To coincide with English Wine Week we are finishing off Season Two of our NG Wine School this week, returning to our homeland of the UK.
Watch the full episode here.
Episode 26 - England & Wales
The history of winemaking in these islands is very recent. The romans largely imported wine from warmer parts of the empire and while there was some winemaking done by the monasteries, this was mostly for communion wine, not for drinking. The reason we have been so involved in other country’s wine trade from Port, Madeira, Bordeaux and so on is because we had no capacity ourselves.
The modern industry was kickstarted in the 1950’s, oddly enough just down the road from us here in Oxted in Surrey, a chap called Barrington Brock set up a viticultural research station. Although it wasn’t ideally situated- too high up- he did prove grapes could be ripened in the southern UK climate. The earliest commercial growers were Jack Ward in Sussex and the gloriously named retired soldier and diplomat Major-General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones- I don’t think there exists a more English name to be a pioneer of English wine. They both made Still wines from cool climate, Germanic grapes suited or specifically bred for our climate- Sir Guy had been a diplomat in Paris and was advised on planting his vineyard by Pol Roger. Though sadly not at this time with Champagne grapes, Salisbury-Jones Hambledon was first planted with Seyval Blanc, a grape suited to our climate that can make decent wine, but one current British winemaker likens to raw potatoes and cabbage. Light, liebfraumilch was the flavour of the moment and that is what most UK vineyards were suited for and made, a little residual sugar in the wines compensated for the harsh natural acidity.
Sparkling wine in the Champagne mould is what the UK specialises in, and we are peculiarly well suited to making it. We were until recently the biggest export market for Champagne and I think its no coincidence that we have slipped into second place just as our domestic production is revving up.
One historic peculiarity is that given Champagne’s dominance, everyone focuses on Dom Perignon as the father of Champagne/ Sparkling Wine but before he perfected the secondary fermentation in bottle, around 1670 Christopher Merret in 1662 demonstrated to the Royal Academy that by using cork in bottles, the fermentation could be stopped and the bubbles retained. Prior to this, imported French wine often started to re-ferment when it warmed up in the spring and the English developed a taste for this.
Moreover, it was the stronger glass made in England ‘le Verre Anglais’ that meant the bottles were strong enough to hold the pressure in. This was due to us firing the glass with Coal which burned much hotter than the wood more commonly used in the rest of Europe.
Although this is historically accurate, and a nice patriotic story for our Sparkling wine renaissance, Merret actually adapted the idea from Cider makers in the west country, and French sparkling wine from Limoux long predated Dom Perignons work, but both of them made major contributions to Traditional method Sparkling wine now made across the world. One of Champagne’s strongest assets is its brand identity and the Champagne name is fiercely protected. Asking for a glass of Cornwall or Surrey doesn’t really have the right ring to it, and I’m not really keen on franco-anglais terms that have been thrown around like Bretagne as it’s not giving the wines an English or British identity. One suggestion I like is Merret as it doesn’t tie it into a regional identity and it’s a nod to the English heritage of the wine.
The soil in much of the south of England is well suited to Sparkling wine production. The Paris Basin is a huge deposit of chalk that runs under the Champagne region, the English channel, most notably the white cliffs of Dover, the south and north downs. Through the rest of the home counties heading north to Yorkshire, there are deposits of Jurassic limestone which is similarly suited to vine growing- so we now have the right soils to plant vines on a larger scale. The climate is also changing, for better or worse. Sussex is only 1 degree cooler on average than Champagne, and Champagne itself is 1 degree warmer now than in the 1970’s. More importantly, the temperature in September is actually warmer so we have a longer ripening period as well: so we have the right climate for the classic Champagne grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and these are gradually replacing some of the less fashionable grapes such as Reichensteiner, Sylvaner, Muller Thurgau, Madeline Angevine, Siegerrebe. Some, like Bacchus and Seyval Blanc are retained or even increasing as they can make very good wine. For reds, Dornfelder can make bright, cherry fruited reds but it is not as widely planted as it could be, and Rondo has plenty of colour, but unfortunately not much character. It can be pleasant, but rarely interesting. The best still wines are made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and Pinot’s cousins Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris as well as Bacchus.
It is often overlooked that the first people to take the plunge and really plant on a big scale to make an English Sparkling Wine at Nyetimber in Sussex were an American couple from Chicago. Nyetimber still accounts for 10% of UK production although a lot of other producers are catching them up.
After many years in the doldrums with their grape production mostly going to other winemakers, Hambledon, which was really the birthplace of the modern English wine scene, was bought out and replanted with the three Champagne varieties and is now one of the leading producers of English Sparkling, and the first wine today is the Hambledon Classic Cuvee……………
If you draw a horizontal line through London, most of the vineyards are in the south. The South East- Surrey, Sussex, Kent and Hampshire account for three-quarters of production, the south west- Cornwall, Dorset, Somerset and Cornwall at 13%, wales at 1% and a smattering in East Anglia with vineyards petering out with a few outposts in Yorkshire in- it has to be said- the most sheltered spots. Taittinger and pommery, two iconic Champagne houses, now have vineyards in the UK, Taittinger’s Domaine Evremond is due for release in the next few years.
Moving on to Syill wine then, and what I think of as our indigenous grape Bacchus. This is one of the cool climate grapes developed in Germany, a crossing of muller Thurgau with another grape that was itself a crossing of Silvaner and Riesling. Bacchus can get over-ripe in a warmer climate and become too aromatic and fat, but in our still cooler climate it is appealingly fragrant and, for me, it has a distinctly British character. Spring meadows and hedgerow. A hint of elderflower and narcissus with a lovely herbaceous note. Some people say its our version of Sauvignon Blanc but for me, it doesn’t have Sauvignon’s rasping, nail file acidity or acrid, nettle and gooseberry character. It;’s a great aperitif wine and can stand in for Sauvignon as a seafood wine as well, perfect with Whitstable oysters.
Moving across to Kent, we have the Simpson’s Rabbit Hole Pinot Noir. Some Pinot’s I’ve had from the UK can be a bit weedy and stalky, really in some years being more of a deep Rose than a true red wine. I’d honestly rather see more Pinot Rose made from these unripe grapes but here, we have a wine that has real depth of fruit and flavour. Although soil is important, and the chalk and limestone we have in abundance are great for most grapes, we do have other soil types that can make great wine too. Greensand, Clay marl and clay can all yield fantastic results, the aspect to the sun and shelter and frost protection all contribute as well. At Simpson’s in Kent, they are on a seam of the same chalk in the Paris basin and this yields classic results here in their sparkling and still wines.
If you want to try a contrast, I would recommend trying the Simpsons Sparkling Rose from grapes grown on chalk hillsides in the classic tradition against Gusbourne Sparkling Rose grown on heavy clay on a pretty flat vineyard just slightly elevated above the level of Romney Marsh less than six miles from Dungeness, the UK’s only designated desert. Same County, vastly different terroirs but both superb sparkling wines, among the best available.
Unfortunately due to the popularity of the Simpson's Rabbit Hole Pinot Noir we are now sold out and won't be able to get anymore stock until their 2022 vintage is released. However, in order to not leave you in the lurch we have decided to do you an offer. For the next two weeks you will be able to purchase Balfour Winery Luke's Pinot Noir 2020 for a discounted price of £24.50 mixed six and £26.50 single price, which is a saving of £4.50 a bottle.
Thank you for watching and engaging with our Wine School, we hope you have enjoyed watching it as much as we have enjoyed filming it. We will be back with Season 3 in the near future. We hope to see you then!