In the 1890s a cartoon in Punch magazine posed the question: “How many men does it take to drink a bottle of English wine?” The answer, accompanied by a drawing of the procedure, was four: the victim, two to hold the victim’s arms and legs and a fourth to pour the wine down his throat. How things have changed since then. English wine expert, Stephen Skelton MW, takes a look at this burgeoning industry
Last November, in the grandeur of the Royal Opera House, RidgeView Estate’s 2006 Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs was awarded the International Sparkling Wine Trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards having beaten four Champagnes in a closely fought final. Considering that this wine came from a winery that released its first wine in 1999, whereas the Champenoise have been making sparkling wine since the mid-1600s and the Sussex-grown Chardonnay-based wine retailed for £21.95 with the Champagnes costing between £45 and £95 a bottle, the achievement is all the more remarkable.
When I started taking an interest in English vineyards in the mid-1970s, the industry – if that’s what it deserved to be called – was based upon German cross-bred varieties, developed for their ability to ripen in marginal climates, plus the odd French-American hybrid, bred to be able to withstand cool, damp climates. Wines – at their best – were light and fruity and had no aspirations to be anything other than delicate apéritif or ‘luncheon’ wines – certainly nothing that would get wine critics and enthusiasts worked up. Although most growers found a ready market for their wines, in the early 1990s, things started to go wrong. Suddenly the British public woke up to different styles of wine from the new world and sales of UK-grown wines started to fall. The result: growers pulled up vines. From 1994-2004, the UK’s vineyard area fell by 30% with the number of individual vineyards falling from 479 to 333. Then two things happened: climate change and what I call the ‘Nyetimber effect’.
Cheers to climate change
The number of days over 29°C, a figure of some significance for vines in a cool climate like Britain’s, has risen from an average of only two per year in the ’70s and ’80s to almost five days per year between 1990 and 2007. However, it was the exceptionally warm 2003 – when Champagne growers declared it to be “too hot” – that really turned the tide and Britain’s grape growers set about planting Champagne varieties.
Since 2004, the UK’s vineyard area has almost doubled from 761 hectares to 1500 hectares of vines producing an average of just over two million bottles a year. Many of the new vineyards have been planted with the trio of varieties that made Champagne great: Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Meunier and these now account for almost 50% of the total area.
Nyetimber brings it on
The ‘Nyetimber effect’ is named after Nyetimber Vineyard, planted between 1988 and 1991 in West Sussex. Planted with Champagne varieties, the vineyard released its first wines – all bottle-fermented, lees-aged sparkling wines – in 1997 and immediately picked up gold medals and trophies in national and international competitions. Since then there has been no looking back for the English sparkling wine sector. In 2010 around three million bottles of English wine were produced, over half of which will be for sparkling wine; this is the first time that sparkling wine has become the dominant style produced.
Apart from Nyetimber, the other leaders in sparkling wine are Camel Valley in Cornwall, RidgeView in East Sussex and Chapel Down in Kent. UK vineyards have always been spread across the southern half of the country, with the bulk of them being in the traditional fruit-growing counties – Kent, Sussex and Hampshire – but also in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall.
As for the future of viticulture in the UK, this is a subject of much speculation. If the expected temperature rise over the next 50-80 years of 2˚C actually happens, then there is no doubt that the area under vines will rise and that the grape varieties we grow will also change.
This type of temperature rise would bring us in line with many French regions – the Loire, Burgundy, Bordeaux – and Germany, so expect to see varieties typically grown there such as Pinot noir for red wine, Sauvignon blanc and perhaps Riesling. We know we have the soils for growing grapes and increasingly the expertise to both grow and make good wines. The only missing link, in my opinion, is the marketing.
Marketing UK-grown wines has always been difficult, especially at the prices needed to sustain business viability; with over three-quarters of the UK’s wine sales going through the multiple grocers and high-street wine merchants, selling UK-grown wines takes a special effort.
