English Wine: A Convenient Truth

Among the reefs upon which English culture has traditionally foundered are the following: Oral hygiene, naming food (spotted dick, bubble and squeak, blood pudding…  Seriously?), failing to be suitably deferential to Americans for kicking arse in 1776, then winning World War II for them, spelling ‘color’ with a ‘u’, shit with an ‘e’ and soccer with an ‘f’…

…And making wine.

Yet, lo and behold, at a sold-out London Wine Fair this coming weekend (October 29th) four English wines will strut their stuff among the 600 international wines, plenty from lesser known wineries like Sula in India.

How is this possible in England—a country where it rains 365 days a year (people sunbathe only on Feb 29, once every four years), where beer is the omnipresent bevvie of choice and where, during a sort of renaissance of vine planting in the ‘80’s, more than one in three of the new wineries tossed in the towel within a decade?

I believe that Al Gore can clue you in—maybe catch him aboard his private Gulfstream as he travels the world lecturing on how to live a carbon-neutral lifestyle:

Global warming.

It’s nothing new.  The first climactic blow to English viticulture occurred during the 800’s when a mini ice-age put the chill of destiny into the hearts of Romano-Britons and killed the vines they’d spent a thousand years installing.  By 1086 the industry had recovered a bit, with forty-six wineries listed in a survey of landowners commissioned by William the Conqueror; apparently, English vineyards could be found from modern-day Somerset and as far north as East Anglia.  Over the next five hundred years, the number of wineries grew to nearly one hundred fifty, mostly cultivated by monks and falling under the auspices of the church.  Henry VIII put a kibosh on all that, of course, by abolishing monasteries, and in subsequent centuries, the British wine industry faded to near extinction.

All in all, the English proved to be better at importing continental wine—Claret from Bordeaux, hock from Germany, sherry from Spain and madeira from Sicily—than they did at maintaining their own winegrowing community.

That is, until we humanoids started leaving carbon footprints bigger than those of the Jolly Not-So-Green Giant.  Figure that Burgundy is about three hundred miles south of London; over the six months that Burgundian grapes are active, the average temperature is a shade over 70°F—in Kent, one of the primo growing spots for vines in England, average temps have now crept above 64°F.  Kent, in fact, set a British record in 2003, recording temperatures of over 100°F—a historical first.

And, despite the inconvenient untruth mentioned above concerning the amount of rainfall England gets (that was a wee bit o’ John Bull bull), sunshine is not really an issue to sub-London vintners.  England’s South Coast receives as much as 1700 hours of sunlight during the growing season, while vines require about 1500 hours to remain viable.

One day, if temperatures continue to rise, the Kingdom appears poised to snag a throne on the world’s wine stage.  For now, maybe not: In the course of a decade, England can expect four atrocious vintages, four average vintages and only two good ones.

Clearly, there’s both a learning curve and a weather curve still required.

In the meantime, Brittania waits impatiently,  engines revved (more CO2 for the atmosphere, mate) doing what it can to hurry things along…

If Life Hands You Lemons, Make Seyval Blanc

So one man’s Day After Tomorrow is another man’s VinExpo Britain 2050, but as it stands, most cépages nobles have opted to exercise a contract rider stating that they won’t perform in the U.K. until it can provide dressing rooms as slick as those of the Côte-d’Or.  And these are the rock star varietals, the label-names that put coin in the coffer:  cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, shiraz, sauvignon blanc—you name it, the Brits can’t quite grow it.  So, as the English wine industry becomes more sophisticated, many vineyards have opted to plant such ingénues as are willing to give the country the benefit of the doubt.  That includes Seyval Blanc, Bacchus, Huxelrebe and Phoenix.

Seyval on the vine.

Seyval is an early-ripening French hybrid built to withstand cool temperatures and truncated growing seasons; besides England, it shows up frequently in Finger Lakes (New York) vineyards.  Characterized by a mouthwatering acidity and a backbone of minerality, it has flavors comparable to those of basic white Burgundies: pear, apple, lemon and melon.

Developed in the Palatinate in 1933 as part of the German plan to create a blonde and vigorous Master Grape, Bacchus—named for the degenerate god of one-for-the-road—is a cross between the powerhouse varietals riesling, sylvaner and müller-thurgau.  In the Fatherland, it tends to produce flabby wines without much character, but in England, where temperatures are cooler, the grape retains enough acidity to be quite lovely.  Flavors are distinctively herbal: leaf, meadow shrubs, honeysuckle with a bit of grapefruit in the background.

