There is a fascinating conversation among vineyards about whether the UK’s booming sparkling wine should be called British Fizz. Apparently it is already being called that in at least one restaurant in the US which is expected to be one one our biggest export markets (the country, not the restaurant!).
If everyone called it British Fizz it would solve a long running debate about finding a label that everyone in the industry can agree on. It has the advantage of being more inclusive than “English sparkling” or “Sussex sparkling” as it includes Wales, which has some fine vineyards but has not always been treated well by the English industry.
But there are two disadvantages. The first is that under EU legislation – which will govern us for the next few years British wine” means wine made in this country from imported grapes or juices.
The second is that three syllables do not trip off the tongue as well as two. A lot of memorable brands, though of course not all, have two syllables including Rolls-Royce, Google, Yahoo, Apple and, er, Champagne.
So why not just call it Brit Fizz or BritFizz? If you are ordering from a bar it sounds much better, and certainly more melodic, to ask for Brit Fizz rather than British Fizz (which sounds as though you are making a nationalistic statement (I want British fizz). It avoids the EU ambiguities of “British” and it capitalises on the fact that we are known as Brits the world over.
Someone claimed Brit Fizz sounds like something you take for a hangover but I don’t see the connection. It is something you drink in moderation to avoid a hangover.
There is a fascinating conversation among vineyards about whether the UK’s booming sparkling wine should be called British Fizz. Apparently it is already being called that in at least one restaurant in the US which is expected to be one one our biggest export markets (the country, not the restaurant!).
There is a wave of euphoria going the rounds of some vineyards about how Britain’s wine industry will benefit from Brexit. I hope this is right but it won’t happen if we only look at the benefits and not at the other side of the balance sheet. Sure it will make our exports cheaper as long as it lasts. But remember, the reason the pound has gone down is that the financial markets think Brexit will be bad for economic growth partly because foreign-own industries such as motor manufacturing and financial services – which came here to be inside the tariff barriers – will switch new investment and people to Europe. This will lead to higher unemployment in the UK and a big blow to confidence and spending power which may lead to fewer purchases of the more expensive domestic wines.
Devaluation makes exports cheaper but also imports more expensive. Virtually all of the machinery to pick and process grapes – like the massive press that arrived at Rathfinny this week – comes from abroad as do the vines themselves and many of the gangs that pick them.
It is all very well to presume that Brexit will lead to the Government reducing tax on English and Welsh wines but this is unlikely at a time when there will almost certainly be a rising deficit that the Government is pledged to eliminate albeit over a longer perion than previously thought.
In these circumstances the Chancellor would have to be barmy to reduce the duty on wine when 98% of the proceeds would go to importers who dominate the market. And if he decided to reduce the duty on UK made wines alone in a discriminatory way then that would be sure to trigger a retaliatory trade war abroad.
There could be unexpected benefits. If agricultural subsidies are eventually reduced sharply then that might persuade more farmers to invest in a growing indigenous industry rather than farming subsidies.
I remain bullish about the revival of the UK wine industry and it will be improved by a lower pound. But the irony is that if Brexit succeeds (very unlikely in my view) then the pound will once again strengthen thereby removing a competitive advantage that arose from expectations that it would fail.
Chateau Tooting is one of my favourite London oddities. They collect grapes from gardens and allotments in London and elsewhere at a fixed time and a designated place (today it was in a sidestreet in Clapham) and then dispatch them to an established vineyard, Halfpenny Green in Shropshire to be made into surprisingly good wine. This year I arrived with naked humility. No grapes. My half a dozen mature vines which I have been fondly tended after reading numerous books decided to have a miserable harvest and what they did produce was wiped out by powdery mildew. Then I meet Marcella Grazette, a mental health manager from Ilford who brought along 39 kilos of healthy looking grapes, enough to make 20 bottles. And – wait for it – all produced from a single vine which she hardly ever tends. Ouch!
But that’s Chateau Tooting. It breaks all the rules but somehow works. No one I spoke to today, apart from one, even knew what variety their grapes were. Alan Frankham from Purley bought a vine six years ago from a garden centre having been inspired by a talk at Denbies vineyard in Dorking which produced 23 kilos this year, just over 11 bottles. Jilly Hanson from nearby Tooting Common produced 11.2 kilos from a single vine and Diana Kerr from Fulham 9 kilos from a single vine.
Richard Sharp – who started the project with his friend Paul (photo, right) – managed 8 kilos this year but added that Furzedown Primary School produced some from a Rondo vine and he also got some from the greenhouse at Brockwell Lido. The success of the scheme has prompted the two pioneers to start expanding. They are marketing some of their surplus bottles – those that are not acquired by the growers who have first choice – to local shops, restaurants and markets together with bottles produced by other cooperatives associated with Halfpenny Green. They have their own tee shirts and banners and this Christmas they are hoping to produce hampers with all these in plus a specially selected vine that can be planted in your garden or given to a friend. Yes, Chateau Tooting which started life as a guerilla grape grower is becoming a brand. If this works out and enough people buy the selected vine (maybe a Rondo for red or Seyval for white) then Urban Wine could in a few years produce a single varietal wine in addition to their present Chateau Tooting cocktail.
DENBIES in Dorking was the first English vineyard I ever visited. You can’t miss it if you are driving down the A3 from London because, unlike most UK vineyards which are hidden along country lanes, Denbies covers the whole hillside, all 265 acres of it. When it was built it was the biggest single estate vineyard in the country – and, 30 years later, it still is though newbie Rathfinny in Sussex will soon be biting at its heels. To build on such a big scale so long ago when the English wine revival was still in its nappies was quite something. And it wasn’t a millionnaire acting out his dreams but the result of an authoritative suggestion by a professor of geology, Richard C Selley that the Champagne-like terrain of the North Downs was ideal for grape growing. Professor Selley’s subsequent book (“The Winelands of Britain”) on the history and geology of UK vineyards is a must-read for anyone interested in the subject.
