Vineyard acreage on the island has doubled in the last eight years / from exotic to an export hit: Sparkling wines are very much in demand.
Hand on heart: Who would think of vines - and not rain - when it comes to England? The island is the home of beer and cider, fish & chips, and all kinds of gastronomic specialities that you have to learn to love first... Yet just as the Brits have made up a lot of ground in terms of cooking & cuisine recently, they are now also preparing to compete with their French neighbours on the other side of the channel, above all with crisp sparkling wines. This is down to climate change: In the last eight years alone, the vineyard acreage in England and Wales has doubled to 1,450 hectares - that is more than, for example, Luxembourg can show, the small but much better known country for wine production.
"We are still exotics. But the wine world has discovered us, and is starting to speak positively about us", says Julia Trustram Eve, Head of Marketing of "English Wine Producers" (EWP), not without pride. At ProWein 2014, the stand, where six top products from the island were presented for the second time, was always well frequented. Many visitors seemed surprised by the high quality, especially of the sparkling wines which make up two thirds of the production. No wonder, because many vines of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grow in the South of England, in exactly the same chalk soil and a similar climate to the Champagne region.
Ambitious vineyards such as Ridgeview, Balfour, Gusbourne, Chapel Down, Bolney or Hattingley Valley are now not only gaining recognition at international competitions, where they scoop up the sparkling wine trophies with pleasing regularity, but also due to the acceptance of their bottles into the wine menus of star rated restaurants domestically and abroad. The international wine critics do not hold back on this matter and give high praise. "I am absolutely delighted with the quality of the English sparkling wines. The wines are generally very well made, with really fresh, vibrant fruit, exactly the right amount of bubbles, and certainly without the excessive sweetness that masks some sparkling wines", says Jancis Robinson MW about giving the best marks to the fizzing stars from Merry Old England. Of course, these also have their price. The Balfour Brut Rosé 2010 costs around ₤40 trade price, the Hattingley Valley Kings Cuvee from the same vintage costs as much as ₤ 65.
Therefore, Simon Robinson, proprietor of the 24 hectare business in Hampshire, is not afraid to say where he sets the bar: "We have invested a great deal in modern technology since the start of 2008, maintain our vineyards perfectly, we develop some of the musts in oak barrels - and do not have to hide from Champagne." At ProWein at the end of March in Düsseldorf, Robinson and winemaker Emma Rice were, however, positively surprised by the "huge interest in English sparkling wines - we are on a very good path". Marketing professional Julia Trustram Eve, responsible for the EWP appearance in Düsseldorf, sees it the same way: "Our producers are now reaping the rewards of their hard work. ProWein, with its high quality of specialist trade visitors, is just the right platform to make our wines even better known internationally."
How long Vitis vinifera has been rooted in English soil is not certain. Indeed, archaeologists found wine amphorae and silver drinking vessels at several burial sites in the South, from the 1st Century BC - but these could have come into the country from the strong trade with Italy and today's France. After the Roman invasion in 43 AD, wine consumption increased in popularity. Finds of vine pollen in an excavation site in Nene Valley near Wellingborough, support the theory that the Romans also brought the vine with them during their 300 year "trip" to the island. The climate at the time must have been marginal though. Tacitus described it as "unpleasant and not at all suitable for growing vines…"
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The Roman Age was followed by the invasions of the Angles and the Saxons, and in the late eighth Century that of the Vikings. Wine growing was only able to survive in a few areas of the country with the help of the monasteries. The Normans led it to new, previously unknown glory after 1066, not least due to the climate change in the late Middle Ages. However, the local wine always stayed in the shadow of the imported competition from Bordeaux, Porto, Madeira, Jerez de la Frontera and those from the Rhine and Mosel.