The totalitarian-looking 'Institute for Grape Breeding' was designed by Albert Speer in 1927

Huxelrebe is another German ex-pat, developed in 1927 in the very Third Reich-sounding Institute for Grape Breeding as a high-yield, high-must early ripener chiefly used a blending grape.  Which is how England treats it, frequently stirring it into the pot alongside bacchus and seyval.  On its own, it’s a sort of sauvignon blanc lite with delicate overtones of  gooseberry, grass and green apple.

Finally, Phoenix, yet another Aryan offering—although in Germany, a scant 120 acres are currently being cultivated.  It’s a cross between bacchus and villard blanc, and produces a chalky, mineral-tinged wine that, like huxelrebe, is gently reminiscent of sauvignon blanc, but without the breeding of a truly fine one.

"Nay, Charles, you shan't be my tampon. Nay, neigh, neighhhh. Say, do you happen to have a lump of sugar?"

The UK Vineyards Association: How Hoity-Toity Is it…?

Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cornwall is the president, that’s how hoity-toity it is.  Equine-looking Camilla, second wife of Charles, Prince of Wales, home-wrecker extraordinaire and poster princess for why you don’t want your phone hacked took over the position from Lord Montagu of Beaulieu in July, becoming the figurehead of the UK wine industry.  ‘Figurehead’, of course, is stodgy Brit for ‘I haven’t got the slightest clue as to what I’m doing here, but I’ll gladly accept photo ops at the vineyards’.

As the only organization recognized by the government as representing the English and Welsh wine industry, The UKVA regulates Britain’s place-of-origin pedigree via categories equivalent to France’s AOC, America’s AVA and Italy’s DOC.  The Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and the slightly less restrictive Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) also makes rules for permissible label designs, cultivar specifics, alcohol levels and sweetening/de-acidification practices.

Also, each June, they run the English & Welsh Wine of the Year Competition, which offers a pretty good cross-section of who’s doing what, where and how.  In terms of ‘how good’, one would expect that the awards themselves would be a pretty good indicator considering that the six judges are all Masters of Wine—enology’s equivalent to  an Sc.D. degree—but something here doesn’t quite settle in the duodenum.  Of 274 wines entered this year, 252 took home medals or mentions, and for those of you still languishing in remedial math, that’s 90%.  With all that’s been said, here and in dozens of articles elsewhere regarding the struggles and challenges of growing quality grapes in Britian (strides have been made, granted), the idea that 90% of contest submissions would warrant shiny metal or kind kudos is about as credible as Neville Chamberlain waving that ‘Peace In Our Time’ agreement the day before the Nazis invaded Sudetenland.

“We were immensely impressed with the number of entries and the overall quality this year, which is why so many went on to win an award,” said Susan McCraith, the competition’s chairman.

Look, Susan, this may be a speck presumptuous, but isn’t the whole idea of a competition to winnow the fair from the bad, the good from the fair, then the great from the good?  If, as you suggest, they’re all great, aren’t you supposed to tap into your considerable wine knowledge and bionic palate to extract the genuinely sublime from the great?  If everybody wins, nobody wins.

From a slightly different angle, the 'Institute for Grape Breeding' actually looks like half a grape.

Nevertheless, a few of the tippity-top winners included The Jack Ward Trophy (Best Commercial Production from the 2010 vintage) to New Hall Vineyard Bacchus 2010;  The Wine Guild Trophy (Commercial Production, Any Other Year) to Sandhurst Bacchus Dry 2008; the coveted The Gore-Browne Trophy (Wine of the Year) to Ridgeview Grosvenor Blanc de Blancs 2000The Waitrose Rosé Trophy to Giffords Hall Rosé 2009.  A new category for dessert wines, dubbed The Stefanowicz Trophy, went to Astley Vineyard Late Harvest 2009, produced from 100% Siegerrebe, which is—you guessed it—another Dr. Moreau-Josef Mengele high-must mutt developed at the Institute For Grape Breeding.

One thing you notice looking at the complete list of winners (http://www.englishwineproducers.com/competitionresultsUKVA2011.htm) is that the same vineyards keep showing up again and again, so one supposes that these are the guys who’ve figured out how to make the enology’s equivalent of the Special Olympics work for them, not against them.

Alphabetically, these include:

Astley Vineyards: Michael and Betty Bache established Astley in the 70’s and it sits upon free-draining red sandstone kept temperate by the River Severn.  Winemaker Martin Fowke produces a variety of styles from kerner, madeleine angevine, late-harvest siegerrebe and phoenix, and 97% of them have won awards since 1996.

Biddenden Vineyards: The oldest winery in the Southeast, the scant 22 acres of vines produce a variety of cultivars.  50% of the land is planted to ortega with the remainder divided between huxelrebe, bacchus, schönburger and reichensteiner with reds being made up of dornfelder, gamay and pinot noir.