But if I am honest, although I was a huge admirer of it as a business – with its very large conservatory café, a good (more recent) restaurant, a cinema and lots of boutique stalls – I wasn’t madly impressed with the actual wines though they were always pleasant enough to drink.
Then something happened. Denbies Chalk Ridge Rosé 2010 was the only still rosé out of 367 bottles entered from 21 countries to win a gold medal at the International Wine Challenge. In other words, it was rated the best in the world from those submitted. The next time I was passing I popped in for a purchase but it had sold out within days of the announcement.
Since then it has won lots of silver medals and also a gold for its “Noble Harvest 2011” desert wine, one of only three UK gold medals awarded at the 2013 International Wine Challenge. Most recently in the 2016 IWC Challenge Denbies won another gold for its sparkling Greenfields Cuvée NV made from classic Champagne grapes.
When I visited the vineyard a few years ago they were selling approaching 80% from the cellar door. Now it is down to around 50% as they lead the long awaited surge of UK wines into supermarkets such as Marks & Spencer, Lidl, Aldi, Waitrose and Tesco. They still claim to sell more than any other vineyard from the cellar door – not least Surrey Gold which is the best selling wine in the UK – which is not surprising when you get over 300,00 visitors a year.
Chris White, the chief executive, says that, though sales are rising dramatically they are not planning to plant more than five or six more acres but will buy in 10 to 15% more grapes from other vineyards. He claims to be in the forefront of developments including minimal pruning and has what he claims is the only picking machine in the country. He is also thinking of producing a Bacchus which would be bottle fermented for nine months, a fascinating prospect. Denbies is moving away from herbicides and its winery (though not the vineyard) has been organically certified.
But it is on the wines it will be judged and our four-strong tasting party was very impressed especially with the two sparklers (Greenfields and Cubitts) and the 2015 Noble Harvest dessert while the Pinot Noir was surprisingly good for an English red. Denbies has been making sparkling wine since 1990 which puts it among the earlier vineyards to go into commercial production. It has taken a long time to gain international recognition – but long-term thinking is one of the crucial factors in the startling success of English and Welsh vineyards.
SUSSEX IS in the minds of many people – not least those living in Sussex – the epi-centre of the UK wine renaissance. So it was with nervous anticipation that we were looking forward to visiting three of them – Bolney, Nutbourne and Bluebell – more or less at the same time. We were not disappointed. All are quite near each other – and, curiously, can be joined by a straight line on a map – yet have strong personalities of their own. Bolney is the country’s leading producer of reds, Bluebell is overhelmingly sparkling and Nutbourne, though is has won gold for its sparkling intends to concentrate on still whites.
But enough of medals. This is about vineyard experience.
If ever there was a labour of love in a vineyard it is Nutbourne, nurtured and expanded by Bridget Gladwin helped by her husband whose main job is running a very successful catering company. It is sheer delight to meander among its sprawling 26 acres rolling down to the South Downs in the near distance passing llamas and tumbling pools before having a tasting of its fine wines on the veranda of a former wind mill. The Gladwins purchased an 18 acre vineyard in 1991 planted with German varieties knowing nothing about vineyards and have since painstakingly expanded it to where they can sell 20,000 bottles in a good year. Although their Nutty Brut sparkling has won a gold medal twice at the prestigious International Wine & Spirit Competition they intend to specialise in still wines bolstered by the fact that their Sussex Reserve was the first ever English still wine to achieve a gold medal in the same competition. Located in terroir to die for with two vineyards belonging to Nyetimber close by on either side , Bridget has conjured up a memorable experience. It is also the most vertically integrated vineyard I have ever come across. A lot of their wine goes to three fashionable restaurants in London run by their sons (including The Shed in Notting Hill) which also take food from the family farm. To top it all Bridget, a part-time artist, designs the labels for the wines herself.
We visited Bolney and Bluebell as part of an £89-a-head day coach trip from London organised by English Wine Tasting, one of the first companies in what hopefully will be a burgeoning UK wine tourism industry. As Bolney came into view you are first hit by the ambition of the place – a spanking new tasting, café and reception area with a long balcony looking over 18 of their 40 acres estate – a pleasant surprise from other vineyard cafés where you have to stretch your neck to see the grapes. Bolney, with a terroir closer to Bergundy than the chalky underlay of Champagne, has courageously taken a counter-intuitive decision to concentrate on English reds led by their much lauded Pinot Noir even though their best selling wine is white (Bacchus). They plan to triple production over 10 years.
They grow their vines high to protect against frost and wandering deer and have a natural advantage from some buzzards which frighten off the birds. After an expertly curated tasting we retired to the picturesque Eight Bells in the village for lunch and other English wines which unbeknown to the organisers turned out to include “British” (ie made from imported grape juice) because, surprise, surprise the gastropub doesn’t serve local wines. However, it at least confirmed to us the quality of proper English wines and the sutuation was soon righted by our efficient tour operator.
Bluebell is a lovely welcoming vineyard built on an old chicken farm. It has rightly been garlanded for the quality of its Hindleap sparkling wines made with impressive attention to detail by winemaker Kevin Sutherland and vineyard manager Colette O’Leary. They only make vintages (wine produced from the year of growth) rather than blending the produce of different years as happens so often with Champagne producers.