Traditionally, the best UK wine producers sold much of their output direct to the public from its vineyard – farm-gate sales – and for many this continues to be a good option. Many vineyards have good shops, cafés and restaurants and, with vineyard tours and wine tastings, survive without going near the high street. However, as vineyards get bigger, the farm-gate is no longer appropriate as the outlet for the total production and today more and more English wines can be found in supermarkets, hotels and restaurants.
The push towards more local products – fewer air miles, smaller carbon footprints, support the British farmer and so on – has undoubtedly helped UK wine producers sell their wines and long may it continue. The best UK-grown wines, especially the sparkling ones and wines made from varieties such as Bacchus and Ortega, are really world class and worth buying. Wine quality has improved immeasurably over the past 35 years and there is no reason – especially if the climate continues to improve – why this should not carry on.
Artisan & Vine
Take a stunning Australian businesswoman with more effervescence than a magnum of best bubbly and a driving passion for English and Natural* wines and you have Kathryn O’Mara, the founder and owner of Artisan & Vine – a London wine bar with a difference in Battersea.
Kathryn belongs to the school that believes if you really want something badly enough and are prepared to work for it, then nothing is impossible. Why else would a highly successful professional woman with no experience in the hospitality industry trade in her day job for a chance to live her dream: running a wine bar that sells only English and Natural wines? Learning on the job from the day this haven for wine lovers opened in July 2008, Kathryn put her all into the new business, which was soon ranked as one of the Top Ten Wine Bars in London. In September 2010, barely two years since launch day, Artisan & Vine won the International Wine Challenge Award for Small Independent Merchant of the Year.
EC caught up with Kathryn at one of her monthly ‘Meet the English Wine Maker’ evenings and asked her why she puts so much store by English wines.
“I grew up in Australia where ‘Made in Australia’ is a very proud stamp on many food and drink products,” explains Kathryn. “Australians are proud of the wines we produce and many are familiar not only with the important wine regions but also the grapes we use. I have also lived in Germany and the USA where residents are similarly comparatively knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their own wines. When I moved to London a few years ago, I had to search to find English wines, normally needing to travel to vineyards before I could even get my hands on a bottle.
“At a time when localism in food is a growing English trend, it has always struck me as odd that English drinks don’t enjoy a similar curiosity. I believe in localism for food and wine; issues of freshness, carbon footprint or economy aside, I believe in local identity and connection. I think I’m not alone. Visitors to Artisan & Vine from England’s wine-growing counties love the fact that they can buy their local wines in London. Globalisation comes with lots of great benefits and opportunities, but I think it would be a shame to lose local eccentricities and character; and that’s the main (though far from the only) reason that I think English premises should sell English drinks.
“However, I don’t think an enthusiasm for localism should translate to a dogmatism about localism. I love fresh Italian reds with Bolognese; I love Australian Semillion with my summer barbecue; and I love Alsatian whites with paté; now I also get to love English sparkling wine with strawberries; what could be better than that?”
If you can’t get to Artisan & Vine for its wide selection of wines and great food courtesy of chef James Robson, visit the website at www.artisanandvine.com where you can sign up for Kathryn’s informative and inspirational weekly newsletter.
* Natural wine is made with as little chemical and technological intervention as possible, either in the way the grapes are grown or the way they are made into wine. Not to be confused with organic wine, which usually means that although the wine is made from organically grown grapes, there is no law to stop them from being chemically and technologically manipulated in the winery.
In 1977 Stephen Skelton established the Tenterden Vineyards in Kent where he made wine for 23 consecutive vintages. The vineyard is now the home of Chapel Down, the UK’s largest wine producer. Since 1986, Stephen has not only been a consultant to the English wine industry, he has also written and lectured widely on English and Welsh wine and his two books The Vineyards of England and Wines of Britain and Ireland are the standard works on the subject. Stephen also manages a fine wine business, Thameside Wines, in Putney, London.
UK Vineyards Guide 2010
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Viticulture – an introduction to commercial grape growing for wine production
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