Sam Lindo

Camel Valley: Situated in a distinctly camel-free zone halfway between the Atlantic and Channel coasts, the mildish Cornish climate helps produce wonderful whites from bacchus, seyval and even a bit of chardonnay while reds are primarily pinot noir and dornfelder.  All, under the directorship of Sam and Bob Lindo, have won awards, but none so prestigious as the second-place they took in the World Sparkling Wine Championships in Verona, bested only by Bollinger.

Chapel Down Winery:  Kent is considered the Garden of England, and not ‘garden’ in the sense of a grotty, microscopic backyard in the row houses of Coronation Street, but a real live, fertile and brimming with verdure garden.  Here, above a chalk seam typified by the North and South Downs of Kent, is the setting that winemaker Owen Elias plies his trade, producing a decorated portfolio of still and sparkling wines.  Attached to the estate is a superlative restaurant run by Michelin-starred chef Richard Phillips, making this one of the top destination wineries in the Commonwealth.

Denbies Wine Estate:  A whopper by British standards, Denbies is one of the largest privately owned vineyards in Northern Europe, and in top vintages can approach a half million bottles—10% of all output from this tight little isle.  The state-of-the-art facility in the hilariously named town of Dorking in Surrey, produces both still and sparkling wines, predominantly from a no-surprises line-up: Seyval, reichensteiner, müller-thurgau, bacchus, ortega, chardonnay and pinot noir.

Nyetimber Limited: For owner Eric Heerema, the 100 Years War never really ended and he battles on, still determined win it.  At least, he wants to out-Champagne Champagne.  The estate was founded in 1986 by an American couple who noted the geological similarities between this West Sussex property and the Champagne region; they reasoned that they could produce a wine to rival the great bubblies of France.  The estate has changed hands several times, but not one of these hands has lost touch with the mission.  The UKVA voted them Best Wine of the Year thrice running (’03 – ’05) and the shelf-load of trophies, gold medals and ‘Best of Class’ awards proves that the ultimate goal may be in sight.

Ridgeview Wine Estate:  So named because it nestles on a low limestone ridge sloping towards the South Downs in Sussex, the winery enjoys a rare growing-season climate—both dry and hot.  This allows them to fully ripen chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier along with ten other French clones to ensure variety in blending.  It should be no surprise, therefore, that winemakers Mike and Simon Roberts specialize in méthode champenoise sparklers—and they’re nailing it:  In June, Cavendish 2009 was awarded Best Sparkling Wine in the 23rd Thesis Wine Competition.

Three Choirs Vineyard:  The average size of a Napa vineyard is 150 acres; at 80 acres, Three Choirs is one of the biggest vineyards in England.  To further level set, within the Three Choirs microclimate, less rain falls than in Napa: 20 inches a year compared to 24 for Napa.  Sheltered by the Malverns and the Brecon Beacons, the land is ideal for most of the English standby grapes; in the red category, experimental plantings in rondo, regent and triomphe are producing favorable results.

So, Back To The London Wine Fair…

You’ll likely be reading this after the fair is over, but no matter—there aren’t any tickets left and you couldn’t have gone anyway (frowny-face emoticon, which I would never, under any circumstances, actually incorporate into my writing).  But for those lucky enough to score an entry, it promises to be a whirligig day filled with tastings, break-out master classes, tastings, a wine walk and more tastings from the 55 tables manned by some of the most influential wine merchants in the country.

According to the Wine Gang, a quintet made up of the U.K.’s most respected wine critics,  “This is Britain’s brightest, best and most fun wine event and is a fabulous chance to plan your wine drinking for Christmas and beyond.”

The Wine Gang: Somewhat less intimidating than the Crips

As mentioned previously, four English wines will flex muscles against multinational heavyweights like Bodegas Marqués de Vargas, 2006; Domaine de la Fond Moiroux Moulin-à-Vent, 2009 and Sula Vineyards Chenin Blanc, 2010.

As follows, the English entries:

Chapel Down Bacchus, 2010; Camel Valley Atlantic Dry, 2010; Bloomsbury Cuvée Merret Ridgeview, 2009 and Armit, Gusbourne Blanc de Blancs, 2006.

Unlike a Premiere League soccer-with-an-‘f’ rivalry, there will be no home field advantage for British winemakers here, but like the Academy Awards, it’s an honor just to have a spot.  Everyone is here to have fun, get a bit tipsy and learn how to buy ‘smarter and drink better’—the Wine Gang’s motto.

Ultimately, whether or not the English actually take any medals probably doesn’t mean, well, shite.

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