English Wine - Then & Now
I remember vividly my first taste of an English wine; it was at a wine fair at the prestigious Vintners Hall in London around 15 years ago. I was working at the fair and was going round making sure the producers had everything they needed before the doors were opened to the public. I stopped at the Nyetimber stand and Eric Heerema immediately poured me a tasting of Nyetimber’s Classic Cuveé. I thought it was an incredible sparkling wine – reminiscent of the precision and complexity of some of the great grower Champagnes. This was an eye opener for me, as I had no idea England could produce such quality. A few years later, whilst researching an idea for a Vineyard Walking holiday, I came across Simon Woodhead at Stopham in Sussex and his fabulous Pinot Gris, which reminded me of the Pinot Gris’ from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Both of these wines showed that there was great potential for English wine.
Growing vines and producing wine in England is not new. There is some archaeological evidence to suggest that the Romans planted vines. In the mid-1940s a viticultural research station was created in Surrey and in 1950s and 1960s a few vineyards were established in the South East, including Hambledon Vineyard, planted by Major-General Sir Arthur Guy Salisbury-Jones in 1952. Still wines were made, mainly from Germanic grape varieties and in the mid-1960s the UK’s national wine production totalled around 1500 bottles from a handful of vineyards. Today there are over 500 vineyards in the UK and in 2018 (which was a fantastic year for English wine, with near perfect growing conditions resulting in high quality and high volumes), over 13 million bottles were produced.
English Sparkling Wine has an international reputation as a very high-quality product and regularly beats Champagne in blind tastings. The term English Sparkling Wine indicates that the wine has been made by the same production method used for Champagne; if you see Classic Cuveé on the label this means that the wine has been made from the three classic Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. There are also some excellent still wines being produced. Many producers see the white grape variety Bacchus offering the UK the same success that New Zealand saw with Sauvignon Blanc. In the past England has struggled to produce quality red wine but over the last few years progress has been made and there are now some very good Pinot Noirs available, and the amount of still red wine produced increases each year.
The English wine industry is dynamic and energetic, full of ambition and innovation. Our industry rules and regulations are less strict than those of established European wine producing countries; this allows for experimentation in terms of grape varieties that can be planted, and there is greater freedom in both the vineyard and winery. Over the last few weeks, I have tasted an outstanding 2018 Pinot Noir from Rathfinney, a classic Bacchus with tropical fruit and citrus characters from Chapel Down, Danebury’s wonderfully elegant Shonburger and a Pinot Blanc from Stopham.
Wine tourism is taking off in the UK and there are some excellent Cellar Doors to visit and vineyard and winery tours to enjoy. The UK’s industry body for the wine industry, WineGB, is a great resource for anyone wanting to explore their local vineyards. With the end of lockdown in sight and Spring around the corner, what could be a better way to celebrate than tasting an English wine in the very vineyard where the grapes were grown, whilst chatting to the winemaker?