English wine – far from a joke now

This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.

Wine is a particularly sensitive barometer of climate change. While drought has become such a problem in Australia that the authorities have been threatening to turn off the irrigation water in some of that country’s most important bulk wine producing regions, some of the more obvious beneficiaries of global warming today are wine producers in such relatively cool countries as Canada, Germany, Belgium, Denmark – and England.
English Wine Week begins today and in less than a generation English wine has gone from being a joke to a serious investment prospect. Tales of champagne producers worried about their increasingly hot vineyards prospecting southern England for suitable alternatives may have been exaggerated by the British media, but my colleague Steven Spurrier is certainly discussing the possibility of a joint venture with Duval Leroy of Champagne on his wife’s sheep farm in Dorset.
Vines were widely grown in England and Wales from Roman times until well into the Middle Ages but vine-growing was left to those living closer to the equator until the mid 20th century when Major-General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones revived the habit at Hambledon in Hampshire (serving sherry to this particular visitor because it was less precious than his domestic ferment). For several decades vine-growing was typically a retirement occupation for the well-heeled with a paddock to spare but it has become increasingly serious and professional as average summer temperatures have risen. Denbies just 20 miles south west of London is England’s biggest vineyard with 250 acres of vines on prime Surrey slopes and is now a fully fledged tourist destination with visitor train, restaurants and so on begun by Adrian White of Biwater as long ago as 1984. English wine has since attracted serious investors from both Britain and abroad with arguably the most renowned producer Nyetimber having changed hands twice since 2001, and having grown from 35 to 259 acres in the last year..
It is no coincidence that Nyetimber’s speciality is sparkling wine made in the precise image of champagne, using the same grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier planted in a corner of Sussex supposedly prospected for its similarity to Champagne by the American couple who set it up in the early 1990s. To make fine fizz it is essential that the grapes are not too ripe and the acidity remains refreshingly high. England’s relatively marginal climate for grape growing is a positive advantage for makers for sparkling wine, a product that can be difficult to make in many warmer New World wine.
It used to be the case that in any 10 year span, English vineyards would produce only one or two decent crops. There would be two or three years in which the grapes failed to ripen at all and sugar had to be added in fiendish quantities to get the fermentable sugars up to worthwhile levels. In other years rain, wind or just prolonged low temperatures and cloud played their part in delivering rotten grapes in uncommercially small quantities. This year, with the growing cycle far more advanced than it has ever been known, it looks possible that England will be rewarded with its sixth decent vintage in succession.
Last week official figures were released for the 2006 English wine harvest (which, incidentally, includes the produce of Welsh vineyards too but the term English is retained to distinguish the produce of fresh grapes grown in Britain from ‘British wine’ which is a completely different and much less appetising animal made from reconstituted grape concentrated imported in bulk from wherever in the world can supply it cheaply). The 3.37 million bottles filled with the 2006 English wine harvest constitute the third biggest crop ever from these islands. The number of UK vineyards officially registered with the Wine Standards Branch of the Food Standards Agency (the old Wine Standards Board) rose from 350 to 365 last year. And the total area under vine has risen even more dramatically, from 793 to 923 hectares (2,280 acres) with the total area planted having risen by almost a third in the last three years. Producers have a vested interest in keeping the total official area below 1,000 hectares, the point at which a much stricter set of EU regulations kick in.
As a result of England’s warmer weather, winemakers are much less dependent on beet sugar in their attempts to make wines with a respectable alcohol level, depending on the grape varieties grown. Only a few producers have so far realised their special position in a world where increasing numbers of wine drinkers are actively looking for lower-alcohol wines but this is surely one possible avenue for creative marketing of a product that has suffered its fair share of opprobrium over the years.
I have tasted scores of current English wine offerings in the last few weeks and still feel the sparkling wines are in general superior to the still ones but there are now some still, dry whites I can happily recommend too (see below). Stanlake Park, Bacchus 2005 is very well made, super-clean and fruity with England’s characteristic zippy acidity. Bacchus, like so many of the grapes planted for still wine production in England, is an early-maturing German vine variety. Camel Valley’s Cornish 2006 Bacchus is even better with lovely zest – perhaps emphasized by its screwcap stopper.  More expensive but creditably delicate is Chapel Down’s Tenterden Bacchus Reserve 2005, but like most English wines it is difficult to buy other than direct from the vineyard. Indeed the English wine business would probably crumble and die without its farmgate sales.  
English wine today is, as well as being refreshingly crisp, is overall technically well-made and clean-tasting. (‘Twas not always thus.) Even among the oaked wines the oak is generally well–judged nowadays. The most common fault in the wines is the rather unfortunate one of a lack of flavour, presumably not helped by the coolish climate but possibly associated with ambitious yields in some cases. If there is one varietal that cannot be accused of a lack of flavour it is the German vine crossing Ortega, but when it comes to this body-building grape, less is most definitely more. The reds, typically made from specially-bred red-fleshed new vine varieties, tend to be works in progress for the moment but there are some very pretty pinks, often appetisingly dry.
When Peter and Annette Dart bought the Stanlake Park estate in Windsor Great Park in 2004 they also acquired the particularly well-run vineyard established there from the 1980s by Jon Leighton of the family which formerly owned the property. Known originally as Thames Valley Vineyards, then simply as Valley Vineyards, it also has the peculiarly English attribute of a well-equipped modern winery installed in a 17th century Reformation barn. They have renamed the wines Stanlake Park and have established a co-operation with the highly regarded South African winemakers Kathy and Gary Jordan, a model which others might benefit from considering, the idea being that South African wines are under-marketed in the UK and offer varietals and wine styles that are complementary to what England does best.
Most English wines, still or fizzy, seem a pound or two too expensive when compared with bottles produced on a bigger scale in a more generous climate, but the blended Denbies Surrey Gold 2005 and drier Three Choirs Willowbrook 2006 are particularly fair value.
The wines are easiest to find at the vineyard. See www.english-wine.com and http://www.englishwinproducers.com as well as a new specialist English wine retailer based in Oxford www.goldbinwines.com.
Balfour Brut Rosé 2004
£30 Bibendum Wine
Chapel Down Pinot Reserve 2002 and 2001
Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2000
£23 Waitrose
Much, much more successful than their Blanc de Blancs 2000.
Ridgeview Merret Bloomsbury 2004
£18 Waitrose
A’Beckett’s Estate Blend 2005
Camel Valley Bacchus 2006
Chapel Down Tenterden Bacchus Reserve 2005
Denbies Surrey Gold 2005
Blend of Ortega, Reichensteiner, Müller-Thurgau, Bacchus and off dry but well balanced and fresh.
Leventhorpe Madeleine Angevine 2005
From as far north as Manchester.
Stanlake Park Bacchus 2005
Three Choirs Willowbrook 2006
Good value with more substance than their less aromatic Premium Selection Dry White at £5.
A’Beckett’s Estate Rosé 2006
Nice light Pinot – much more successfully Pinot-like than their Pinot-dominated red.
Brightwell Oxford Rosé 2005
Very dry – good with food?