Fri 25 May, 2007 11:33 pm
Le vin Anglais est arrivé!
After four blazing years, English vineyards are the toast of the wine world
Hugh Muir and Rebecca Smithers
Saturday May 26, 2007
There is a joke beloved by English wine producers. "How do you make a small fortune? Start with a large fortune and then open a vineyard." But if that was true it may not be for long.
There have been too many setbacks for the owners of Britain's 400 vineyards to be overconfident. But finally, after years as the butt of cruel jokes and thanks perhaps to temperatures raised by global warming, the English wine industry seems on the verge of a breakthrough.
This week, to the amazement of onlookers and the company itself, Denbies, England's largest vineyard, beat off competition from thousands of foreign producers to take a gold award in the International Wine Challenge - the industry's Oscars - for its sparkling wine Greenfields 2003.
But this was only the most notable success. By scooping another 20 awards of either silver or bronze, English wines took their highest number of accolades since the contest was launched 24 years ago, outstripping last year's haul of 16 and trouncing the 2005 total of 10.
Figures obtained by the Guardian suggest that the wines are finding favour with professionals and the public.
Next week Waitrose will report that sales of English wine are up 40% year on year and that demand is such that the supermarket is doubling its range.
The retailer is promising to stock between two and six local wines in every branch serving the wine producing regions of England.
Justin Howard-Sneyd, the store's master of wines, said: "Five years ago very few connoisseurs would have taken English wine seriously. Demand has risen so rapidly that it is a challenge for us to secure enough bottles for our customers."
Sainsbury's says it is also planning to expand its range of English wines after the success of its English dry white wine. A spokeswoman said: "It does seem that people are coming around to the idea of English wine."
Supply is also expanding. In 2004 according to the Wine Standards Board, 761 hectares were ..."under vine". English Wine Producers calculate that since then an additional 253 hectares have been planted - enough to yield 1.4m bottles.
The industry remains a minnow compared with France, which collected 44 gold medals from the wine challenge, an event involving 400 judges from 19 countries. But as growers and producers today launch English Wine Week, they can credibly claim that the industry has come of age.
Chris White, general manager of Denbies 107-hectare vineyard, said: "This is an incredibly exciting time. We have been trading for 20 years but over the last three years we have become a profitable company. For many years I would tell people that I ran a vineyard and they would say 'oh yes, in what country?' They just didn't take it seriously."
He said the industry has helped itself by driving up standards. "Twenty to 30 years ago people just didn't want to drink English wine because it was seen as rubbish. Now our biggest problem is producing enough of it."
His vineyards are on Surrey's North Downs on land with the same soil chalk structure as the Champagne region of France. Ten per cent of all the plantings in the UK occur there. The 300,000 vines glisten on the southern slopes in the afternoon sun while at the centre of the estate, the visitor centre is all bustling activity.
The Whites were keen to develop the estate as an attraction. It is a gamble that paid off. There are restaurants, tours of the winery, trips around the grounds on the vineyard train and films depicting the process from planting to bottling. The light and airy visitor centre is thronged by middle aged and elderly couples and groups, spending their "grey pounds."
By contrast, in the adjacent winery with its giant spherical tanks, oak casks and startling smell of grape, all is quiet. There has been a run on the award winning Greenfields 2003, which curiously began before its success this week was made public.
Those bottles left on the premises are being closely guarded.
"We are in the exciting position because we are the largest drinkers in the world of sparkling wine and now people can see that it is as good or better than what is grown in the Champagne region," said Mr White. "It is great because we have had some tight times. In 1997, we lost 75% of our crop to frost."
The weather is and has always been every English winegrowers' preoccupation. The climate means that grape varieties that prosper in warm, dry, long summers cannot be grown here. English growers rely on non-standard varieties and plant on acreages carefully chosen, usually south-facing slopes. The boon has been four good years, and four good vintages in a row
According to the website wineanorak.com there are ..."two big hopes for the British wine industry". One is its ability to produce good sparkling wines. The other is global warming. "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," it says.
The corollary is that warming might make the climate in some regions of France too hot for the production of top quality wines.
Chris White says English wines might also benefit from concern about food miles: "Our wines are locally produced. And many people are worried about their carbon footprints."
But that depends on people correctly identifying English wine. Often bottles described as "British" are merely blends of wine imported from abroad. The industry would also welcome more help from government. French wine growers pay less duty at home and can therefore trade more profitably.
Some believe that Julius Caesar first brought the vine to England, although others insist that the Romans merely brought wine to their conquered island. English-wine.com says that by the time of the Norman conquest, monastic institutions were already growing grapes and making wine. The Domesday survey in the late 11th century recorded vineyards in 46 places in southern England.
English wine? Ew, gross! But I'll bet it's not as bad as my friends Boston made wine.
Hey! We have some good wine here. Sakonet vineyards and, yeah. Sakonet vineyards. All 500 liters that they produce a year are good. Well, decent. Drinkable, anyway.
Hey! We have some good wine here.
ha ha ha ha ha ahhhhhaaaaa hhahahhaaaaa.
wipes away tears
So the British finally passed the stringent requirements for vinegar.
I truly applaud them!