Named after the bluebells which crowd the area in Spring and after which the nearby Bluebell railway is dedicated, the 60 acre vineyard ambles its way down a soft slope between former chicken huts and wedding marquees towards the South Downs interrupted only by several soft pools adding to its Arcadian charm.
They have a small-is-beautiful approach reflected in growing slightly different varieties of the same vines in neighbouring blocks and fermenting their wines in blocks – ranging from a sparkling made from the Seyval grape to others made from full blown classic Champagne grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier).
Bluebell is now growing other varieties such as Ortega and newly fashionable Bacchus and has plans to double output in the coming years from 50,000 bottles a year to 100,000. Like Bolney and Nutbourne they have their own winery with 40 tanks including a couple outside. There is a small friendly tasting room where we savoured their excellent range of wines while being talked through the wine-making process.
The more I visit vineyards – and I have clocked up many dozens – the more I am convinced of the prospects for vineyard tourism. Wines may have been of varying quality but the vineyard experience has been distinctive. The trouble is reaching them without a car (if you are not drinking and driving) as very few are near railway stations. Which is why dispatching coaches from London where the money and the tourists are could be a savvy idea, Our party of 15 included two people from Sweden and two from Denmark. There is all to play for.
THE AMAZING resurgence of UK vineyards in recent years has overwhelmingly been the story of sparkling wines which have been so festooned with gold medals that even French champagne makers have woken up to it. But is the same success about to happen to our still white wines which have languished in the shadows for so long? You could definitely draw this conclusion from the recent English and Welsh Wine of the Year competition where an astonishing 20 out of 32 gold medals awarded went to white wines of which no less than 11 were made from the appropriately named Bacchus grape (after the god of wine) which is emerging as the UK’s still wine of choice for consumers. Several other non-Bacchus wines also struck gold including chardonnays from Chapel Down’s Kits Coty vineyard and from the long-established New Hall in Essex.
This competition was blind tasted by Masters of Wine judged, it is claimed, to international standards which means that there ought to be no national bias. The trouble is that at the more recent Decanter blind tasting – which includes wines from everywhere and not just England and Wales – there were no golds for Bacchus or indeed any other still wines from the UK though there were three silvers (plus a few more for other still whites). This is par for the course for international competitions. So what on earth is going on? There are various explanations. It could be that domestic Bacchus producers did not enter in sufficient numbers for Decanter. Maybe there a subconscious patriotic preference for home producers by the judges. Not at all unlikely. Or , just possibly, the success of Bacchus in domestic competitions is a lead indicator of what is to come in international blind tastings. After all, our sparkling wines were hailed at home long before they started winning prizes in international competitions. Or, perish the thought, wine tasting is a much more random operation that its participants like to admit.
Either way, there are lessons here. Maybe the new vineyards being planted here which are overwhelmingly of the three varieties that make up classic Champagne wines – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – should look to plant more for still wines. Of course, if the market changes, it is easy to produce still white from Chardonnay vines and still red from Pinot Noir, which is gradually improving in quality in this country. But Bacchus, which is a cross between hardy Germanic varieties Mullar-Thurgau and Sylvaner x Riesling, is clearly emerging as the cheer leader for UK wines with a name to conjure with.
Bacchus wines are not cheap being mainly priced around the £14 mark though at the time of writing you could get a Brightwell Bacchus at £9.99 from Waitrose and a 2014 from Chapel Down for £11.50 from the Wine Society. Waitrose is the best place to look for English and Welsh wines if you are not buying from a vineyard, not least because they occasionally have special offers with cuts of 25% or more and they have over a 100 English and Welsh wines on offer. The choosey Wine Society (lifetime membership £40) has a much more limited but high quality list including a couple (non Bacchus) at under £8. Both organisations have free delivery if you buy by the case.
So it looks as though Bacchus will be a premium priced wine like our sparkling wines. If you haven’t got the economies of scale of overseas producers it makes sense to sell on quality. The name Bacchus can be used by anyone but the way things are going it could establish itself as a distinctively branded English still wine. That would be something worth waiting for.
LONDON has long been an international centre for wine but none of the growing or production has happened in the capital for centuries. Now things are changing, albeit on a small scale. The latest news is that the admirable Vagabond Wines, where you can buy up to 100 wines by the glass (which would be attractive to punters wanting to try out English or Welsh wines) is planning to build a winery in London to make wine from grapes grown in this country. This means that London could soon have two wineries of its own following the pioneering efforts of London Cru in Earls Court.
Yesterday (Saturday) I added another London vineyard to my experiences when I visited one I was previously unaware of in Morden (See photo, above) at the southern end of the Northern Line in the middle of suburbia. It is quite sizeable for an urban vineyard with over 300 vines but there is no way you would know it was there as you can’t see it from the street and the owners understandably intend to keep it that way and asked me not to reveal its location.
From here they have been making white, red and rosé wines since the mid 1990s on reclaimed allotments from well tried cool-climate varietals such as Triomphe, Dornfelder and Dunkelfelder which they turn into wine at their own well-equipped micro winery. What they don’t drink they distribute to friends and relatives. They kindly gave me a bottle of white which I look forward to sampling.The terrain is not text book ideal – soft clay soil on ground that slopes the wrong way – but it seems to work. Even when you are in the house it is a bit of a maze to find the exact location but well worth the unique experience of viewing suburbia from a secret vineyard. If anyone knows of any other vineyards in London however small please contact me on email@example.com.
