English wine – in a hole over nomenclature?


A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. 

There can be no doubt that the quality of the wine produced from vineyards in England and Wales is better than it has ever been. The only problem is what to call it. And a single name would be awfully helpful. 

English and Welsh Wine is a bit of a mouthful. The usual solution would be to call it British wine, as so many careless commentators have done. But that’s a term reserved for a particular concoction made from reconstituted imported grape concentrate, often for particularly cheap copies of fortified wines such as sherry. Very different from the piercing, hedgerow vitality of a good wine made from freshly picked grapes grown on our shores.

You might think that UK Wine would be a suitable alternative collective term, and indeed it could theoretically be used on labels, but a certain political party has arguably tainted that umbrella term. It’s certainly not used much. When the several organisations representing wine produced in the UK got together to form one big promotional body, they decided to call it Wine GB, sounding distinctly athletic. But GB Wine does not exist as a category.

The official label designations are English Wine or Welsh Wine, so long as they meet a set of criteria carefully negotiated with the EU in order for them to qualify as a ‘quality wine’. English Quality Sparkling Wine for instance is generally made from the same grape varieties as grow in Champagne, using the same winemaking method. This means that Chardonnnay and Pinot Noir are by far our most-planted varieties.

If the wine is made from grape varieties that do not belong to the common European Vitis vinifera species of the vine that is responsible for well over 95% of all wine made in the world today, it has to be labelled as an English or Welsh Regional Wine or Varietal Wine, supposedly inferior categories. Because the British Isles tend to be cooler and wetter than most European wine regions, early-ripening hybrids were grown quite widely in the early years of the modern era of English wine-growing in the late twentieth century. The hybrid Seyval Blanc, for example, is still the fifth most-planted vine variety and would not qualify as an English or Welsh Quality Wine. (See this ranking of all varieties planted in England and Wales.)

But a new class of complex hybrids deliberately created for cool climates in the 1960s and 1970s to withstand vine diseases and reduce reliance on agrochemicals – notably Regent and Rondo for red wines and Solaris for whites – have been given what is effectively honorary vinifera status by the EU and are increasingly popular in England and Wales – as well as in the burgeoning vineyards of the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden.

One sign of the maturity and potential of English wine is the considerable investment it has attracted, not just by two champagne houses Taittinger and Pommery so far, but by a wide range of those who have sufficient financial nous to have made a fortune in business or the professions. Rathfinny near Brighton and Woodchester in Gloucestershire are two of the more prominent examples of substantial British-owned wine operations funded on the basis of financial careers in Hong Kong. Gone are the days when English wine was dominated by those who decided to try out viticulture in a superfluous pony paddock.

Another is that there have already been successful attempts to create more specific geographical appellations. The Lindo family of Camel Valley in Cornwall have managed to register Darnibole, where their Bacchus grapes are grown for still wine. And, partly thanks to the initiative of Mark and Sarah Driver of the vast Rathfinny estate, Sussex is also now a Protected Designation of Origin for both still and sparkling wines, with slightly different regulations for East and West parts of the county.

Vignerons in the other major wine-producing county Hampshire, proud of their general swathe of the chalk that defines much of Champagne’s most admired territory (see above excavations for Exton Park Vineyard's new cellar, photo taken by The Electric Eye Photography), have focused their efforts on organising group tastings and vineyard tours for the press. See Tam's report yesterday on Vineyards of Hampshire's recent London tasting.

This effective co-operative effort may be because the chairman of Wine GB, Simon Robinson, is based in Hampshire. His Hattingley Valley wine operation vinifies considerable quantities of wine for other producers too, and is already exporting almost a third of its production.

Tourism and exports were the two major themes of his speech at this year’s Wine GB dinner in Vintners’ Hall a month ago when he described what he called a ‘seismic change’ affecting the industry. There are now 2,888 ha (7,136 acres) of vineyard in England and Wales, nearly 350 of them having been planted last year alone. And the whole picture has changed, from under-ripe still wines based on Germany’s least exciting grape varieties to sparkling wines with sufficient confidence to challenge not just cheap supermarket champagnes but the likes of Krug, Cristal and Dom Pérignon (see below and England v champagne – a re-run tasting article).

Many wine producers depend heavily on local tourists and farm gate sales. But there are signs that, like the wines themselves, English wine tourism is getting much more sophisticated. Tourism is a major part of Rathfinny’s plans. Denbies in Surrey have long marketed themselves as a tourist destination and is one of several wineries, including Camel Valley and Hush Heath near Tonbridge, to offer bed as well as board. Chapel Down of Kent are opening an outpost in King’s Cross, London for a new distillery, a sister operation. High Clandon was awarded best ‘cellar door’ at the last International Wine Challenge. As Richard notes in his article earlier this week on wine tourism in the UK, vineyard trails are the order of the day, and I was amazed to hear Robinson claim that a Yorkshire wine trail was on the cards. Vine-growing as far north as Yorkshire is still a struggle but the exceptional warmth of last year must have put a spring in the step of all English, and Welsh (see what I mean?) vignerons.

In 2017 frost hit English (and Welsh) vineyards as badly as the rest of Europe, reducing the crop to just six million bottles. But in 2018 enough grapes to fill 15.6 million bottles of wine were harvested, inspiring many an order for extra tanks – and even nowadays extra barrels. Instead of the usual concern that the grapes wouldn’t ripen fully, the 2018 crop was ripe enough, by all accounts, to make very respectable still wine. (Tarter, less ripe grapes are ideal for sparkling wines.) I look forward very much to tasting the results.

Perhaps global warming will see the vine continue its spread northwards to such an extent that Scottish and Northern Irish wine will become a commercial reality? If so, a national name for its produce really will be needed. 

See also Tam's review of the most recent comprehensive book on English wine.

These wines stood out when compared blind in November with Champagne’s finest prestige cuvées.

Coates & Seely, La Perfide Blanc de Blancs 2009
770.60 Norwegian kroner, Vinmonopolet state monopoly

Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs 2011
£33.29 in bond Berry Bros & Rudd (currently out of stock)

Nyetimber 1086 Brut NV
£119.50 Whitebridge Wines, also The Finest Bubble, The Oxford Wine Co, Hedonism, Harrods and others

Nyetimber 1086 Rosé NV
£139.50 Whitebridge Wines, also The Finest Bubble, The Oxford Wine Co, Hedonism, Harrods and others

Nyetimber Classic Cuvée NV
£25 D&D Wine and very widely available

Ridgeview Rosé de Noirs 2014
£35 GP Brands, £44 The Wine Society