most of us have popped open a bottle of bubbly to celebrate a special occasion. And we've always been told the best sparkling wine is champagne from France. But the times, and the climates, are changing.
The Brits have historically knocked back more champagne than any other nation bar France itself. But this year, for the first time, less prestigious but more affordable sparkling wine is expected to beat champagne sales here. And English sparkling wine in particular is rapidly becoming a main player.
To wealthy bankers, it's long been a symbol of luxury and exclusivity. But to connoisseurs, it's the drink's Frenchness that bubbles to the surface first. Champagne is, after all, a region in France until you recreate that region in England, which is exactly what English wine-maker Christian Seeley has done, in spirit at least, on the rolling fields of Hampshire, an hour west of London. Seeley says, "This little piece where we are, this little valley, has a soil profile that is almost identical to what exists in Champagne, that's to say chalk and a bit of clay."
Seely co-owns one of the roughly 400 vineyards in England that produce sparkling wine, along with the usual red and white. It's a growing industry but with annual sales of around $40 million, it's still dwarfed by the approximately $5.5 billion champagne makes each year.
And in a country more famous for its pints of ale and strong cider, success has depended on more than canny marketing and good soil. Seely says, "Well, it's definitely got warmer on average. People say we have a climate today in this part of the world that is very similar to what they had in Champagne in the 1960s, and they were making great Champagne in the 1960s."
The wine-making methods, however, are most definitely 2012. Nick Coates, Seely's partner in wine, says the old ways might impress the tourists but are rarely used now. He says, "Realistically the vast majority of champagne production now uses this modern machinery."
Like giant concrete eggs, which keep the wine at a constant temperature or these so-called giropalettes. Coates describes what they are for, "They are for riddling, which means, in the old days, when you had a bottle of champagne on its side with the sediment on the bottom, a little man would come along and he would turn a quarter of a bottle a day, and it would take him about four months to keep turning the bottle until the sediment was in the neck of the bottle."
Things are a bit quicker at Coates and Seely, who launched their first bottle last year and are confident English sparkling wine will continue to grow in popularity. Coates says, "I think we're at the beginning of what is a high growth phase. I personally have no doubt, and I think Christian probably shares it, that in 10-15 years from now, this part of England, particularly on the chalk soils will have a great deal of vineyards on it."
Just don't say they're trying to imitate champagne. After all, the whole point is that this is fusion wine-making: French technology with English fruit. Seely says, "What we're trying to do here is make world-class sparkling wine that is an expression of English wine and has an English personality."
And with Englishmen as determined as that the French had better watch out.
It's clear that the guys at this vineyard here are not interested in imitating champagne, which is just as well because, legally, only sparkling wine produced in the champagne region of France can be labeled "champagne."