From Morden it was only a few stops on the Northern Line to Tooting Bec station where I somehow managed to find my way to the vibrant Furzedown Festival to collect my annual allocation of four bottles of Chateau Tooting which makes wine from grapes grown in gardens and allotments across the Capital. You are allocated bottles in proportion to the weight of grapes you put in. This year – a rosé made into wine by the highly regarded Halfpenny Green vineyard in Staffordshire – was sweeter than last year’s excellent offering but very drinkable even though I don’t have a sweet tooth. Chateau Tooting makes north of 600 bottles and is the second largest wine priducer in London.They seemed to be doing a roaring trade at their stall yesterday.
This morning – yes, this is definitely London wine collection weekend – I trekked to Enfield in North London to the 10 acre Forty Hall (photo, left) which is emerging as the most exciting vineyard in London for a very long time. I bought a few bottles of its Bacchus, which has been well received by early imbibers plus an Ortega. Its second sparkling wine will be released later in the year probably only for patrons until production gets fully underway. Forty Hall is an organic vineyard run by volunteers, some of whom have social problems which are greatly helped by the therapeutic value of vineyard involvement. I felt a bit better just by strolling around. The wine is made for them by Davenports, the highly respected Sussex winery, and the combination of the two organisations looks like a highly encouraging blend.
Chateau Tooting’s stall at the Furzedown Festival)
AT LONG last Christopher Merrett, the 17th century English scientist who first established what is now called the méthode champenoise – long before Dom Perignon – is to get official recognition. Local historians have now discovered exactly where he lived in the Gloucestershire village of Winchcombe and have applied for a plaque to be put up. When I wrote about this two years ago it was thought that the house – actually a pub – where Merrett was born was on Gloucester Street on the the corner of Mill Lane. This was true. But it turns out it was the wrong corner. The actual building is the one in the picture above and not the one on the other side of the lane part of which can be seen on the left of the photo. The house has been reconstructed since the 17th century but still has the original cellar and barrel roll.
Local writer Jean Bray and folk artist Katie Morgan have applied to have a plaque to commemorate Christopher Merret’s undersung achievement. Most people (especially in France!) still believe that Dom Perignon invented champagne but he actually came onto the scene nearly 30 years after Merrett.
In Merrett’s time Champagne in France was a still white wine. If a secondary fermentation happened it was regarded as a disaster because it would explode the bottles which were then made of weak glass. In a paper to the newly-formed Royal Society in December 1662 (uncovered by the champagne expert Tom Stevenson 20 years ago) Merret described how winemakers deliberately added sugar to create a secondary fermentation. There was no explosion because English bottles, unlike the French ones, were made in coal-fired furnaces able to produce stronger glass than the traditional woodburning techniques.
Merrett went to Oxford and worked in London while living in Hatton Garden which had a large vineyard in those days though it is not known whether Merrett was involved with it. He was buried in St Andrew’s Church, Holborn.
Jean Bray is to give a talk entitled “The Englishman who invented Champagne” at 7.30pm on Thursday May 26 at the Chandos Hall in Winchcombe as part of Winchcombe Festival of Music and Arts. It is sponsored by Strawberry Hill Vineyard of Newent which is one of the nearest vineyards to Winchcombe (price £8 including a glass of sparkling).
It is great that Winchcombe is celebrating its most famous son but there are dozens of vineyards around the country whose success can ultimately be traced back to Christopher Merrett (picture, left) who don’t celebrate him enough. This is partly because Ridgeview vineyard established Merrett as a trade mark. This may have been a shrewd move commercially but it may also have hampered the scope of vineyards in the UK to capitalise on a name that, in truth, ought to be more widely known than Dom Perignon.
UK tables at the Real Wine Fair
I HAD some liquor today that was distilled in a house in Highgate using wormwood as an additive. It turned out it was all legit. Ian Hart and Hilary Whitney, who started in 2009, had to get four different licences before being authorised to set the operation up which distils its spirits under a vacuum in glassware. I stumbled across it at today’s Real Wine Fair at Tobacco Dock in London’s Docklands. I liked the the look of the bottles but said I was only really interested in English and Welsh wines. But when it was pointed out that three of the bottles were two thirds filled with wine from Three Choirs vineyard in Gloucestershire I was hooked and immediately sampled some Three Choirs based vermouths plus a cardamon gin and a Negroni, all marketed under the Sacred label.
The three English vineyards there – Ancre Hill, Davenport and Forty Hall – are all firm favourites with me as their new wines confirmed including a liimted edition 2015 Davenport Pet Nat with an 8.5% alcohol content and very pleasant Pinot Noirs from Ancre and Davenport. Forty Hall, the 10-acre community-run vineyard in Enfield, London had their impressive 2015 Ortega and Bacchus but none of their first sparkling wine which went mainly to sponsors and helpers. Future years will be different.
England and Wales represented barely two per cent of the vineyards on show – which gives some idea of the size of the fair which attracted wines from all over the world. Hundreds of people were there creating a real buzz along the lines of tables of all kinds of wines and artisan foods. Among those that grabbed me on a whet-my- whistle-stop tour was one from Priorat in Spain made from a vine over 100 years old, a 2015 Mtsvane Pet Nat from Georgia which was left in the bottle from primary fermentation and a Loxarel from Penedès in Spain that had been laid sur latte for 10 years without even being disgorged.
There is clearly a big market for “natural” wines. Some of the people I spoke to said that after drinking natural ones they couldn’t face the additives present in the usual varieties which they noticed in a way they hadn’t before. You don’t have to go all the way with the niceties of making organic and biodynamic wines to accept that they are making some very fine wines. The proof of the theory is in the drinking.
