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English wine: an introductio  

English wine has for a long time suffered from being a bit of a novelty item. For most people, finding out that English vineyards can make drinkable wine is a bit like hearing that an 80 year old millionaire has fathered a child - it’s probably not the performance that’s the object of attention, but rather that they can do it at all. And it is really is remarkable that wine can be made successfully in a country with a climate as dismal as ours. Yet there are now more than 250 commercial vineyards in the UK, and the industry is transforming itself from one dominated by small scale hobbyists into one that’s surprisingly commercially astute – in places, at least. 

Grape vines like summers that are warm, long and dry – they do best in the sorts of places we like to go on holiday to. Our summers here are too cool, too damp and they aren’t really long enough for successful viticulture. Given this climate, growing popular French grape varieties isn’t an option. If you are determined to grow grapes in the UK, then you have to lengthen the rather long odds against success by growing non-standard varieties that are especially suited to our conditions, plant only the most favourable sites (usually south-facing slopes), and have a business plan that allows for dismal vintages at least a couple of times a decade. Familiar with the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay? They can’t grow here. If you want to explore English wines, you’ll have to get used to the likes of Bacchus, Seyval Blanc, Huxelrebe and Phoenix.

There are two big hopes for the English wine industry. The first is global warming (see box). If average temperatures creep up a little, then one beneficiary will be English wine: from being a very marginal climate with one really good vintage a decade, yields and quality could shoot up, and with them the reputation of our wines. The other hope is bubbles. 

Which French wine region generally has the coolest, most dismal climate? Champagne, of course. Sharp, high acid base wines – the sort that the English climate is set-up nicely to produce – are ideal for Champagne production. Indeed, two Sussex-based producers, Nyetimber and Ridgeview, are already making Champagne-style sparkling wines that experts reckon are as good as the real thing. There’s no reason to suspect that more producers couldn’t also make world class sparkling wines from English vineyards.  

With slightly warmer and longer summers, things could look very interesting for English wines. This is because the most interesting wines tend to be made close to the limits of where grapes can successfully ripen. Pinot Noir, the red grape of Burgundy, doesn’t perform as well in warmer regions such as the Rhône or Languedoc, but makes sublime wines in Burgundy where there’s only just enough sun each year to ripen it. Riesling performs best in the distinctly cool Mosel Saar Ruwer region of Germany. In Bordeaux, where the world’s most sought-after examples of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are made, in the less warm years the wines have a distinct whiff off unripeness to them. If, along with the UK, these regions all see some increased temperatures over coming decades, then England could become home to some very exciting wines, perhaps eclipsing some of the current established classics.


Global warming: good for English wine?

It’s been in the news a lot recently. Whether you’re a sceptic or a hard-bitten environmentalist, it’s hard to ignore the data showing that global average temperatures have risen significantly over the last 50 years. Their rise looks set to continue, with implications for wine growers worldwide. While it might seem a bit small-minded to think about wine quality when we’re staring global environmental catastrophe in the face, this could be very good or very bad news for English wine. If there’s a small rise in average temperature, this could transform out marginal climate into one ideal for growing high-quality wine grapes. But if we have a Day After Tomorrow scenario, where global warming causes a rapid shift in the north Atlantic conveyor (aka the Gulf stream), we’re stuffed. The conveyor is a series of ocean currents that direct deep, warm water from the tropics up towards the north Atlantic, where it surfaces and keeps our climate warmer than it should be at such northerly latitudes. If this Gulf stream were to slow or cease, we’d end up with a freezing climate and there’d be no hope of any sort of wine growing in the UK, or much of Atlantic-influenced western Europe for that matter. While this would seem to be a rather important question, climate scientists can’t answer it with any degree of certainty. We’ll have to wait and see. 

If Burgundy heats up, the wines might end up being more consistent, but arguably less compelling – a bit like most new world Pinot Noir. This might give regions cooler than Burgundy an edge. Might we then see a shift in agricultural land use, with the south of England largely under vine? It’s an interesting prospect. Overall, though, if global warming does continue at the current rate, there will be far more losers than winners in the wine world. Bear in mind also that it takes many years for vineyards to be established, and if the suitability of sites for various varieties changes dramatically, there’ll be a lengthy period where wine quality will suffer until new plantings take hold. Globally the situation looks very worrying.

For now, though, consider trying some of the current crop of English wines, if you haven’t already done so. 2002 and 2003 were both very successful vintages. Expect to find fresh, bright, rather acidic whites, often with subtle elderflower and hedgerow aromas. Extremely high acid levels and low potential alcohol are the problems often encountered by winemakers here, and chaptalization, the practice of adding sugar to the must before fermentation, is common. Most are bone dry: the practice of leaving a bit of sugar in the final wine to fatten the palate up is less common these days. Nice on a summer’s day, perhaps. The reds are frequently light and cherryish, with perhaps a bit of strawberry fruit. They won’t knock your socks off, but on the other hand English wine is no longer a joke. And if you can stretch to the better sparkling wines, you’ll be able to surprise your Champagne-loving friends by just how good they are.

English wine: Six of the best

Nyetimber Widely regarded as the best English wine yet, this Champagne-method sparkling wine is world class.
Ridgeview Following hot on the heels of Nyetimber, a producer of sparkling wines that display bags of class – an equal to many Champagnes.
Curious Grape Brand name of the UK’s largest (and probably best) producer, New Wave Wines. Utterly reliable range at all price points. 
Three Choirs Sizeable operation in the midlands making some well priced and tasty wines.
Davenport The UK’s leading organic producer, making fresh, bright full-flavoured whites.
Denbies With a swanky visitor’s centre near Dorking, in the North Downs, this is a large producer with some smart wines in its rather mixed line-up.

For further recommendations, see the list of medal winners at the UK Vineyards Association annual awards tasting.

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