Added Sparkle

First Printed in Harpers, 30th March 2007

Click here to download a scan of the original magazine article in PDF format


It is more than 50 years since the first modern vineyard was planted in England, and it has taken almost that long for English wines to be taken seriously by the cognoscenti. Now, buoyed by recent competition successes, there is an air of optimism in England's wineries, as Stephen Skelton MW reports.

English VineyardsEnglish and Welsh wine (not to be confused with the confected product called 'British Wine', made from imported concentrate) has long been the butt of jokes, both at home and abroad. The old one: 'How many people does it take to drink a bottle of English Wine?'; answer: 'Four - the victim, two to hold his arms and one to pour the wine down his throat' (which in fact dates from the late 1890s), is now startling to wear a bit thin as the public wakes up to the fact that UK-grown, bottle-fermented sparkling wines are actually quite good and - what's more - are just as good as Champagne but not nearly as expensive. How did this happen?

Ever since the first modern vineyard was planted at Hambledon in 1951, vineyards in the UK have been planted with cool- climate stalwarts like Mriller-Thurgau, the hardy hybrid Seyval Blanc, and a host of German cross-bred varieties such as Bacchus, Reichensteiner and Schonburger. These were loved by growers because they cropped fairly regularly, always ripened (we11, almost always) and made fair to middling wine. But they were largely despised by the British wine trade and wine drinkers because they smacked of a

bygone era when Liebfraumilch lurked on every shelf and because their names were 'so Germanic'. To be fair to growers (such as myself) who planted their vineyards in the 1970s, the most popular wines at the time were Blue Nun, Golden October, Black Tower, etc., so the 1ight, fruity, off- dry wines we produced were aimed at the middle of that market.


Changing Fortunes

But times - and wine drinker's habits - change. The UK still wine market has been infiltrated by varietal blends from Australia, the US, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa, with Germanic-style wines almost off the bottom of the popularity scale. The change in the apparent fortunes of English and Welsh wine can be dated back, quite accurately, to October 1997 when the 1992 Nyetimber Premiere Cuv6e (a Blanc de Blanc) won a gold medal and the trophy for the Best English Wine at the 1997 International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC). The success of this wine, the first release from a vineyard near Pulborough in West Sussex, which had been planted by Sandy and Stuart Moss, two 6migr6s from Chicago, in 1986, was followed a year later by further success in the IWSC.

This time their 1993 Classic Cuvee (a blend of all three Champagne varieties) went one better - a gold medal and the English Wine Trophy, but more importantly, the trophy for the best non-Champagne sparkling wine from around the world. This time the news spread around the world. Asked by a South African journalist what the Queen would be drinking to bring in the new millennium, an official stated that while she was at the Millennium Dome, Moet et Chandon would be served (as they were one of the sponsors of the event), but on her return to Buckingham Palace there would be Nyetimber chilled and waiting. The Queen's liking for Nyetimber was further reinforced when it was served by the Mayor of London at a luncheon to honour her during her Jubilee. Now under new ownership, Nyetimber has expanded and will have 105 hectares (ha) under vine by May 2007.Its aim is to produce 700,000 bottles a year, including a non-vintage blend.

Climate Change and UK Viticulture

English Pioneers

Although the Mosses were the first to plant a vineyard solely with Champagne varieties for the production of bottle- fermented sparkling wine, they were certainly not the first to make the product. As far back as the early 1970s, pioneers such as Nigel Godden at Pilton and the Barretts at Felsted were making methode Champenoise wines (as we were then allowed to call them), and 10 years later the Carr 1'aylors, with their eponymous vineyard near Hastings, were winning medals and awards home and abroad.

The first sparkling wine to win an award at the IWSC was Rock Lodge Vineyard's 1989 'impresario', which won the English Wine Trophy in 1991. It was made by David Cowderoy, first winemaker at Chapel Down, which is now the UK's largest wine producer and has been making sparkling wines (albeit not from the classic Champagne varieties) since it was founded in 1.992. Nyetimber's triumphs were soon followed by others. RidgeView Estate, established by the Mike Roberts and family in 1994 at Ditchling Common, just north of Brighton, solely with Champagne varieties, won the IWSC English Wine Trophy in 2000 with its first release wine - the 1996. Since then others have followed. Several new vineyards, planted solely with Champagne varieties, have been planted and wil1, in time, enter an as-yet, very undeveloped market.

Chapel Down has slow1y been encouraging growers to plant the classic varieties, and alms to be producing around 1.5 million bottles of sparkling wine by 2012. Denbies Vineyard at Dorking in Surrey, still (just) the UK's largest vineyard, is taking out old Germanic varieties and replanting for sparkling, as well as planting up new land. It hopes to have 121ha under vine within five years. Even growers from Champagne have been sniffing about; there are frequent reports that Duval-Leroy is 'about to plant' a vineyard in the UK.

Selling Methods

Sales of UK-grown wine have always been something of a mystery, and the truth is that many vineyards have relied on two things. First, is that for many growers, yields, except in exceptionally benign years, have always been poor. Long-term average yields across all of the UK's vineyards are currently just over 21 hectolitres/ha, which means there must be plenty of vineyards way below this, as the larger, more commercial growers need to average around 50hl/ha to stay in business. The second factor is that for many vineyards, the majority - for some the totality - of their sales are across the farm-gate to regulars, tourists, visitors and the curious. These sa1es, at 1ul1 retail prices, together with the spin-off sales of vineyard visits, lunches and Planting of Champagne varieties on the riseother farm- shop items, have kept their businesses afloat. Very few vineyards apart from the biggest (which include Chapel Down, Nyetimber, RidgeView, Stanlake Park and Three Choirs) have ever sold much through established routes - wholesalers and the on- and off-trades. The larger vineyards that have, have always found it hard work, with keen prices required to generate any volume.

A large chunk of the current UK output of wine (1.9 million bottles) is sparkling wine that is going into stock building. Around one million bottles are sold direct by the vineyards themselves, leaving a modest amount currently being sold via the trade - probably no more than 400,000 bottles of wine of al1 types and varieties. Sparkling wine , the great white (and ros6) hope for the future - probably accounts for no more than 5006 of this total, so around 200,000 bottles. The big question on everyone's lips is: where is a1l the wine from the new plantings going to be sold? And at what price? English vineyard owners are nothing if not optimists and everyone knows that until the wine is available, no one is going to be able to list it. Until then, everyone has got their fingers crossed and is playing a waiting game.



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