AS IT IS the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth this month I decided as part of our annual pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon to ponder whether there were any links between Shakespeare and vineyards. Stratford today boasts two vineyards Welcombe Hills (one acre) and Bearley (three acres) in the Snitterfield area less than four miles from the town centre. Both of them are behind houses on the main road, a sling’s throw from a patch of land between Smith’s Lane and Bell Lane known to have been owned by Shakespeare’s grandfather, Richard where Shakespeare’s father was born.
Bearley sells a very drinkable wine – made from the Rondo and Regent grapes – called, wait for it, “Bard’s Red”. It claims further links with Shakespeare’s family because Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother, lived in the neighbouring village of Wilmcote. Her house has been turned into a living Tudor farm. Among the delights on offer is to be present at a typical Tudor lunch. Welcombe, claims similar links and recently has been under the management of Kieron Atkinson who also looks after Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire.
If you walk around Stratford itself you are are rarely more than a few yards from something claiming a link with Shakespeare from the “The Food of Love” shop to the Othello taxi service. But as I intended to explore vineyards and wine I was particularly interested in the claims of the taverns. The boldest is that of The Vintner, situated a short walk from Shakespeare’s home at New Place, which, having traced its ancestry back to 1600 when John Smith and his wife traded there, adds: “It is more than likely that William Shakespeare purchased his wine from here!” Well, after allowing for the fact that there is no documentary evidence that Shakespeare ever drank wine let alone bought any here, this is nevertheless almost as likely as the presumption that he went to the local grammar school for which there is also no documented evidence though it is highly likely to be true. A similar claim might be made by the Garrick, very close to New Place. It could even be the tavern where Shakespeare is believed to have had a last drink with his literary mates Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton from which he contracted a fever, dying shortly afterwards. The Garrick – renamed later after the great actor – claims to have been serving real ale on its premises since at least 1594. There is also the venerable The Old Thatch Tavern, 300 yards from William’s birthplace, which dates back to 1470 and claims to be the oldest pub in Stratford.
What would be have been drinking? If he put his own tastes into those of his characters such as Sir John Falstaff then his drink of choice would have been Sack (mentioned over 50 times in the works) which is a kind of Sherry or perhaps Canary or even Malmsey (a kind of Madeira) which was Shakespeare’s drink of choice when he allowed Richard 111 to drown his brother the Duke of Clarence in a cask of the stuff.
I RECENTLY attended a fascinating lecture on the chemistry of tastebuds at University College London (Department of Chemistry). During the course of it the lecturer, Tony Milanowski from Plumpton College, handed around four cups of clear liquids and asked us to pass them around after writing down a) whether we smelled anything at all and b) if we did what sort of aroma it was.
The first two had no smell at all and were obviously water (who was he trying to fool?) while the other two had distinct perfumes which I noted down. At the end of the talk he revealed that he had intended to pass around a fifth cup but as it was only water he decided not to bother.
Oops! After decades of drinking wine I was unable to detect half of the smells of the liquids. It was scant consolation that most of the rest of the audience seemed to be in the same boat and the student next to me only managed one. It turned out that the last one should have tasted of asparagus to which some people have what is termed a “genetically determined specific hypersensitivity ” to it. And others don’t sense it at all.
The fact is that the vast majority of people who drink regularly do not have sophisticated taste buds and many of those who do actually fail in blind tastings.
There is no such thing as an “objective” taste in a glass of wine or any other liquid. What you are tasting is not what I am tasting. Taste depends on genetics (the multitude of receptors and sensors in your mouth and up your nose), but also on mood, temperature, place, the company you keep, expectations and even the label. That bottle of rosé that tasted so heavenly on a beach in the south of France but was quite mundane at home is not to be blamed. It wasn’t that it didn’t travel it was because the environment in which you drunk it did not travel.
If you are given a glass of Chateau LaTour in a posh restaurant it will taste different to the same wine served up anonymously in a plastic cup. All of this is highly relevant to the appreciation of English and Welsh wine. If you have it built into you that the wine is no good – as so many people in the UK still believe about their own wines – then it is difficult to detach the psychology of expectations from how you taste it.
You are not alone. In America Robert Hodgson, an academic and a winemaker has carried out a detailed analysis of blind tastings in California over a number of years by acknowledged experts. The results astonished him. Some 90% of judges didn’t have any real consistency often giving quite different marks to the same wines. About 10% of the judges were ‘quite good” – until, that is, he compared them with the following year when they couldn’t maintain their performances. When he tracked 4,000 wines across 13 competitions he found that virtually all of those that got a gold medal in one competition got no award at all elsewhere. His conclusion? The probability of getting a gold medal matches almost exactly what you’d expect from a completely random process. Ouch.
Of course, even if judges were completely consistent about a wine it doesn’t mean you will like it because your tastebuds and receptors may be completely different. Experts make a great play of detecting notes of gooseberry, raspberry, nettles and even pencil shavings in a wine though they would rapidly recoil from a wine made from those constituents. A 2011 Chateau Tooting, made from grapes of unknown parentage grown in back gardens and allotments in London, was recently given a mark of 88% in a blind tasting by wine expert Jamie Goode. In the end there is no alternative but to follow your own nose while being aware of all the flummery about wine.
All of which ought to be good for the future of UK wines as they start to break through the barrier of psychological resistance. It is already happening with sparkling wines (though how they would fare under a Hodgson analysis is an interesting point). But there is still a widespread belief that English and Welsh wines can’t be much good simply because they are English or Welsh. There is all to play for.
This is an edited version of an article in the current issue of UKvine magazine .