Indeed, history continually reports dogged attempts at vineyard plantations, like that of the great botanist John Tradescant on the estate of Lord Salisbury in Hertfordshire in the 17th Century, or of Lord Bute at the Welsh Castle Coch 200 years later - yet we can only talk about a serious vineyard with an economic background from the 1950s on. Even today, the vine pioneer Ray Barrington Brock, who experimented with more than 600 different types of wine and table grapes at his research station in Oxted / Surrey for more than 25 years, his colleagues Edward Hyams and George Ordish, author of the book "Wine Growing in England", are still seen as the forefathers of modern British wine growing.
If the winegrowers of England long focussed on early ripening varieties such as Bacchus, Seyval Blanc, Huxelrebe, Ortega, Reichensteiner, Müller-Thurgau, Schönburger and various hybrids, there has long been a rethinking in planting policy since then: Half of all of the new vineyards today consist of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. Gone are the times when the English and Welsh wines are seen as rather poor imitations of the imports from Germany à la Liebfraumilch, with a significant amount of residual sugar, to cushion the high level of acids, and not exactly predestined to be an accompaniment to food. Pioneers, such as the premium sparkling wine producer Nyetimber in West Sussex, place importance on the grape blend of Champagne and orient themselves towards the great example on the other side of the channel when it comes to development and price. It has been noted with great satisfaction that recently, representatives of the most important Champagne houses have been discreetly sounding out opportunities for new wine growing areas in the South of England…
In fact, wine growing there has undergone a breathtaking development in the past 15 years: The sparkling wine production has multiplied fifteen fold from around 250,000 bottles to almost 4 million since the millennium. In addition, half the quantity of still wines, amongst which primarily the rosés, is constantly increasing in popularity. Although the demand for the local sparkling wines on the island exceeds the available quantity, the top producers are focussing more and more on export. Ridgeview, for example, already sells more than 20% of its sparkling wine outside of the country to Australia, Denmark, and Finland as well as Hong Kong, Switzerland and the USA.
For owner Mike Roberts, who earned his money in the computer sector before he jump-started the vineyard in Sussex in 1994, the changeable climate on the island is the only problem that could put the brakes on further growth: "That is actually the only worry that I have…" If the weather is on our side, which was not the case in 2013 for example, "exceptional sparkling wines with crystal clear minerality and acidity and notes of wild chervil and dog roses" can be produced in the South Downs, which wine author Adam Lechmere has already attested to as English terroir stylistics: "Then it only needs to be marketed internationally according to the Burberry effect."
Even the British Royals have long had a taste for the local sparkling wines and honour the producers again and again with their presence at official occasions - like Lady Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, in Camel Valley recently. At the Queen's diamond jubilee and the state banquet for Barack Obama, the sparkling wine came from the cellar of Ridgeview – which has now won more than 200 medals and 27 trophies at various competitions, including "Best Sparkling Wine Worldwide" at the Decanter Awards 2010.
EWP and its sister organisation United Kingdom Vineyards Association, with president Paul Langham at its head, have done a great deal to improve their expertise of vineyard and cellar in the last few years, and create a positive image for the local wine across the country. The prize giving of the "English & Welsh Wine of the Year Competition" is now an in demand social event, additionally the "English Wine Week" and the yearly "Trade & Press Tasting" raise awareness and public interest.
At the technology trade fair Intervitis Interfructa 2013 in Stuttgart, a large English delegation was registered for the first time; Plumpton College now has its own research facility which enjoys a good reputation even outside of England. It will surely also contribute to international exchange that experts from all over the world will meet for the first time in British Brighton in May 2016, for the 9th International Cool Climate Wine Symposium - after previous stops in Tasmania, New Zealand, Oregon and Burgundy. In this way, England officially obtains the status of a wine growing nation to be taken seriously.
How much things are in progress is perhaps also shown by the example of wine journalist legend Steven Spurrier: He did not celebrate his 70th birthday last year pompously in a Bordeaux Chateau, but in the form of a country picnic with guests such as Hugh Johnson and Michael Broadbent in his own vineyard in Dorset. They enjoyed luxurious wines such as Bollinger, Beaucastel and Léoville-Barton - but the Chardonnay came from Arcadia and Shaw&Smith. From England. How times have changed. Thomas Brandl