Perry Is The Fermented Drink Known As The English Champagne

Champagne by any other name, well, wouldn't be Champagne at all. According to French law, Champagne with a capital C is an official designation reserved only for sparkling wine made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France and produced according to strict regulations. On the other hand, champagne with a lower-case C is fair game when applied to diverse varieties of sparkling wine produced all over the world. It's even okay to specify Spanish champagne (cava), Italian champagne (prosecco), German champagne (sekt) ... you get the drift. 

In England, it's perry, a decidedly unique spin on sparkling wine made from pears, not grapes. To be honest, the drink is not wine in any sense of the word, sparkling or otherwise. It's actually hard cider made from pears instead of apples. But, that didn't stop Napoleon Bonaparte from declaring it "the English champagne." The name stuck, and here we are two centuries later discussing its merits.

Not to be confused with pear cider (a catch-all name for mass-produced drinks derived from pears), the term perry is usually reserved for artisanal varieties. While the precise meaning of cider differs in the U.S. and abroad, it's reasonably safe to assume that pear cider is an unfermented soft drink, while perry typically averages 4% to 8% alcohol by volume — about the same as a 12-ounce bottle of beer. Additionally, authentic perry is made only from perry pears, a variety of pear cultivated specifically for making the drink Napoleon christened English champagne.

Back to the future

Napoleon's declaration may have put perry on the map, but the fizzy drink was a mainstay in Britain long before it caught the little corporal's fancy. By some accounts, its roots go back 4,000 years to the Roman Empire. During the early days of Britain's Tudor period, modest households experimented with making cider, including pear-based varieties, as an alternative to home-brewed beer. By the 17th century, perry had gained a foothold as the sparkling beverage of choice in royal circles. Its popularity was eventually eclipsed by wine, but it appears a revival may be in the making. Artisanal producers intent on reintroducing the age-old drink have been known to scour the British countryside — particularly in the Wye Valley — in search of long-forgotten perry pear orchards, and they're meeting with some success; individual trees can live up to 300 years. 

Despite Napoleon's comparison, even the best perry has little in common with Champagne — except for the bubbles, of course. Well, that and the fact that making good perry is a complex and time-consuming process. That's due, in part, to the fact that perry pears, in their many varieties, are notoriously finicky. The fruit is fragile, and the just-right window for ripeness is fleeting. Unless it's handled with kid gloves, the juice can turn from perfection into an acidic elixir in short order. But, when the stars align, perry is bubbly and slightly sweet with a touch of tart; perfect for drinking chilled on a hot summer day.