LAST NIGHT at the Windsor Castle, a lovingly restored Victorian pub behind Westminster Cathedral, it was business as usual for the packed clientele. But in the upstairs room something unusual was happening: the first meeting of London vineyards quite possibly since the Middle Ages.
London? Vineyards? The two words don’t easily sit together let alone drink together but the recent revival of winemaking in England has stirred some dormant roots. London used to be awash with vineyards – several not far from the pub – until climate change, the dissolution of the monasteries and other factors saw them off. Today with the price of land you would have to be a crazy billionaire to plant a vineyard in central London.
But there are other ways to achieve the same aim as the 15 or so pioneers gathered there last night illustrated. They included Sarah Vaughan Roberts, founder of a very promising 10-acre community-run vineyard in Enfield, Richard Sharp of Urban Wine, producer of Chateau Tooting a crowd sourced project gathering grapes from allotments and back gardens and turned into wine by an established winemaker, and Marko Bojcun and his business partner, Craig who make wine on their own account at Organiclea Hawkwood in Chingford and for a couple of dozen domestic growers in the Lea Valley. Paul Olding, author of The Urban Vineyard, a great beginner’s guide to grape growing, is expanding his Olding Manor allotment in Lewisham to, literally, pastures new in East Sussex. Tony Hibbett manages the hitherto abandoned Clocktower Vineyard, located in a public park in West London.
Sarah Vaughan Roberts of Forty Hall with other producers, right
Common problems included what to do about rampaging birds from pigeons that get under the netting to starlings which gobble up the whole crop and even flocks of ravenous parakeets. Observing closely was James Graham, publisher of UKvine, the first magazine devoted entirely to English and Welsh wine.
A theme soon emerged. Where do we go from here? Everyone seemed to agree that the next step might be a kind of virtual vineyard in which home growers, as well as depositing a wide variety of often unknown grapes of varying qualities with the likes of Chateau Tooting and Organiclea, could grow a couple of agreed varieties – say, Regent for red wines and Phoenix for white – while sharing experiences.In this way it might be possible to produce a high quality wine with, who knows, a London appellation.
How to publicise it? Obvious routes include contacting allotment societies and city farms – plus getting a sampling table during English Wine Week. Other suggestions welcome! I am trying to re-open the comments slot here which has been closed because of spam. We are most grateful to Dee & Mark Brecknock, managers of the Windsor Castle for letting us have a room in their splendid pub.
Three Choirs vineyard
THE WYE VALLEY has long been celebrated as an area of outstanding natural beauty, lauded by poets such as Wordsworth, Pope and Gray. It also has a strong claim to be where the modern tourism industry began when the gentry, deprived of the Grand Tour by Napoleon’s army, had to discover their own country instead. What it is definitely not famous for is vineyards. This is not because it hasn’t got any but because Wyedean as it is now called (Wye Valley and Forest of Dean) straddles two countries – England and Wales -and three counties – Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire – and so gets lost among the geographical boundaries into which vineyards are divided by officialdom.
In fact the Wye Valley has a good claim to be one of the strongest growing wine areas in the UK and deserves to become a vineyard destination in its own right. Until a few years ago the only vineyard in the area to have won gold medals was Three Choirs which remains one of Britain’s most successful estates.
Parva Farm vineyard at Tintern
To experience the rising vinicultural clout of Wyedean take a road trip upstream starting at historic Tintern Abbey where on a hillside on your left you can see most of the 2.5 acre site of Parva Farm Vineyard which punches way above its weight having won a slew of silver medals and last year in the Welsh Vineyards Association (WVA) competition won a gold for its 2013 Bacchus. It actually attracted national headlines recently when Marks & Spencer gobbled up its stock of Bacchus. You have to negotiate a steep slope before arriving at the vineyard itself with a pleasant shop and chairs and tables outside with sheep meandering around the vineyard itself. I am told that its Mead is also very good.
Ancre Hill, Monmouth
Further upstream a mile outside the delightfully unspoiled country town of Monmouth, birthplace of Henry V, lies Ancre Hill Estate, the pride of Welsh vineyards. It burst on to the scene from nowhere in 2012 when its sparkling Seyval was voted the best sparkling wine in the world in a blind tasting by international experts at the Bollicine del Mondo in Italy against stiff competition from champagnes. Such was the disbelief that it wasn’t even reported in the local paper, the Monmouthshire Beacon. English and Welsh wines still have a big psychological barrier to break through.
To prove this was no fluke it has won several more golds since – including one in a Chinese competition and two in this year’s WVA contest with a Chardonnay and a 2009 barrel fermented sparkling. Ancre Hill – the French sounding name may have a Huguenot origin – is situated like so many Welsh vineyards – on a gentle slope with misty hills in the background. Here the Morris family have built an impressive state-of-the art biodynamic winery to process all their grapes including those from a large new field they have recently purchased on the other side of Monmouth very close to the Wye itself. Their ambitions have clearly not been satisfied yet. Sadly, the Monnow Valley vineyard in Monmouth, also near the Wye, is closing for family reasons having been a regular supplier to Waitrose for some years.
However a new vineyard has sprung up in its place a few miles away in Herefordshire off the Goodrich to Ross-on-Wye country route. You can’t see it from the road but once you have negotiated a few narrow lanes you encounter Wythall, a spectacular, and spectacularly unspoiled, 500 year-old Tudor mansion behind which Frank Myers has single-handedly planted nearly 3,500 vines on a 3.5 acre site. This year’s harvest, he says, is three times as big as last year’s with the reds looking particularly encouraging. The outbuildings are planned to house a cellar door eventually and shop which will make it a unique vineyard experience.
