We would like this blog to provide interesting information and share our enthusiasm for English wine to those with a general interest in the English countryside or local food & drink to experienced wine lovers and anyone in between. We’re learning all the time too and this page collates some of the top level info that forms a context for the whole subject.
How many English vineyards and winemakers?
There are something pretty close to 400 English vineyards and a handful in Wales, many more than post people think. However, there are only 120 or so English winemakers.
So what of the difference? If you assume that the 120 or so winemakers grow at least some grapes themselves, that leaves 280 other vineyards in round numbers. Of those, some will simply sell grapes to winemakers. “Simply” isn’t a good word here I realised as soon as I’d written it, as there is an awful lot in the skill of growing good grapes and of course a reasonable quantity of good quality grapes will have to be produced in order to have any chance of making a profit, or even a sensible return on all that hard work. Other vineyards will get someone else to make wine on their behalf and sell it under their own name. Of course there are even more variations, not the least of which is overseas players buying up English vineyards, but that gives an overall picture.
The implication when looking for vineyards to visit is that those who only grow grapes tend not to be open to the public. Those who both grow grapes and make their own wine are increasingly diversifying in order to make their businesses sustainable. That can include tours, visitor centres, restaurants, conference facilities and even accommodation.
The current state of English Wine and Viticulture
The good news is that the reputation of English wine has grown considerably, both here and internationally, and the general feeling is that there are many good wines and more than a few outstanding wines now produced.
The bad news is that grape harvests in 2011 and 2012 were shockingly bad for many vineyards. One bad year is tough, but two in a row has proved impossible to sustain with some vineyards already having gone out of business and more predicted to follow. This makes supporting good English wine even more important to those of us who care.
The grapes that tend to be grown here may initially sound unfamiliar, but the same ones will recur as you get more into English wines. These largely fall into the following groups in my mind.
Some grapes grown in England will be very familiar names, such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc. Note that the first three of these are the classic varieties of the champagne region.
The German Imports
When viticulture seriously began in England & Wales, 30 or so years ago, the intial feeling was that our climate was most like that of Germany, so the varieties that flourished there were the obvious place to start, such as Müller-Thurgau. Some of these grapes did well and made good wines, others contributed to the previously poor reputation of English wines and in many places have now been removed.
The New English
A number of grape varieties and hybrids have come to prominence in recent years and these are now regularly seen in English vineyards, including Bacchus, Ortega, Madeleine Angevine, Seyval Blanc and Rondo. These varieties having been found to grow well in our climate and presumably, given the increasing success of English Wines, to be acceptable to the local palate.
A good way to start appreciating English wines might be to take some single grape wines from different vineyards and taste them together, noting the contrasts. This can be anything from a formal academic exercise with tasting notes, to just choosing which you prefer.
Our climate generally precludes the production of big heavy reds that require many hours of ripening sun, but other than that we have lots of good wine to enjoy in different styles.
English fizz is attracting huge international interest and there are many quoted examples of English sparkling wine beating champagne in blind tastings.
English sparkling wines are made using the process known as méthode champenoise or méthode traditionnelle. This is the same way that champagne is made and is an expensive process requiring specialist equipment. Coates & Seely have coined the term Méthode Britannique, which is very serious, but does bring a smile. What ever you call it, the main thing to note is that the method all of these describe is different from the Metodo Italiano (Charmat process) by which prosecco is produced, which is a cheaper process.
If sparkling wine is your passion, Nyetimber is generally considered to be the best quality; their estate is sadly not open to the public but their wines are widely available. Three Choirs in Gloucestershire is also an important name that keeps coming up as they make both their own wines as well as making and / or bottling wines for a number of other vineyards.
The Royal Family are big supporters of English wine, especially sparkling, and their selection of wines for the wedding of William & Kate and for the Royal Barge provided a big boost for those wines selected. Vines have also been planted at Windsor Castle with the first harvest expected in 2014. It is not yet known whether the resulting wine that some are referring to as “Liz’s fizz” will be on sale to the general public!
The chalky soil and aspect of many vineyards in the south of England is geologically and climactically similar to the champagne region and wines produced in some of these areas south of the Thames are indistinguishable from the so-called “real thing”. Wine makers who don’t have these conditions, and some who do, argue that they don’t want to produce clones of wines from another region, albeit a great one, and that their aim is to create their own unique sparkling wines expressive of Englishness and of our own terroir. Taste some wines and pick your side of the argument, or do as we do and enjoy the best of both.
White and Rosé Wines
The majority of English wines are white and rosé wines, often of a fresh, crisp style.
Part of the reason for this crisp style is the grapes, terroir and climate. Another part is that many of the wines are made in stainless steel vats, rather than oak casks. Even when oak is used, it is present to add a richness and depth, rather than a brash oaky flavour, unlike some other wine-making regions we could mention…
Currently sparkling wines are taking all of the attention, but as our visits to vineyards such as Astley prove, there really are some fabulous still wines out there that wine lovers would be crazy to ignore.
An increasing number of red wines are being produced, possibly from the Pinot Noir grapes that will be being grown as part of the champagne trio of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Alternatively, Regent and Rondo are red varieties you will increasingly come across as you try English red wines. Dornfelder is the grape variety voted the most likely to produce good red wines by Rupert Pritchett from Taurus Wines; we will be trying some of these over the coming months to see how they are coming along.
The production of dessert wines depends on climactic conditions, so these tend not to be annual vintages. 2011 was the last year that most were able to produce and include Late Harvest wines from Astley and Leventhorpe Vineyards, amongst others. We’ve only had a little taster of these so far, but there is absolutely no reason why a good winemaker should not be able to produce a fabulous late harvest wine on the rare occasions when conditions provide them with suitable grapes.
Are English Wines Expensive?
A general and not unreasonable view today would be that the quality of English wine is definitely “there or thereabouts” when compared with the international competition, but that the prices are a little higher.
So how much do they cost? If you buy from the vineyard you can definitely find some excellent still wines from about £8 and you should allow at least £11 when buying from other places. As the exchange rate with the Euro has fallen, many imported wines have increased in cost, so the difference has shrunk. There has also been a lot of talk in the press about how much of the price is taken up by duty and other taxes and that there is much more than twice the value of wine in a bottle costing £10 than £5. English sparkling wine costs from around £20 a bottle and goes up to the price of comparable champagnes.
Overall, the cost of an English wine may currently be a little higher than imported wines of the same quality. However, if you care about supporting local businesses it is worthwhile, certainly for special occasions if not every day. Think about the food miles (wine miles?) too! It should also be noted that labour costs and almost all of the other equipment used in winemaking is probably more expensive, simply because we are not in the middle of a huge wine-making region. Finally, the passion and sheer hard work that goes into English winemaking is undeniable and from what we have seen, maintaining a sustainable business is a struggle – the vast majority of English winemakers are certainly not sitting there rolling in huge profits. Far more common is that people have worked very hard in other industries and made a lot of money, which they then choose to invest in winemaking.