England, My England. Aka The British are Coming!
While still a small industry, the quantity, and quality of the wines made in England and Wales are increasing. It’s getting hard to remember that English wine is only a recent success story.
The death of English and Welsh wine
In 1920, the last commercial vineyard in Britain was abandoned, finally ending a continuous period of winegrowing started by the Romans. Monks had continued a British winemaking tradition. However, the abolition of the Monasteries, an unsuitable climate, and Britain’s emergence as a trading nation had sealed its fate. Importing superior wines was simple, cheaper and more profitable.
It must have been a sad day in 1920 when Castell Coch in Wales gave up the unequal struggle, and winegrowing in Britain died out.
After the Second World War, winegrowing started again in the south of England. The first commercial vineyard was in the early 1950’s at Hambledon in Hampshire. However, winegrowing remained precarious and was often hobbyist in nature.
Gradually, new grape varieties, better site selection and techniques, and scientific research became available. Changes in tourism, wine drinking, and, latterly, climate all meant that a fledgeling industry became commercially viable.
The vines planted here were German and French hybrids bred to produce ripe and healthy grapes despite our capricious damp climate. For example, you’ll find dry white wines made from Müller-Thurgau, Bacchus, Seyval Blanc and Reichensteiner, with reds made from Rondo, Triomphe, Regent, and Dornfelder. There are two dozen or so unusual varieties with unfamiliar names. These so-called “curious grapes” with unfamiliar names make good characterful wines.
Now home-grown wine is prospering, more so than at any time in the past. We make wines of which we can all be proud. Meanwhile, Britfizz will soon be widely known as being world-class.
However, as our climate warms, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay are growing successfully in Britain for the first time. They now account for nearly half the vineyard area planted and that proportion will continue to increase. Climate change poses a considerable threat, yet there’s no doubt it benefits English wine thus far, at least for the short-term.
On the chalk downlands of southern England (which is the same chalk geology that is in Champagne) the result is exceptional sparkling wine. No wonder Champagne Taittinger has bought 170 acres of farmland near Canterbury. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.
Sparkling wine is our jewel in the crown. Over the last decade, Britfizz has picked up a slew of international awards. We’re getting accustomed to it competing with Champagne. For me, Nyetimber (in Sussex) and Camel Valley (Cornwall) currently lead the way, but there are plenty of rivals not far behind. Get ready for an explosion of world-beaters over the next few years. The last time I heard “the British are coming” was when Chariots of Fire won four Oscars in 1981!
Hold your head high
English Wine Week 2016 runs from 28 May to 5 June. The English Wine Producers website has the details of all the events planned around the country. Wineries, retailers, restaurants, and pubs are all involved.
Support our English vineyards, especially during English Wine Week. There are 470 vineyards and 135 wineries across England and Wales. Many make a great day out; with wine tastings, sales of wine and local produce, and beautiful scenery. Some also have good restaurants. Just don’t show surprise at the abilities of the winemakers or the quality of their wines.
There is plenty to be proud of, and I’ll be doing my bit to contribute to making it a success! Meanwhile, try these.
Do you have a favourite English or Welsh wine? Let me know!
* Addendum: What is British Wine? British Wine is totally different from wine from England and Wales. This is not being pedantic or splitting hairs. Wine from the latter is always made from freshly picked grapes grown outdoors in England and Wales. In stark contrast, British Wine is an alcoholic drink made from grape concentrate imported in bulk into the UK – it’s cheap industrial rubbish to avoid.