Wythall, the Tudor mansion
The house has been owned by the family of his wife – the Euro MP Anthea Mcintyre since the early 17th century and the original wine cellar of the house is now their HMRC-certified bonded cellar. The first wines under a “Tudor Manor” label (what else!) have been processed locally by Three Choirs and are due this year. If he can match the quality of the wine with the history of the house it wil be quite something.
Further along the Goodrich to Ross road along a right turn after Walford is the road past Coughton to Castle Brook, (photo at bottom of page) an exceptional vineyard run by the Chinn family, the largest asparagus growers in the country. They diversified a few years ago into making sparkling wine on a beautiful steep two hectare slope near what is thought to have been a Roman vineyard. In a light-hearted gesture to their family history their early wines were called Chinn-Chinn, a motif, which is still retained on the label.
They don’t need any gimmicks now. Their 2009 sparkling, made with classic champagne grapes and left on the lees for over four years has become one of the most decorated wines in the country including gold – and wine of the year- in the South- west Vineyards compeition and most recently a gold at what is arguably the most prestigious competiton of its kind in the world – the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championship – which attracts some of the best Champagne labels. Views and sales by appointment or from their website.
On a much smaller scale is Beeches Vineyard at Upton Bishop where John Boyd and his late wife Ikka established a fine vineyard behind their handsome country house not far from the Moody Cow gastronomic pub which they supply along with other outlets. In the 2015 South West Vineyards Association competition Beeches won a silver for its 2014 red which was also voted the best red in the whole region.
A few miles to the north Wyedean springs an unusual surprise – three vineyards within a mile of each other as the crow flies (with a fourth on the way). Can anyone top that? Alan Oastler, whose day job was as a nuclear scientist until his recent retirement has a 5.5 acre vineyard at Compton Green on a lovely slope where he grows grapes for his very drinkable English wines. He had to stop calling it Gloucestershire Regional Wine because of EU rules. He sells thrrough local outlets including Waitrose and also supplies fruit to Three Choirs. It is a pure vineyard without a cellar door.
A short distance away is what is confidently claimed to be a unique vineyard. Strawberry Hill (photo below) says it is the only one growing grapes on a commercial scale under glass (over an acre) as well as outside. And if that claim is ever challenged then it is surely the only one anywhere in the world growing under glass with two rows of mature banana trees guarding them. Strawberry Hill makes very tasty wines on its own account – including Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon from the greenhouses – though most of its current production goes to wineries for their own labels. I had a delicious rosé there the other day. A few hundred yards from the entrance to Strawberry Hill another vineyard is being planted which we may hear more about later.
But the undoubted star of Wyedean wineries and almost next door to Strawberry Hill is Three Choirs, (photo at top) which has been one of the trendsetters of modern English vineyards for over 40 years. It not only makes its own fine wines – one of the few English wines the choosey Wine Society has been selling – at competitive prices – for years but it also acts as an ecosystem processing grapes from miles around in England and Wales (including Ancre Hill’s world beating Seyval). With 30 hectares (74 acres) it has long been one of the biggest vineyards in the UK and last year it purchased Wickham vineyard in Hampshire to expand its activities.
You can find other venues with even better wines and better restaurants – though its own are of a very high standard – but Three Choirs is hard to beat for the total vineyard experience – a lovely approach road through the vines, a compact shop, easy parking, accomodation of a high standard and a lovely restaurant with spectacular views across the rolling acres with a terrace that in summer feels like being transported to Provence. And it is among the top value-for-money vineyards as well.
There are other smaller vineyards such as the Pengethley Manor Hotel on the Ross-on-Wye to Hereford road which has an acre of grapes which are processed by Three Choirs and sold in its restaurant, Coddington, near Ledbury and Kent’s Green, near Newent, a family owned one managed by Charlie Peak who has a lovely spot with grapes growing over his walls as well as in the small vineyard. But they are not yet in the same league as the bigger ones which increasingly look like a vineyard trail waiting to be exploited. All they need, maybe, is a latterday Wordsworth to do them justice.
Strawberry Hill, complete with banana trees
THIS YEAR we are going to have two wines from London (yes, London, England) and one from Wales for our Christmas lunch. If this doesn’t get us into the Guinness Book of Records nothing will. As an aperitif it will be Forty Hall sparkling, claimed to be London’s first sparkling wine for centuries. I managed to get a bottle because as a patron I was entitled to just one as output is being restricted in early years in order to boost future growth. I was going to keep it for a while as it is rather young for a sparkling but then I was offered the opportunity, again as a patron, to buy another two bottles – so that made it worth the risk of opening one for Christmas. Forty Hall is London’s largest vineyard for a very long time and maybe ever. It is an inspired community-run 10-acre project at Enfield whose grapes are turned into wine by Will Davenport, one of England’s most respected winemakers.Can’t wait.
For the turkey there is a choice. For some reason – and I am not sure where I went wrong – the rest of the family always prefers white to red. So there will be a bottle of LDN Cru, a Bacchus made at what is claimed to be London’s first urban winery in West Brompton using grapes from the family-owned Sandhurst vineyards in Kent. Purists may argue whether this is really a London wine as the grapes are grown outside the capital. But vineyards such as Chapel Down and Camel Valley always brand under their own labels even when the grapes come from Essex or wherever. For me it’s London and I look forward to a glass.
