The English Wine Renaissance
At the vanguard of a domestic viticultural revival is Julia Stafford, who has recently joined forces with Hush Heath wine producer Richard Balfour-Lynn to create the English Wine and Spirits Company in London: a one stop shop in Bishopsgate’s Devonshire Row for the very best quality wine grown and produced on these shores.
Article by Nick Scott Photography by Andy Barnham
Peter Ustinov once said, “I imagine hell like this: Italian punctuality, German humour and English wine.” Had the English dramatist not shrugged off his mortal coil back in 2004, I’d love to have invited him to indulge in an afternoon’s tasting at the Wine Pantry in London’s Borough Market, which I founded three years ago and which is now being merged into the English Wine and Spirits Company. I’m pretty convinced that much of our stock – the Magnum Blanc de Blanc 2003 from Nyetimber in Sussex; the fruit-driven still white made from Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Bacchus grapes in the Stopham Estate, also in Sussex; or the compelling Pinot Noir from Gusbourne in Kent – might prompt him to revise his opinion.
It might have surprised Ustinov – along with even the more educated amongst modern wine consumers – that the first person to document the making of sparkling wine was English physicist Christopher Merret, who submitted a paper to the Royal Society explaining how sugar and molasses could be added to wines to make them sparkle and that stronger bottles were needed to withstand this secondary fermentation process. This was several decades before Dom Perignion’s famous declaration, “Come quickly – I am tasting the stars.” A fellow Englishman, courtier and diplomat, Sir Kenelm Digby, has been credited with being the inventor of the modern wine bottle, and was the first to use corks to seal them. It was also an Englishman – Oxford clergyman Samuel Henshall who first patented the corkscrew in 1795.
And yet, English wine – as distinct from what is now referred to as British wine, which is essentially concentrate from grapes grown elsewhere in the world then bottled on these shores – didn’t really kick off until after the Second World War. It was then that two pioneers, Ray Barrington Brock, a research chemist on a mission to discover the best grape varietals to grow in Britain, and Edward Hymans, an author on grape-vine cultivation in England, inspired the leap from amateur hobbyist’s interest to commercial viniculture.
In the last 10-15 years, the likes of Nyetimber, Gusbourne, Breaky Bottom and Ridgeview in Sussex, Camel Valley in Cornwall and Chapel Down and Hush Heath in Kent have been able, on the back of these early amateur experiments, to grow and win international awards with the main Champagne grapes – Pinot Meurnier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – which grow particularly well when used in sparkling wine. Chardonnay tends to need more sunshine than the others, which means, because most English sparkling wine is vintage, when it is really hot we have great Champagne years and clean up in international wine awards competitions. We’re eternally grateful for the Gulf Stream Effect, and fearful of global warming, which would threaten the climate we have.
When asked about price, we remind customers that a Dom Perignon 2003 – a tough year for French Champagne houses, due to it being the hottest June since records began – sells for about £125. The Nyetimber 2003 Cuvée, which was crowned Champion of Worldwide Sparkling Wines in 2010 was, until it sold out, available for under £30. Indeed, this year at the International Wine Challenge, English wine makers took home two trophies and five gold medals.
Although there are big calls – from The Duchess of Cornwall, for one – for English sparkling wine to have a single, all-encompassing term to define it. I am not so sure it is necessary. Mike Roberts – Founder, Director and Winemaker at Ridgeview – has called for it to be called “Merret”, after the aforementioned secondary fermentation observer. The problem with this, though, is that there are so many different grape combinations going into blends and many different regions producing such small quantities. The vineyards tend to be the ‘brand’ people ask for, rather than an all-encompassing and generic Champagne/Prosecco/Cava style description. “I’d like a glass of Chapel Down,” is becoming more common a request in restaurants like Roast in Borough Market. Or “Which English sparkling wine do you stock? Is the common question in wine retailers now. With more than 400 vineyards to choose from, it’s a fascinating voyage of discovery.
English wine has traditionally been made using rootstocks from either northern France or Germany (varietals such as Reichensteiner). These imported vines have been tailored and grafted to be disease resistant and early ripening – the latter making them perfect for the British climate. Increasingly, however, other grape varietals like Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc are being made into more complex and exciting wines, with the industry attracting new and old world wine makers to make both still and sparkling wines. We even have an award winning ice wine from Nottinghamshire, and I would love to commission more sweet wines as the company grows.
Although I keep referring to the vineyard locations, I wouldn’t refer to England as having “Wine growing regions”, as such (perhaps one exception being Camel Valley, which has a remarkable micro-climate). It’s more a case of certain regions in the UK being blessed with good wine growers who have found the right grapes, the right soil and the right methods for that particular region.
We’re particularly lucky, as an industry, that English vineyards tend to be run by people who have already reached the peak of other professions – highly successful corporate finance professional Nicholas Coates; the English Managing Director of French insurance giant AXA Millésimes Christian Steely; hotel entrepreneur Richard Balfour-Lynn; savvy investor Eric Heerema – and are now bringing their drive, perspicacity and experience to making good English wine and marketing it smartly.
Thanks to people like these, the domestic wine industry is making leaps and bounds, and perceptions are changing, in part because journalists are cottoning onto it as a niche area. There are still obstacles, though: it’s hard to get people tasting English wine, because it’s not readily available, and when it is it’s usually not by the glass. It’s also perceived to be more expensive than its counterparts. Then there’s that other predominant problem – so many people don’t really even know it exists.
A lot of this comes down to small production levels. England and Wales make only 2-4 million bottles a year, while we import between 1.6-1.8 billion bottles, so a tiny per cent of overall wine sales are domestic produce. We’ve always been an importing nation – that’s why Napoleon called us “a nation of shopkeepers” – but another factor is, although we can significantly increase production, there’s only a certain amount of the correct soil here for specific grapes, and only a finite number of north, south or eastern facing slopes which make specific grapes excel. We’re also such a relatively new industry that we haven’t worked out entirely what we can grow and where to coax the best out of various grapes (we’re excellent at growing the grains that go into making beer, of course, because we’ve been doing it for so long).
It’s all about trial and error, and other countries have had the benefit of thousands of years’ development. Until recently, we have been limited by lack of investment – viticulture is, of course, relatively new to New Zealand and Australia but, as well as having more available land to experiment with, they have enjoyed subsidies, whereby their governments paid them to try planting certain new grapes. Meanwhile, it is also hard to replicate the growth that the Chilean or Argentinean industries underwent, but for slightly different reasons – they not only had vast amounts of land to experiment with, but also cheap labour to utilise.
Over here, there are EU grants and subsidies with regard to plant machinery, which some of the vineyards are starting to benefit from, but I’m hoping there will be more investment and more leniency shown towards our domestic wine scene in the coming years. We could do with more positive intervention and, as a result, more proactive players on board.
All the above considered, though, the English wine industry is in rude health, and is on the ascent. Despite all the factors against us outlined above – and apologies for using a French word – we’re truly experiencing a renaissance. We have finally raised the investment we need to help push it forward with events, tastings and, of course, wine sales. Long may it continue.