England, My England
by Paul Howard
In 1920, the last commercial vineyard in Britain is abandoned. It ends a period of wine growing and wine making started by the Romans. It must have been a sad day when Castel Coch in Wales gave up the struggle. Historical records show that monks had preserved and developed winemaking during medieval times. However, the abolition of the Monasteries coincided with a deteriorating climate, while Britain emerged pre-eminent as a merchant nation. Importing superior foreign wines from France, Spain and Portugal was easier, cheaper and more profitable than homegrown wines made by a handful of gentleman enthusiasts could ever be.
After the Second World War, vineyards are re-established on a tiny scale in the south of England. Gradually, a combination of new varieties, better techniques and scientific research results in more vineyards planted. The growth of tourism, the developing talent of homegrown winemakers and sheer marketing nous means that this fledgling industry becomes commercially viable. The future of English and Welsh wine in the 21st century looks brighter than at any time in the past thousand years. Production is small and specialised and beer remains the home-produced alcoholic beverage of choice. Nevertheless, today in this country we make wines of which we can be proud.
“Result is exceptional sparkling wine”
The vines planted here remain predominantly German and French crossings specifically bred to produce ripe and healthy grapes in spite of our capricious climate. Hence, you can frequently find dry white wines made from Müller-Thurgau, Bacchus, Seyval Blanc and Reichensteiner, with red wines made from Rondo, Triomphe, Regent and Dornfelder. These and many other curious varieties may have unattractive names but are capable of making characterful wines that stand comparison with their peers from abroad. If you enjoy crisp dry white wines or lighter reds then English and Welsh wines are well worth discovering. Meanwhile, if you like Champagne then you will find English fizz irresistible.
Because production tends to be small, many bottles sell directly from the cellar door or at Farmers’ Markets. Local wine merchants and online make good sources too. Supermarkets like Morrisons, Asda, Booths, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Tesco stock the bigger producers. Even Selfridges and Harvey Nichols are in on it. Examples start from around £6, with fizz from around £12.
Our climate is also warming up. Although a recent prediction of Shiraz flourishing in a scorching Scotland is still an unlikely prospect. Classic grape varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can now grow successfully in Britain for the first time. Indeed, when these varieties plant on the chalk downlands of southern England (which are the very same chalk strata that outcrop in Champagne) the result is exceptional sparkling wine.
“Champagne Houses are looking to buy land in England”
Over the last decade, Britfizz has picked up a slew of international awards and regularly beats equivalent Champagnes when served blind. Nyetimber and Camel Valley lead the way, while those from Chapel Down and RidgeView are hardly far behind. Rumour has it that Champagne Houses have been looking to buy land in England. Whether or not that’s true, it’s indicative of just how great the potential for English fizz is.
Why not support our English vineyards? There are around 400 vineyards and 100 wineries scattered throughout England and Wales. As well as trying the wines on offer, many make a great day out by giving tours and selling other local produce. Some also have good restaurants. And don’t be surprised by the passion of the winemaker or the quality of the wines. There really is plenty to be patriotic about!