Finally, another first – a domestic red with the turkey. I am very interested in the way Pinot Noir – the grape behind Burgundy – is developing in the UK as a premium product and have already been very impressed with Gusbourne and Hush Heath Pinots this year. I also have bottles of Sharpham and Three Choirs gathering age. But this time I have decided on one from Ancre Hill in Monmouth. Their sparkling whites have been festooned with gold medals but they also have a long-term interest in producing top quality Pinot Noir in Wales. Well, that was the difficult bit. Choosing. Now it is all over bar the drinking. Happy Christmas to all.
JOAR SAETTEM produced “a nice floral wine” from the Solaris grape in 2014. Nothing particularly remarkable about that. Except that it was grown at Lerkekasa in Norway on latitude 59.4 in what is claimed to be the most northerly vineyard in the world. It sits on land rich in minerals with plenty of sun and reflected light from nearby Lake Norsjø.
This is the most extreme example of vineyards moving North, a trend that is taking hold in England as well as in Sweden and Denmark – though they are all considerably further south than Lerkekasa. Viticultural pioneers are taking a bet that global warming is on the way even though it involves a constant battle against the elements. This northern march has plenty of lessons for the whole of Britain as new vineyards move steadily up country to take advantage of improved techniques, hardier varieties and the challenge of the unknown.
The Solaris grape – hardly a household name in the south – seems to be becoming the grape of choice to make white wines in these pioneering cool and cold-climate vineyards in England, Scotland and North Wales.
Norway may be setting the pace but on my reckoning (corrections welcome) three of the next four most northerly vineyards after Lerkekåsa are in Scotland and not in Scandinavia.
The most bizarre – to southerners – is Polycroft on the remote Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides – on 58 degrees latitude (the higher the latitude, of course, the further north). It grows mainly Black Hamburg grapes in polytunnels for sale at local markets in Stornaway but also makes a wine which is distributed to family and friends. The proprietors Donald Hope,a former missionary, and his wife Jean have no comment to make on the quality of their main wine, rosé. They are teetotal.
Further south, but still pretty far north, on latitude 57, Alan Smith has a southern facing slope 800 feet at Glenkindle – it means “dale of roses” – on the eastern side of the Cairngorms National Park where he has established a small private experimental vineyard (picture, right) to explore the hardiest grapes that can be grown in Britain. The fashionable Rondo (red) and Solaris (white) are not hardy enough for these parts so he uses Baltic and Russian hybrids such as Dalnivostock Ramming and Jublienka Novgoroda. He doesn’t think global warming is that important because, he says, a lot of the plant types that grow in the south of England also grow at 57 degrees north though the varieties are different.
He has about 200 vines spread among greenhouses (for table grapes), pots, a polytunnel (for wine) and two areas for outdoor vines. He hopes to produce his first bottles of wine next year. His progress is likely to be watched carefully by grape aficionados for one very good reason. Glenkindle is on the same latitude as the Great Glen and Loch Ness which Professor Richard C Selley in his influential book The Winelands of Britain has predicted will be an ideal geological structure to plant vines in the future if global warming continues. Maybe, one day, there will be the equivalent of a gold rush for land in the Great Glen – but not yet.
All of this leaves unchallenged the claim of UKvine’s esteemed food columnist Christopher Trotter to have made Scotland’s first wine on a proper basis at his Momentum vineyard at Upper Largo in Fife on latitude 56. This year he produced the first bottles of Chateau Largo with the Solaris grape which accounts for 75% of the 200 vines he has planted so far. He is honest and wise enough to say that he is unhappy with his first vintage and won’t share it yet – not even with a fellow columnist. But he believes he has learned from his mistakes and hopes eventually to raise money to plant over two hectares.
Scotland is no stranger to viticultural success. In Victorian times William Thomson established Clovenfords Vineries in 1870 and planted five acres of vines under glass, with miles of hot pipes to maintain the right temperature. It created a thriving business in table grapes for 90 years under four generations of the family until a collapse in the world price of grapes put paid to the experiment. High point? While working for the Duke of Buccleuch, William entered grapes into a competition in Paris for the Grand Gold Medal of the Central Society of Horticulture of France. And guess what? He won and, to the consternation of the French who couldn’t believe that grapes grown in wild Scotland could challenge their Divine Right to viticulture, was handed the gold medal by the Emperor of France.
In England, Astley, a lovely secluded vineyard in Worcestershire, was for a long time deemed the most northerly UK vineyard before Renishaw Hall near Sheffied took over the mantle – but now there are over two dozen further north than Astley and they are winning prizes in international competitions. Ryedale at Westow near York in Yorkshire, on 53.9 latitude has ten acres and claims to be the most northerly commercial vineyard in Britain. No one in Scotland will argue with that – for the moment.
Rydedale makes most of its wine in its own winery and has won a string of bronze medals in international competitions plus a silver medal in United Kingdom Vineyards Association 2013 competition for its Shepherd’s Delight rosé. But pride of place for quality among Northern vineyards must go to Bill Hobson of Somerby Vineyard in Lincolnshire who won a gold medal at the 2014 English & Welsh Wine of the Year show for his – you’ve guessed it – Solaris still white.
Solaris slso featured in another stunning success for a Northern(ish) vineyard when Kerry Vale on the English/Welsh border at Pentreheyling in Shropshire, won one of only seven silver medals awarded to English vineyards for its Shropshire Lady dry white at the very prestigious International Wine Challenge 2015. It is a delicious wine and has become one of our favourites.
One could go on but the point is made. The success of British wines is moving slowly northwards thanks to improved techniques, climate changes and the unflappable enthusiasm of the British to produce wine from their own soil. Loch Ness, here we come.
Edited version of article in the current issue of UKvine (printed editions only)